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The trophy-hunting industry is making many farmers rich – but the process of domesticating the king of the jungle is destroying the species for the amusement of thrill-seeking tourists .

THE LIONS ARE PACKED SO CLOSELY that they’re touching each other. In their enclosure they “move like snakes”, says environmental journalist and safari operator Ian Michler, his voice strained with the affront. Territorial by nature and requiring vast open spaces to survive, these big cats have been tamed, habituated to humans and many hand-reared by international paying volunteers who are led to believe they’re doing a service for conservation in Africa by raising orphaned cubs.

Somewhere overseas, a thrill-seeking man with some spare cash goes online to pick out the creature he’d like to kill; the darker the mane, the better, because the more powerful-looking the lion, the more thrilling to vanquish. He’s got limited time (and he’s cheap) so he doesn’t want to spend weeks – or too many thousands of dollars. (A real lion-hunt in the wild can take up to 21 days of tracking and stalking.)

He wants a guaranteed kill, needs to do the shoot quickly and take home his trophy to mount on the wall. His lion, bred in captivity for the express purpose of being shot, will have clean good looks. These animals have no bush history, so there are none of the scars of animals in the wild.

He comes to South Africa, where there are 6,000 to 7,000 predator lions born in captivity on about 200 farms and breeding facilities. (There were fewer than 1,000 in 1990, and about 3,000 in 2005, indicative of the growth of the industry.) Here he meets his lion and is shown exactly where to aim to be most effective. Every day, in South Africa, two or three male lions die this way, shot from perhaps 20 or 30 metres away, unable to escape. After a speeded up and intensive reproduction cycle, the females, whose offspring are taken away when still cubs, are usually sold in the “bone trade” for Traditional Chinese Medicine.

He’s warned by the farmer, a hunting operator, to be careful but this is part of the game, part of making it feel like real hunting – unpredictable, a challenge, and as though he is pitting himself against a genuine foe, the king of the animal world.

He feels ethically quite good about what he does, harbouring the idea that the US dollar (50% of hunters are American) or other foreign currency he’s paying translates into many, many South African rands which will go toward the conservation effort for this magnificent endangered species.

Michler says: “They have no consideration or appreciation of the irony that they are domesticating lions. If you look at the marketing of the entire trophy hunting industry, it’s based on the notion that these are wild, noble dangerous creatures and that they are pitting their skills in a fair contest against this noble beast. That he who downs or slays the beast is a brave man and made his contribution to saving the species. The absurdity is that every aspect of that marketing line has been completely shattered. They’ve tamed and human-imprinted the lions and there’s nothing noble or fair about the chase and they have nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with conservation whatsoever.”

Michler, protagonist of and special consultant for an eye-opening documentary on the canned lion industry, Blood Lions: Bred for The Bullet, says their gene pool is useless because they are inbred, and they’re too habituated to humans to be used for breeding in the wild. Only animals bred under the auspices of an authentic team of scientists and conservationists can be used for conservation.

Nor does he buy the argument that the captive lions take pressure off those in the wild; it’s a different market and in fact, wild lions, whose number continues to decline, are taken to support dwindling gene pools in the captive market. And their very existence is detrimental to the conservation effort, artificially bumping up numbers.

It is only in South Africa that this occurs, says Michler, who is often asked why there are no black people interviewed in the documentary. He says he has never met a black person who owns one of the breeding facilities or hunts predators. His theory is that the mentality driving the industry is an extension of the brutality of South Africa’s apartheid past. Running the show are “mostly people out of the apartheid era which had no regard for human rights either – it is an offshoot of that period in our history.”

Blood Lions, locally produced by Regulus Vision in collaboration with the Wildlands Conservation Trust, and directed by Bruce Young and well known filmmaker Nick Chevallier, was launched at the Durban International Film Festival in July. It has since been aired by MSNBC in the US, will be screened at the European Parliament, at the Royal Geographic Society in London, and is doing the rounds of international film festivals. Its production was funded by philanthropists. For now, the campaign plan involves a release to schools and other educational institutions, carefully selected television stations and film festival They’ve tamed and human-imprinted the lions and there’s nothing noble or fair about the chase screenings so that the film’s message is controlled and funds for the campaign are generated from ticket sales and donations. Eventually, says Michler, it will be free to air on YouTube.

The film’s serendipitous launch was just two days before the shooting of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe hit headlines, sparking outrage worldwide. The two fed into each other, says Michler. The response should put breeders and hunt organisers on notice: “[l’m saying] forget about defending your positions, just look at what happened and understand that there’s a significant proportion of the global population who do not agree with what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. The response to Cecil is for me representative of an outrage toward this continued abuse of our fellow species and the planet.”

Noseweek watched a screening of Blood Lions at Bishops School in Rondebosch (where Michler, who grew up on a farm in the southern Cape, boarded in high school). The front rows were occupied by junior boys, warned beforehand that what they were to see was “grossly unfair” and would be shocking. And shocking it is.

With great pride, Michler is described by the Chairman of the Old Diocesan Union, Brian Robertson, as someone who’d gone “from a life of success to a life of significance. He is, other speakers say, a keystone person, someone who gives a damn… N go to war with him.” He’s definitely more alternative than most of the audience, and was welcomed with something like adulation by other old boys, along with many jokes about his good looks and how they tagged along behind him because he was popular with girls.

In a previous incarnation, Michler was a successful stockbroker, running the Cape Town office of Ferguson Brothers, which later became Investec. Then, when he was 30, or 31, in 1989, he had some sort of epiphany and went to live in the Okavango Delta in Botswana and re-invented himself, buying a lodge (since sold) and immersing himself in wildlife photography and environmental journalism.

“Broking was fantastic. My leaving was both a push and a pull: the pull was my love of being in wilderness, and the push was this notion that your relationships in your work environment were based purely on financial equations. If the market was up, everyone was your friend and if the market was down, everyone was grumpy… it was a little disturbing that you could chart that on a daily basis.”

In Botswana, he soon realised that “living in paradise” was not enough, and that he “needed to make a meaningful contribution”. Back then, Botswana was still a big hunting destination. “We used to ride horses for photography tourists, but we shared that concession with hunters. We’d stop and then they would come in… there were too many shots, and outside the season we would hear shots and light aircraft. It didn’t add up and that very quickly took me to those hunting farms and breeding facilities in South Africa.” He’s visited scores of them and has been following the story since 1999.

Today, he’s based in Plettenberg Bay and his main income is from high-end wildlife safaris in 15 countries, including Zimbabwe, Namibia and Madagascar, where he sees lions living a natural life in the wild, and deals with conservationists and ecologists. The juxtaposition with the canned hunt when he comes home to South Africa is almost intolerable. “You’re dealing with real conservation challenges, with animals in the vast open landscape in very intricately evolved ecosystems, then you come back and see them broken down in cages. It’s this complete perversion…

“Most shocking to me, more than individual cases, is the notion that there’s a group of people who have collectively come up with an economic or social justification for taking an apex predator like a lion, which requires in its natural world large amounts of space, and confining it to small enclosures.”

Lions, he says, not only command a very powerful presence in our spiritual beings, in our poetry, in our mythology, but in an ecological sense are a charismatic species at the apex of our ecosystems. “If we can’t look after them responsibly, then what hope is there for anything? Here in South Africa, we are completely denigrating that standing and justifying it on an economic basis.”

South Africa’s tourism industry is worth about R95 billion annually. Of that, about 1.5% is generated by hunting – of which only a fraction comes from canned or captive hunting. Of the nine million international visitors to South Africa every year, only about 9,000 go on a hunt. It is, he says, illogical to claim that it is significantly good for the economy. “They’ve overplayed their hand and everyone has bought into it. We are saying to the government: Why are you pandering to a few hundred people who are contributing a fraction of 1% of the tourist dollar and damaging Brand SA?

“One of the main reasons is that it’s a sport for wealthy and influential people – businessmen, politicians, military men from all over the world come here.” In fact, a section of the film that was cut after legal threats were issued was that of a “very well Everyone’s survival, rich or poor, is based on conservation and healthy ecosystems Ian Michler known” person shooting a lion.

Making the documentary wasn’t easy. The lion trade is a murky world, with shadowy agents as go-betweens to disguise the path from farm to target. While the documentary does feature trophy hunters, breeders, ecologists and conservationists and welfare experts, trying to get evidence sometimes involved deception, including getting a sympathetic American – Rick Swazey from Hawaii – to pose as a hunter. But always they were discovered and in some cases, threatened.

Other than captive hunting, there are some newer revenue streams for the lion-breeding industry. Last year about 1,000 carcasses were used for the bone trade for Traditional Chinese Medicine. China banned the trade of tiger parts in 1993. Welfare standards for these lions are worse still, says Michler, because they don’t even have to look good.

Another revenue stream that fits in nicely is volunteering, which sees young people from all over the world paying significant sums to farmers, lion park owners or so-called sanctuary owners (in one case, there’s a farmer making more than $100,000 in a month in the season) who are taking advantage of their naivety The volunteers are told they are raising orphaned or abandoned cubs, when in fact the cubs have been taken from their mothers at about a week old and will later be sold into the hunting or bone trade. “It’s a double betrayal, betraying the kids and animals and making money from both.”

Michler has a response for every potentially tricky question: Is it not hypocritical to focus on the glamorous lions? What about factory farming, what about the packaged meat we all eat from the supermarket shelf?

The difference, he says, is that hunting is done for fun, for pleasure. With food, there’s at least some logic to it. But anyway, focusing on one issue does not mean others don’t matter, or you don’t understand the rest. It’s a question of being pragmatic and narrowing down to get traction, not always addressing man’s “entire relationship with fellow species”.

Instead, he and his team have taken a position in the middle ground, where the decision-makers and politicians are based. “I explained this to the vegan community in Australia. They take an absolute line and I said I’m in complete sympathy/empathy with what you’re saying but by taking an extremist line, you’re not going to have any impact. Being pragmatic you will. That we take a more defined line in the film doesn’t mean we don’t care, we completely care on [the issue of] domestic animals.”

Finally, how do you justify focussing on animals in a country where people have so much need too? For Michler and his team on the documentary, the answer is simple. Everyone’s survival, rich or poor, is based on conservation and healthy ecosystems, and for that, wilderness needs as much attention as education, health, and policing. “We need clean air, clean water, healthy forest topsoil and carbon sequestration systems… If we don’t have those, we’re all gone, okay? In the sixties, we had an excuse that we didn’t know; now we do, we are in the age of awareness. We know about the ozone hole, climate change, how the oceans have been depleted, about acid rain. We can no longer be ignorant about the way forward. Blood Lions is symbolic on a small scale of a more sensitive, a more ecologically aware approach to the planet and the way we live.

“We talk about sustainability, it’s the catchphrase of the world today, but in South Africa particularly, it’s become definition which focuses on the human sustainability component. Everyone understands that we need to take care of people, but it’s how and why we develop now, after 250/300 years NOSEWEEK November 2015 of unconsidered development.”

Conservationists tread a fine line, and have to be wary of targeting the extremely wealthy or alienating big corporates, because wealthy philanthropists are some of the biggest contributors to the cause. “I want them to understand that they’ve been part of the problem, as have we all, but they need to be part of the solution… It’s not about them, it’s about understanding the impact that 300 years of rapacious greed has had on the planet.”

The eradication of poverty and the way we treat the environment are inextricably linked, says Michler. One of the main reasons for poverty in Africa is that the management of natural resources has been so skewed in favour of the wealthy. Nothing will change until the short-term goals and mandates of industrial conglomerates and politicians/decision-makers are uncoupled and conservation’s long-term goals become the paradigm. And, although they might present it as an either/or jobs or conservation, it’s not as though politicians are taking care of poverty anyway, he points out. Playing one off against the other doesn’t make sense.

Still, there is room for optimism. International pressure is building, he says and, as with sanctions on apartheid South Africa, the international revenue stream will dwindle as the world realises what’s going on. There’s growing pressure inside South Africa too. Recently, the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa, PHASA, after viewing Blood Lions, called the current situation “no longer tenable”. Legislative change, hopefully, will see the closure of predator facilities and stop all breeding. There is no other solution. Breeding of lions in captivity should only be done by a legitimate conservation agency, well-funded and peer-reviewed. Not one of South Africa’s predator-breeding facilities is working with any recognised conservation agencies or lion ecologists. At present, there are no legal requirements on farmers with regards to understanding biology, animal husbandry, lion ecology, or conservation in general. It is legal to breed as long as farmers comply with provincial legislation that focuses on minimum standards for fencing and enclosure sizes.

Captive predator breeding falls into a grey area, legislatively. Typically, says Michler, environmental departments internationally look after biodiversity and conservation involving wild animals in wilderness areas, while agriculture departments deal with animals in agricultural conditions. “It’s a classic distinction… but with these lions, you have a wild animal kept under agricultural conditions, so they are constantly passing the buck between the two departments, avoiding responsibility.”

On-side is the Minister for Tourism, Derek Hanekom, who says the canned lion trade is damaging “Brand South Africa”. But ultimately it will not be his decision. “Can you imagine,” says Michler longingly, “all the goodwill that would be generated internationally if she [Minister for Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa] were to listen to her cabinet colleague and end it? Everyone is saying something needs to happen here…”