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Despite growing public opposition to canned lion hunting, the lucrative industry remains legal in South Africa

A RECENT high court challenge concerning a disturbing docuentary against canned lion hunting, Blood Lions, served to focus public attention on this distasteful practice.

The documentary added another dimension to the international public outcry which greeted news of the trophy killing of Cecil, the GPS-collared lion in Zimbabwe last July.

Producer of the documentary Philippa Hankinson, who made the film in con- junction with the KZN Wildlands Conservation Trust, said in court papers that the documentary, which premiered in Durban in July last year and was thereafter shown at a number of international venues, had had a “profound effect”.

According to her, members of the Environmental Portfolio Committee in South Africa had “applauded” the documentary, in which a former minister of Tourism, Derek Hanekom, decries the practice of breeding captive lions and “all that goes with it”.

“He comments that the practice has damaged the brand South Africa and that it should be banned,” said Hankinson.

In response to a screening of the documentary, the French government announced an immediate ban on the importation of lion body parts into that country. Australia had already done so in March last year before the release of Blood Lions.

One may wonder then why captive lion breeding and canned hunting remain legal in South Africa. The answer, as with so many dubious activities, is money.

The wealthy lion-breeding industry has proved in the past to be a formidable force. The powerful SA Predator Breeders’ Association in 2010 took on the Ministry of Environmental Affairs in a case about trophy hunting of captive lions and won.

The Supreme Court of Appeals ruled in its favour that the decision taken by the then minister that captive-bred lions had to fend for themselves in an “extensive wildlife system” for two years before they could be hunted was “not rational”.

The reason for this was evidence to the effect that it was difficult, if not impossible, for captive lions to be returned to the wild.

And so this multimillion-rand industry continues, despite mounting opposition and revulsion among the public.

In her affidavit, Hankinson said she was motivated to produce the documentary after being “deeply disturbed” on a visit to a private lion-breeding farm four years ago to find about 80 lions “in small enclosures, many visibly inbred and clearly stressed”.

She then discovered that there are between 6 000 to 8 000 lions living in similar conditions on other breeding farms in South Africa. The majority are sold in South Africa for canned hunting or to Asia to supplement the tiger bone trade. Around 800 lions are shot in South Africa by wealthy hunters in a year.

Ninety-eight percent of all lions hunted in South Africa are captive bred, because on average less than 10 permits are issued annually for “wild” lion hunts.

Last year, 1 090 lion carcasses were exported from South Africa to Asia.

“What was most shocking of all was not only that the industry was legal, but how few people seemed to know anything about it,” said Hankinson.

Ignorance is a major factor, which plays into the hands of these unscrupulous breeders.

Several websites detail practices whereby unsuspecting tourists and members of the South African public support breeding centres that are disguised as legitimate sanctuaries where they have a chance to interact with lion cubs. What the visitors are not told is that the cubs have been cruelly torn from their mothers when they are merely days old so that the lioness becomes fertile again more quickly.

If questioned, common excuses for the separation are that the lioness had no milk or abandoned her cubs.

International volunteers who pay a small fortune to “work with wildlife” in South Africa also contribute to the cap- tive breeding/canned hunting industry ( many unwittingly) due to their desire to work with predator cubs.

Legitimate sanctuaries, it is said, seldom offer experiences with lion cubs.

In November last year, the Professional Hunters Association of SA was quoted in the media and social media distancing itself from the “immoral” practice of canned lion hunting unless or until lion breeders can prove the conservation value of the practice. Conservation activists say breeding lions does not conserve the species as captive-bred lions can’t be released in the wild.

It is to be hoped that this all this might just herald the beginning of a new dawn for South Africa’s lions.