THE CAPTIVE-BRED lion industry in South Africa is one of the greatest conservation success stories in recent decades as predator breeders are the “true friends of the lion”.

This is the claim of Pieter Potgieter, the president of the SA Predator Association (Sapa), who believes its “ranch lions” offer a crucial protective layer safeguarding South Africa’s wild lion population from serious damage.

He says wild lions are saved by their captive cousins.

“Lion numbers are dwindling everywhere.., except in South Africa. Here they are increasing in spite of being a desirable commodity in a very healthy industry That is the true contribution of the ranch lion population.”

His association, which represents the lion breeding and hunting industry, was responding to a critical article by Adam Cruise, a writer of Conservation Action Trust about the scale of captive-bred lion hunting.

South Africa’s estimated wild lion population stands at 2 100, says Potgieter. “If the apparent trend continues and 748 lions a year are bagged by trophy hunters, the wild lion population will be wiped off the face of South Africa in a mere three years.

“It is true that South Africa supplies almost 80 percent of the lion trophies worldwide. But a minuscule number of these are wild lions, 10 or fewer a year. So, less than one half of one percent of the trophies come from wild lions. The rest are supplied by the ranch lion industry.”

Yet, in recent months, the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa has distanced itself from the captive-breeding of lions, labelling it as “a practice which a great majority of hunters regard as an embarrassment”.

It has criticised the predator breeders “for instead of joining the worldwide move to reform this industry, it was trying to preserve its captive-bred hunting component”.

Its president, Stan Burger, revealed how it has for years tried to “introduce generally acceptable standards for lion breeding and hunting” and “it was only when it became clear that this attempt would continue to fail in the face of Sapa’s persistent recalcitrance that we dissociated ourselves from them”.

Last year, the documentary Blood Lions won wide acclaim for its expose of the predator breeding and canned-lion hunting industries in South Africa.

Captive-bred lion hunting is not only ethically repugnant, but it poses a real threat to the future of the entire trophy hunting industry, says Burger.

“Sapa also claims it is very much aware of and seriously committed towards conservation of lions in the wild.

“What it does not say, however, is that in 2014 – the most recent year for which statistics are available – lion hunting in South Africa generated revenue of close to R200 million, while Sapa’s conservation fund only managed to raise R200 000 or 0.1 percent of that total.

“This hardly suggests an energetic conservation commitment. In addition, it seeks to equate its members with buffalo and rhino owners when, of course, there is no comparison.”