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PRESS RELEASE: New joint scientific study identifies a major research gap in animal welfare studies

10 May 2022

In a joint scientific study published earlier this month, Blood Lions and World Animal Protection identified a major research gap that exposes the lack of welfare studies that focus on captive lions housed on commercial farms in South Africa.

“With a substantial captive lion industry of more than 350 commercial facilities holding anything between 8,000-10,000 lions and the complete absence of scientific welfare studies in that industry, we are in the dark in terms of the extent and nature of the welfare issues we are dealing with. The many atrocities found by the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) on commercial lion farms during welfare inspections show that we are not dealing with theoretical challenges, but rather a very real and highly problematic situation”, says Dr Louise de Waal (Director, Blood Lions).

The aim of the study was to identify the welfare challenges lions in the commercial captive predator industry in South Africa face on a day-to-day basis. The researchers reviewed more than 90 peer-reviewed scientific papers and found a wide range of physical and psychological conditions associated with keeping lions in captivity globally.

Some of the welfare challenges identified included a wide range of diseases, injuries, malnutrition and obesity, lack of (clean) water, and abnormal behaviours like excessive pacing and self-mutilation, which were all associated with the keeping of captive lions in facilities such as zoos, wildlife parks and sanctuaries across the globe. However, not one study focussed specifically on the welfare of lions exploited by commercial facilities in South Africa.

“It is under such commercial conditions that lions are most likely to face the biggest welfare atrocities compared to any other captive environment, as the emphasis is on intensive breeding practices that are consumer-driven and income-generation focused and generally don’t adequately address animal welfare and well-being. The lack of welfare studies from commercial lion farms is a major research gap that needs to be addressed urgently”, de Waal said.

The lack of income for captive wildlife facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the absence of national welfare norms and standards for the captive breeding, keeping and trade of lions and other big cats in South Africa, has put the existing big cats in captivity at even more risk of serious welfare issues. In addition, the NSPCA, which is solely mandated with the enforcement of animal welfare in South Africa, is forced to operate without financial support from the national government. 

Subsequent to the publication of a High-Level Panel report recommending the closure of South Africa’s commercial captive lion industry, Minister Barbara Creecy of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) announced on 2nd May 2021 that South Africa would no longer breed and keep captive lions or use captive lions or their derivatives commercially. A draft Policy Position on the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of elephant, lion, leopard and rhinoceros was gazetted for public comment in June that same year.

A full year on from this announcement and the status of the commercial lion industry remains the same, however the uncertainty of its future is most likely exacerbating the welfare concerns for the captive lions involved. Although the Minister did once again decide to set a zero CITES export quota for trade in lion parts and derivatives including lion bones, as has been the case for the past three years, the breeding, canned hunting, and live trade of captive-bred lions is still legal as are all interactive tourism encounters with cubs and sub-adult big cats.

“We urge the Minister to keep the pressure on the progress of the upcoming legislative changes, as in the meantime the welfare of thousands of lions and other big cats hangs in the balance. We appeal to the Minister to urgently carry out a comprehensive national audit of the current commercial captive lion industry, including the welfare conditions of the big cats involved, in order to minimise unintended negative welfare impacts during the planned phase out of the industry in South Africa”, says Edith Kabesiime (Wildlife Campaigns Manager, World Animal Protection).

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Research details:

The Blood Lions and World Animal Protection research team identified 170 different physical and psychological conditions associated with the keeping of lions in captivity that were categorised according to a globally accepted animal welfare model, namely Mellor’s Five Domains Model. The welfare conditions identified fall into the following domains: 

  • 72% in the Health Domain (e.g., disease and injury)
  • 11% in the Behaviour Domain (e.g., negative behaviours)
  • 10% in the Mental Domain (e.g., fear, anxiety & frustration) 
  • 4% in the Nutrition Domain (e.g., malnutrition or food and water deprivation)
  • 3% in the Environment Domain (e.g., environmental challenges or discomfort arising from the animals’ surroundings)

Link to peer-reviewed paper on welfare of captive lions:

More information

Blood Lions

  • Contact: Dr Louise de Waal
  • Email:
  • Blood Lions is an award-winning documentary feature film and global campaign that works to bring an end to predator breeding and “canned” hunting industries in South Africa.

World Animal Protection

  • Contact: Evans Kipkorir
  • Email:
  • World Animal Protection is the global voice for animal welfare, with more than 70 years’ experience campaigning for a world where animals live free from cruelty and suffering. We collaborate with local communities, the private sector, civil society and governments to change animals’ lives for the better.
    Our goal is to change the way the world works to end animal cruelty and suffering for both wild and farmed animals. Through our global food system strategy, we will end factory farming and create a humane and sustainable food system, that puts animals first. By transforming the broken systems that fuel exploitation and commodification, we will give wild animals the right to a wild life. Our work to protect animals will play a vital role in solving the climate emergency, the public health crisis and the devastation of natural habitats.