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PRESS RELEASE: Release of the MTT report that supports the closure of the commercial captive lion industry

Ministerial report supports the ultimate closure of the captive lion industry in South Africa

After extensive stakeholder engagement, a panel of experts developed a set of voluntary exit options from the captive lion industry, while acknowledging that voluntary exit should only be the first step in the longer-term government objectives of ultimately closing the commercial captive lion industry in South Africa.

Today, the Ministerial Task Team (MTT) final report was made public by Minister Creecy of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) after the MTT recommendations were approved by Cabinet at the end of March 2024. Subsequent to the Cabinet approved High-Level Panel recommendations in 2021 to close the commercial captive lion breeding industry, the Minister appointed a panel of experts in December 2022 to propose voluntary exit options for South Africa’s captive lion industry with win-win solutions.

A national audit of the captive lion industry undertaken by the MTT showed that South Africa has an estimated 7,838 lions in 342 facilities, plus at least 2,315 other captive carnivores with 626 tigers and numerous cheetahs, caracals and servals (although this is based on incomplete data). This industry has been allowed to grow to this extent since the early 1990’s with a patchwork of national and provincial legislation and regulations.

A number of potential voluntary exit options were developed for lion owners to opt out from the commercial captive lion industry, using SWOT analysis to assess their feasibility and looking at for example practicability and closure time frame. This process led to eight viable ways to exit the industry on a voluntary basis (see text box below) while for example rejecting the rewilding of captive and captive-bred lions as an exit option based on its plethora of weaknesses and threats. The report states that “there is no conservation requirement to rewild captive and/or captive-bred lions because there is a surplus of metapopulation lions in South Africa”.

The unintended consequences resulting from the voluntary exit options have also been identified. One particularly worrying outcome is the indisputable potential shift of commercial trade towards other indigenous and non-indigenous predators, like tigers, cheetahs and leopards, a trend that Blood Lions and World Animal Protection already identified in their research on the industry. The large number of other carnivores currently held in the commercial captive predator industry (see above data) shows that this unintended consequence is indeed already a reality.

The MTT report outlines how these voluntary exit options can be used as building blocks to create a variety of exit strategies to suit a wide range of individual circumstances. The entire process was underpinned by socio-economic impacts, particularly on vulnerable workers, while prioritising the well-being of the captive lions involved in the voluntary exit.

The report estimates the number of employees in the captive lion industry nationally to be between 1,568 and 2,069 people. However, only two provinces were able to provide employment data (North West and Limpopo), hence this is most likely an overestimate, as these two provinces together with the Free State are the main provinces involved in the captive lion industry.

Two mandatory prerequisites preceding any voluntary exit option, or combination of, are a quality-of-life assessment to identify any compromised lions and the subsequent humane euthanasia of such animals, as well as the sterilisation of all lions to halt the growth of the captive lion population. Furthermore, contractual arrangements need to be put in place to prevent the purchasing of new lions and re-entry into the industry.

It is encouraging to see that even the less attractive options, such as trade out, come with strict conditions like a phase-out period of preferably no longer than two years, and activities such as cub petting and international trade in live lions are prohibited. Animal welfare needs to be guaranteed during the phase-out period by implementing the robust protocols and the best practice guidelines for the keeping of African lions in controlled environments developed by the panel. The MTT recognises animal sentience and has used Mellor’s Five Domains Model for animal welfare as a guiding principle to develop euthanasia, transport, carcass disposal and population control protocols.

The regulatory provincial audit confirmed many of the High-Level Panel’s findings, such as the concurrent provincial and national legislation that leads to a complex regulatory landscape contributing to inconsistencies and challenges in managing the captive lion industry. Enforcement and compliance remain a challenge with non-compliance issues primarily revolving around expired permits or failure to adhere to permit conditions. Inconsistencies in TOPS permit issuance, inadequate record-keeping, and concerns related to animal welfare and carcass disposal were some of the other common findings, whereas enforcement actions are still grievously lacking.

The fiscal imbalance in the industry is an interesting new perspective. The MTT estimates that compliance inspection cost to be around ZAR 7,000 per facility, excluding travel and other indirect expenses related to inspections. When comparing the revenue generated from permit issuance to the actual expenses incurred for compliance services, it shows a huge shortfall. The MTT argues that the insufficient permit costs shift expenses associated with monitoring and compliance of the industry to the already constrained conservation budgets in the provincial departments.

The national audit also identified lion bone stockpile estimates of 2,888 whole carcasses, 275 skeletons (no skull), 636 skulls, 765 kg of bones and 292 whole skins. One of the recommendations outlined in the report deals with this large quantity of lion bones and parts and suggests that the government buys up all stockpiles for mass-incineration. The panel states they have raised funding and support for this initiative, as there is no government financial support available. This would not only prevent the illegal export of lion bones but would also send a strong and positive message to the world about South Africa’s commitment to ending the captive lion industry.

Dr Neil D’Cruze, Head of Wildlife Research at World Animal Protection said: “World Animal Protection has been calling for a mandatory end to lion farming due to the cruelty and criminality involved and, in this regard the report makes some great strides forward. In particular, this recommendation for  the mass-incineration of lion bone stockpiles is of great relief given concerns that a reintroduction of lion bone exports would risk stimulating demand among Asian consumers and act as a cover for illegally sourced lion parts. However, the opportunity for lion farmers to legally provide canned hunts and trade lion bones domestically during the phase out window underscores the need for urgent action. 

The MTT’s report was released days after the publication of the Policy Position on the Conservation and Sustainable use of Elephant, Lion, Leopard and Rhinoceros, which shows the continued government’s commitment to the ultimate closure of the commercial captive lion industry. 

Dr Louise de Waal, Director at Blood Lions said: The release of the MTT report and the publication of the Policy Position Paper are important steps towards the closure of the captive lion industry. However, both documents urgently need to be implemented with actual timelines for a staged approach to put an end to these unethical and cruel practices. With the upcoming elections, we are hugely concerned that a change in Minister will impede these processes, so we need to continue to put pressure on the DFFE to follow through on their promise to stop the domestication and exploitation of our iconic species.



Voluntary Exit Options:

The following voluntary exit options were identified by the MTT that can be used as building blocks to create a variety of voluntary exit strategies to suit a wide range of circumstances:


Mandatory Prerequisites:

A.     Humane euthanasia of compromised lions

B.     Population control preferably by surgical sterilisation

 

Most Viable Voluntary Exit Options Involving Live Captive and/or Captive-bred Lions in Order of Priority:

1)     Humane euthanasia of all lions and permanent exit from the industry

2)     Phase out through trade opportunities for a period of 24 months

3)     Surrender of lions to lion safe havens

 

Less Viable Voluntary Exit Options Involving Live Captive and/or Captive-bred Lions:

4)     Surrender of lions to authorities

5)     Repurposing of an existing facility to a lion safe haven

6)     Repurposing of an existing facility for biodiversity conservation and sustainable use

 

Viable Voluntary Exit Options Involving Lion Bone Stockpiles:

7)     Lion bone stockpiles surrendered to authorities

8)     Lion bone stockpiles for trade out (domestic) for a period of 24 months


Please note:

  • For all exit options, no tactile animal interaction is allowed, including but not limited to cub petting, walking with lions and using lions as photo props.

  • Trade in exit option 2 can include captive hunting and the domestic trade in live lions and/or lion skeletons, parts and derivatives. The international trade in lion skeletons and live lions is excluded from this voluntary exit option. Furthermore, animal welfare and well-being need to be guaranteed during the phase-out period.

  • Exit option 6, even though this is the only voluntary exit option with biodiversity conservation benefits, this option comes among others at substantial costs involved with dismantling existing infrastructure, creating an adequate predator perimeter fence, the need for land acquisition and ecosystem restoration, the lack of suitable habitat and the time to achieve the objective is long-term.

  • Exit option 8, trade in lion skeletons, parts and derivatives can only include legal local trade, as there is currently no CITES export quota for the international trade in such products.


Notes to Editors

Link to the MTT report: https://www.dffe.gov.za/sites/default/files/reports/ministerialtaskteamMTTreport_captivelionindustry.pdf 

History of the commercial captive lion industry in South Africa

  • The commercial captive lion industry in South Africa started in the 1990s and has been allowed to grow unimpeded.

  • In 2015, the award-winning Blood Lions Documentary premiered that blows the lid off misleading claims made by the predator breeding and canned hunting industries in South Africa.

  • Lions and many other indigenous and exotic large felids are bred in captivity for commercial purposes, such as cub petting, walking with lions, voluntourism, “canned” or captive hunting and for their bones, parts and derivatives for the domestic and international traditional medicinal use, predominantly for their bones in Chinese Traditional Medicine until 2019.

  • In August 2018, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee for Environmental Affairs convened a Colloquium on “Captive lion breeding for hunting in South Africa; harming or promoting the conservation image of the country”. The recommendations of the Colloquium were adopted by the national assembly on December 6, 2018, including that “the Department of Environmental Affairs should as a matter of urgency initiate a policy and legislative review of captive breeding of lions for hunting and lion bone trade with a view to putting an end to this practice”.

  • In August 2019, a High Court judge ruled that the setting of the bone quota in 2017 and 2018 of 800 per year was “unlawful and constitutionally invalid” and that consideration should have been given to welfare issues relating to lions in captivity when determining such quota. Since this ruling, the DFFE has deferred the setting of a CITES lion bone export quota.

  • In 2019, the Minister of DFFE appointed a High-Level Panel (HLP) of experts to review policies, legislation, and practices on matters of elephant, lion, leopard and rhinoceros management, breeding, hunting, trade and handling. The majority recommendations in terms of captive lions included that South Africa would not breed lions in captivity, keep lions in captivity, or use captive lions or their derivatives commercially. 

  • These recommendations were adopted by Cabinet and on May 2, 2021, Minister Creecy announced that the Department will be adopting the majority recommendations on these issues.


For further information contact:

Blood Lions

Dr Louise de Waal (Director)

Email: management@bloodlions.org

Cell: +27 76 148 1533


World Animal Protection

Dr Neil D’Cruze (Head of Wildlife Research)

Email: neildcruze@worldanimalprotection.org

Cell: +44 7814 411407