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#ShockWildlifeTruths: SA’s 2 000 wild lions vs its 7 000 canned lions – who is more at risk?

Cape Town – The issue of canned lion hunting has never received as much attention than before the death of Cecil the lion or the controversial SA based-documentary Blood Lions – but what does the end of canned lion hunting actually mean for all concerned?

A recent expose of a Limpopo breeding farm, accused of underfeeding its lions is currently being monitored by the Wildlife Protection Unit for the NSPCA.

The Professional Hunters Association of South Africa (PHASA) has condemned “rogue lion breeders for tarnishing South Africa’s wildlife image”, after the harrowing images of Walter Slippers’ Limpopo farm showed severely undernourished captive-bred lions and older footage of a pack of  wild dogs going crazy after being enclosed right next to lion cages on his farm went viral.

The NSPCA has since advised Slippers of corrective measures for his lions or face possible animal cruelty prosecution.

‘Reflects badly on South Africa’s tourism industry as a whole’

PHASA has said visuals of starving lions held captive behind fences reflect badly not only on hunting and the wildlife ranching industry but on South Africa’s tourism as a whole.

“Our wildlife is a key tourism asset and, in an age where destination decisions are based more and more on conscionable factors, potential tourists to South Africa are increasingly likely to live out their dream African holiday in a neighbouring country at the sight of these appalling images,” says chief executive Tharia Unwin.

Added to this, the social media storm expressing public outrage at the recent photos has raises questions regarding the role that South Africa’s Predator Association (SAPA) plays in enforcing animal welfare compliance at captive breeding facilities.

Traveller24 previously reported SAPA’s response to the allegations of starving lions at the Slippers owned farm, with SAPA saying, “If Mr Slippers had been a member of SAPA and owner of a SAPA-accredited facility, we would have taken note of the unfolding tragedy and would have been in a position to act much earlier to prevent this lamentable state of affairs.”

In a recent TV interview with SAPA chairperson, Professor Pieter Potgieter admitted that some SAPA registered farms don’t comply with the associations “ethical code”, revealing some SAPA accredited facilities with “lions living in cramped conditions and the owners offering illegal hunts”.

Alarmingly, less than 10% of the 200 lion breeders in South Africa are registered with SAPA and over 180 facilities remain unregulated.

This raises the very pressing and pertinent question of whether this industry is fairly and properly regulated and what will be done about these captive lions?

What’s the future of Africa’s lions?

“It is exactly because of these unethical practices that PHASA decided to turn its back on the captive-bred lion hunting industry at its last annual general meeting,” says chief executive Tharia Unwin.

But while PHASA says the “wildlife industry is doing its best to address growing global opposition by promoting hunting in an ethical light with major conservation spin-offs”, the statement is paper thin, when weight against the very arresting reality that South Africa has fewer than 2 000 truly wild lion – three times less than the estimated 7 000 canned lions according to International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) figures.

African lions are on the 2015 IUCN Red List which shows lion populations have experienced an overall decline of 43 per cent between 1993 and 2014. While populations increased in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe by 12 per cent over the same period thanks to good wildlife management, other sub-populations in the rest of Africa have plummeted by 60 per cent.

Blood Lions, prolific advocates around the unethical issue of canned lion hunting, have welcomed PHASA’s statement but stressed that “while this case represents an individual, it is in fact the entire industry that is tarnishing South Africa’s conservation and tourism image.”

So what does the future hold for the estimated 7 000 captive-bred lions, owned by farmers who now face the reality of a declining revenue stream as the US, SA’s largest market refuses to allow the import of Lion Hunting Trophies and local organisations distance themselves from the practise.

Is the reality of animal cruelty a certain future for these lions, as the number of incidents showing the deplorable practices involved in the predator breeding and canned hunting industries grow – continuing to diminish SA’s reputation as a desirable wildlife destination?

It also raises the need for a more targeted approach to help these lions. One only needs to think of organisations such as the EMoya Big Cat Sanctuary, which does not allow public interactions with its lions at all and was instrumental in assisting British charity Animal Defenders International (ADI) in rescuing 33 abused circus lions. But 7 000 appears to be an insurmountable task in comparison.

Following an historic agreement between 28 African lion Range States, more than 180 countries are expected to debate whether to move lions from their current listing on Appendix II to Appendix I – which would prohibit the trade in lions, except under exceptional circumstances.

Whether or not the SA government will head these calls to address predator breeding and canned hunting or the endangered status of the African lion at CITES COP117 conference to be held in Johannesburg from 24 September to 5 October at the Sandton Convention Centre remains to be seen?