Our Burning Planet


Zoonotic disease: Study warns about cuddling, keeping and slaughtering farmed lions

Zoonotic disease: Study warns about cuddling, keeping and slaughtering farmed lions
Bones from a blood lion. (Photo: supplied)

Wild lions can kill you, but farmed lions pose a far greater threat in terms of more than 80 zoonotic diseases that could be passed on to humans.

A joint scientific study by Blood Lions and World Animal Protection has identified 63 pathogens (including bacteria, parasites and viruses) that affect both wild and captive lions. Some of these can be passed from lions to other animals and humans. 

The study listed 83 diseases and clinical symptoms associated with these pathogens, highlighting the potential harm they can cause to the health of both animals and people. It warns that this poses a potential health risk to thousands of local and international tourists as well as farm workers and their families. 

In South Africa, more than 8,000 lions are bred and kept on commercial farms for tourism, hunting and the bone trade. 

The researchers reviewed almost 150 scientific studies on lion-linked diseases. “Wildlife farms can be a hotbed for these diseases,” according to the study, “especially when poor hygiene, poor diet and other stresses associated with captivity weaken wild animals’ immune systems. These can spread rapidly when large numbers – and sometimes even different species – of wild animals are kept in the same enclosures, as this increases the risk of transmission.” 

Zoonotic diseases, such as Covid-19, can jump from animals to humans when people come in close contact with wildlife. Many lion farms promote direct contact with the animals for tourism activities. People pay to pet and hand-rear cubs and walk with sub-adults as well as recreational hunting for “trophies”. Farmed lions are also slaughtered so their bones can be exported to Southeast Asia for use in traditional medicine products. This requires many industry workers handling lions during skinning and defleshing in preparation for skeleton export. 

The report says captive lions can carry a range of harmful pathogens, including Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. Despite the large number of lions bred in captivity and the long list of diseases found to affect them, the researchers found no scientific studies investigating health and diseases on commercial lion farms in South Africa. “Without this vital information,” says the study, “it’s impossible to effectively prevent, monitor or manage potential health risks on these farms.”

(Photo: supplied)

According to Blood Lions director Pippa Hankinson, “the research identified substantial gaps in our knowledge base concerning the captive lion breeding industry, which can have huge health implications for farm workers and tourists. With the High-Level Panel expected to make recommendations to the Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries around the management, breeding, hunting, trade and handling of, among others, lions before the end of the year, we hope that they will take note of these important findings.” 

 As the world struggles to respond to a global health pandemic, there is increasing awareness worldwide about the public health risks from contact with wild animals and to reduce risks wherever possible.

“With tourism slowly beginning to reopen,” says Hankinson, “we have the opportunity to do better, to be better and to create a greener and kinder tourism without wildlife exploitation. The kind of tourism that keeps it wild.” 

Blood Lions and Humane Society International are circulating a letter to the SA government demanding the end of captive predator breeding and it’s spin-off industries, and a video on the issue. DM

This article was first published on the Conservation Action Trust website.  

Louise de Waal has a PhD in environmental management and founded a sustainable tour operator business, thereafter continuing as a freelance sustainable tourism consultant. She was instrumental in the establishment of the Lion Coalition “to stop the captive breeding and keeping of lions and other big cats for commercial purposes in South Africa” and sits on its Steering Committee. She is currently Blood Lions’ Campaign Manager.

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