South Africa

WILDLIFE & CONSERVATION OP-ED

Letting the cat out of the can on captive lion breeding and hunting

Letting the cat out of the can on captive lion breeding and hunting
Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Barbara Creecy in Pretoria, 4 April 2023. (Photo: Julia Evans)

The latest moves by Environment Minister Barbara Creecy may signal the beginning of the end of captive lion breeding.

On 13 April, a general notice was issued by Barbara Creecy, Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, calling on lion breeders to consider voluntarily exiting from the captive lion industry. This follows the establishment of a ministerial team in December 2022, tasked with identifying and recommending exit options and pathways and engaging with stakeholders.

These moves, considered long overdue, were widely welcomed by conservation, animal welfare and protection groups, as well as some hunting organisations. 

Dr Audrey Delsink, Wildlife Director of HSI-Africa, noted that “while we commend the Minister’s notice calling for voluntary exit from captive lion breeding, this should simply be the first step in a much larger plan for the complete closure of this exploitative, cruel industry”.  

According to a reliable source who asked not to be named, substantial private sector funding has been secured to assist captive lion breeders wishing to voluntarily exit the industry. It is not clear what form this assistance will take, but it seems clear that breeders will need some form of incentive to get out of this industry.

However, some advocacy groups – long opposed to the captive breeding of lions – feel strongly that breeders should not be compensated for a profit-making business that grew against fierce and widespread opposition. 

With tough economic times in South Africa, and joblessness at an all-time high, the exit pathways being considered by the ministerial task team will need to address these issues, along with the dismantling of the industry.  

Lion cubs at a breeding facility. (Photo: Delsink, Humane Society International-Africa)

Captive breeding

The captive breeding of lions is a vicious cycle that starts with the removal of the cubs from the mother when they are just a few days old, for hand-rearing, and ends with their being hunted or slaughtered for their bones and other body parts. 

It is mired in controversy and cruelty, maximising profit at every stage of the cycle, including cub-petting, tourist interactions, lion-walking, voluntourism, canned hunting and the lion bone trade

As far back as 2005, a ministerial panel of experts on recreational hunting in South Africa warned against the reputational and welfare risks associated with these practices. Yet the captive breeding of lions continued and grew, despite an outcry here and abroad.

Some local and international hunting and conservation organisations demonstrated their opposition to the practice by expelling South African hunting organisations that supported the hunting of captive-bred lions. The Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa (Phasa) initially came out strongly against these practices – and then backtracked. The group is now one of the strongest proponents of captive lion breeding for hunting. 

Ongoing opposition, welfare concerns, inadequate regulation and reputational damage to South Africa resulted in a parliamentary colloquium in August 2018. The National Assembly approved its conclusions recommending the industry be shut down as it was damaging South Africa’s reputation, had poor welfare standards and no conservation value.   

Despite frustrations and appeals to close the industry, it grew with seemingly little effort by government to take action. More permits were issued and more lions were bred. There were frequent reports of cruelty and of lions being slaughtered for their bones. All in the absence of any kind of standards or regulation. 

The welfare implications associated with the industry were again highlighted when Judge Jody Kollapen, in the NSPCA v Department of Environmental Affairs judgment, declared the lion bone quota unlawful and unconstitutional, stating that it is inconceivable that the Minister was not taking animal welfare into account in determining quotas and policy.

Ongoing impassioned appeals, conservation letters, reports on the risks of zoonoses, welfare issues associated with captive breeding and legal opinions all seemed to fall on deaf ears as process after process stalled.  

The industry publicly decried euthanasia of healthy lions, failing to acknowledge that the cats were being bred for hunting and slaughter. Breeders demanded compensation and threatened legal challenges if any attempts were made to dismantle the industry. 

Making matters even worse, lions were added to the Department of Agriculture’s Animals Improvement Act, normalising the selective and manipulated breeding of lions. (Fortunately, this was recently overturned after a legal challenge by the Endangered Wildlife Trust and South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association)

In May 2021, the High-Level Panel (HLP) Report was approved by Cabinet and the National Assembly. This was followed by a year of deliberations and stakeholder consultations. The report strongly recommended the scrapping of the captive lion industry and an end to breeding, hunting and international trade in lion parts. 

Again the conservation and animal welfare community heaved a collective sigh of relief and applauded the minister for the progressive and visionary nature of the HLP Report. It was, predictably, an outcome not well received by the lion breeders, who had initially been supportive of the HLP process but did an about-turn when it was released, with accusations of bias, lack of industry representation and flawed processes.  

The lion bone trade. (Photo: Blood Lions)

Conservation or not?

Contrary to claims by the lion breeders, there is no conservation value in breeding lions in captivity. The Biodiversity Management Plan for the African Lion (BMP) differentiates between wild, managed wild and captive lions. It states that “captive lions are bred exclusively to generate money. Managers actively manipulate all vital rates and demographics”.  

The IUCN Red List and the Threatened or Protected Species Regulations list lions as vulnerable, and the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora lists them as requiring protection. 

Despite reports of captive lions being released, this is neither necessary nor in the interests of lion conservation. Lions are limited by territory, habitat availability and prey base. When reintroduction is needed, wild lions can and have been successfully relocated – this being the preferred management technique.

There is no need for a stock of captive-bred lions for conservation purposes. Of course, captive-bred lions can hunt when released – it is their natural instinct – and breed. But it’s irresponsible given the risks associated with habituated lions, their questionable genetics and potentially compromised health status.

SANParks will definitely not be restocking with captive-bred lions, contrary to claims by the industry that this will happen when TB wipes out the Kruger Park population, which, according to park scientists, is now under control and consequently of minor risk. 

Captive hunting continues

Despite the HLP recommendations, the industry continued to grow, with more contraventions of the Animal Protection Act surfacing, along with heartbreaking reports and images of filthy cages, emaciated lions, untreated burn wounds, inbreeding, nutritional deficiencies and unsafe facilities. 

According to author and researcher Linda Park, “One also needs to be cognisant of the illegal activities that have run through the industry; from contravention of hunting regulations through to the illegal bone trade. To have allowed a handful of people to enrich themselves at the expense of South Africa’s reputation is surely unacceptable.”

According to Phasa statistics, 390 lions were killed in 2021. Despite no current lion bone quota, lion bone has been seized as part of illegal exports. Lion attacks – some fatal – poor and dangerous working conditions, and lion escapes continue to be reported. The path to an end to the captive breeding of lions remains littered with unexpected rocks. 

Efforts by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment to increase regulation of captive breeding, and moves towards free-ranging populations, included in the recently released, amended Threatened or Protected Species Regulations (ToPS) – were challenged by the hunting industry and, in an out-of-court settlement, withdrawn apparently due to technical issues. 

The ToPS regulations will have to be reintroduced once these issues have been resolved. The existing 2007 ToPS regulations contain deficiencies. It remains to be seen how many of the restrictions remain in the next version of ToPS. 

Questions remain. Will the voluntary exit pathways go far enough in fulfilling the resolutions of the parliamentary colloquium and the recommendations of the High-Level Panel? 

Is this just the first step towards fully dismantling the industry or is it a compromise that will enable the industry to continue under a different guise? 

Will this adequately address tiger and other big cat breeding in South Africa? 

And will Barbara Creecy be the minister who stands her ground and leaves a proud legacy by finally putting an end to the highly controversial and exploitative captive breeding of lions and other big cats? OBP/DM

Karen Trendler is a welfare-oriented conservationist with over 30 years in wildlife conservation, rescue, crisis response, welfare and as a national inspector for NSPCA. Her recent focus is on wildlife and welfare policy and law. She was the welfare representative on the High-Level Panel.

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