South Africa plans to end controversial captive lion industry

The country’s environment department will stop issuing permits to breed, keep, hunt, or interact with captive-bred lions.

South Africa has taken steps to end its multimillion-dollar lion-breeding industry, which supplies cubs for tourism, lions for trophy hunts, and bones for traditional medicine.

In a statement on May 2, Barbara Creecy, the minster of South Africa’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, acknowledged the “view that the captive lion breeding industry did not contribute to conservation and was doing damage to South Africa’s conservation and tourism reputation.”

With this announcement, the government will stop issuing permits to breed, keep, hunt, or interact with captive lions and is revoking current breeding permits. A number of factors are thought to have influenced this decision, including growing public opposition to the industry for being inhumane, possible links between legal and illegal trade in lion bones, and greater understanding of the diseases that animals can pass to humans.

It’s estimated that there are between 6,000 and 8,000 captive lions in private facilities throughout the country, but Ian Michler, the director of Blood Lions, a South African nonprofit dedicated to ending the captive lion industry, says there may be as many as 12,000.

There are about 2,000 wild lions in South Africa and an estimated 20,000 continent-wide. Their numbers have fallen by about half during the past quarter century as habitats have become fragmented and prey animals such as antelopes have become scarcer. Meanwhile, lions are coming into contact with people in rural communities more often, with deadly results for both. And according to Creecy, the legal trade in captive lion parts could increase poaching of wild populations.

Reports about South Africa’s captive lion industry have shown that the animals often are kept in inhumane conditions, such as in overcrowded spaces with poor nutrition and veterinary care. (Take a look inside one of South Africa’s controversial lion farms.)

Yesterday’s announcement therefore is seen not only as a win for conservationists but also for animal welfare advocates. “Thousands of farmed lions are born into a life of misery in South Africa every year in cruel commercial breeding facilities,” Edith Kabesiime, the wildlife campaign manager of the nonprofit World Animal Protection, wrote in an email. “This latest move by the government of South Africa is courageous—taking the first steps in a commitment to long-lasting and meaningful change. This is a win for wildlife.”

In some captive-breeding facilities around the country, tourists pay to pet, bottle-feed, and take selfies with lion cubs and walk alongside more mature animals. Critics say such interactive tourism leads to abuse and inhumane breeding practices such as speed breeding—the early removal of cubs from their mothers so they can produce more young.

Many captive lions are sold to hunting facilities at the end of their lives, Michler says, where they’re shot by trophy hunters, sometimes in “canned” hunts held in fenced areas. Trophy hunters keep the skins and heads, and their bones are often exported to Asia for use in traditional medicine.

South Africa set an annual quota for the number of lion skeletons that could be exported legally until 2018, when South Africa’s National Council of Societies for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals filed suit to stop the practice. That year, the government nearly doubled the department’s previous export quota, from 800 to 1,500.

Recommendations accepted 

In October 2019, Creecy formed a panel to review policies relating to the management, breeding, hunting, and trade of South Africa’s elephants, lions, leopards, and rhinos. In a nearly 600-page report submitted in December 2020, the panel recommended that in addition to banning captive keeping and breeding of lions and selling their parts, canned lion hunts and tourist interactions with captive lions (including cub petting) should end immediately. It also recommended the destruction of lion bone stockpiles and the humane euthanasia of all existing captive lions. (Captive animals released into the wild rarely survive because they never learned how to hunt and aren’t naturally afraid of humans.)

Creecy and the South African cabinet announced that they have accepted the recommendations.

This is “huge,” Michler says. “We believe this is a significant shift in thinking and a fairly clear mandate from the minister to everyone that this has got to be phased out.”

It’s now up to South Africa’s parliament to make the recommendations law. Given the level of support from the government already, “we don’t foresee that it’s going to be turned down by parliament,” Michler says.

The South African Predator Association, a pro-captive breeding organization, did not respond to a request for comment.

Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, a South African conservationist and economist who served on the panel, was among the minority who favor phasing out captive breeding of lions but keeping the lion bone trade. He advocates a “cautious approach”—a reformed, sustainable lion bone trade supplied from existing stockpiles, captive lion deaths, and possibly even managed wild populations in the future—until it’s known whether the trade can be ended “without stimulating a big cat poaching crisis.” ’T Sas-Rolfes warns that closing legal markets may drive the lion bone trade underground, where it’s more difficult to monitor and regulate. “This now effectively shuts off the last official legal conduit of big cat body parts to the market, worldwide,” he wrote in an email. “Whether that matters or not in terms of prices and poaching incentives remains to be seen.” The other minority opinion favored keeping the industry but increasing regulation.

Others argue that by supplying lion bones to Asian countries, South Africa has fueled demand. According to a 2018 report from the wildlife trade monitoring organization Traffic, anecdotal evidence suggests that there is increased demand for lion bone products in Vietnam. That’s in part because tiger bones, long favored, have become ever rarer as wild populations have declined to fewer than 3,200 today. Because tiger and lion bones are difficult to tell apart, greater demand could lead to more poaching of both species.

Neil D’Cruze, head of wildlife research at World Animal Protection, says the possibility that bans could increase illegal trade “is an issue that should not be ignored—but equally it’s not one that cannot be overcome.”

The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment also accepted the panel’s recommendation that South Africa no longer press to reopen the rhino horn and ivory trades.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.

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