Captive big cats
Does farming captive lions for a global trade in bones reduce pressure on wild lion populations – or make things far worse?
Is breeding lions for their bones and ‘canned hunting’ preserving wild populations or putting them at risk?
Though I’ve visited many zoos and believe they are a great way for children, especially, to learn about exotic species they would otherwise only see on a TV or computer screen, I do find something monumentally sad about the sight of large predators behind bars. The listless ennui of animals whose entire purpose in life has been removed – all their savage, highly evolved skills and raw energy reduced to a brief surge of adrenalin around feeding time – is a bleak indictment of how we treat the natural world.
So, I don’t like to imagine how I would react were I to see lions facing a fate far worse than any zoo resident’s – cubs that are literally passed around facilities where tourists pay to cuddle them, and then end up being tracked and killed in enclosures by trophy hunters. And, with some people seemingly partial to bow hunting, they could even end up with arrows through their hearts.
But increasingly, and perhaps most sinisterly, lions are being bred and harvested for their bones to be turned into ‘wine’ and ‘cake’ for consumption in Vietnam, Laos and China. Official estimates indicate 6,000–8,000 lions are kept in captivity in South Africa for almost entirely this purpose, though other assessments estimate it could be as high as 14,000.
But why is this any worse than the dairy industry, where calves are taken from their mothers at just a few days old, or the battery farming of chickens? If farming one animal is acceptable, why not another?
“Doing this to one of the most famous wildlife species on the planet is abhorrent,” says Richard Peirce, author of Cuddle Me, Kill Me: A true account of South Africa’s captive lion breeding and canned hunting industry. “If you carry on farming lions, you are turning them into wild pussy cats. You are taking the wild out of the wild.”
Paul Funston, Southern Africa regional director for Panthera, the global conservation organisation for wild cats, is perhaps even more damning. “Where do we draw the line?” he says. “At ungulates? At carnivores? At the great apes?” Then he adds, perhaps not entirely seriously: “If South African farmers could turn a buck by breeding chimpanzees, I bet they would.”
Richard’s book is an unashamedly critical exposé of the lion breeding industry, highlighting how manipulation of people’s trust is built into the entire way it operates. As a way of raising profits, lion cubs born into captivity are ‘farmed’ out to petting centres, where credulous volunteers and tourists pay to care for and cuddle them, while being assured that they will one day be returned to the wild. Some cubs may progress to being ‘walked’, also by paying customers, but eventually they get too old for that as well.
For the record, the South African Predator Association (SAPA), which represents lion breeders, has said that it “disapproves” of this type of “lion tourism”.
Cathrine Nyquist was one of the thousands who have been duped over the years. “I was in between jobs and I’d always wanted to do some voluntary work,” she says. “Among the projects that came up when I started researching were some about saving abandoned lions. I jumped on that.”
As documented in Cuddle Me, Kill Me, Cathrine ended up at Cheetah Experience, which describes itself as a non-profit conservation experience that helps a number of endangered species. Here, she “fell in love – head-over-heels in love – with the lions”. But over the course of the next year or so, the truth of what was going on started to become apparent.
Two young lions for which Cathrine developed a special affection, Obi and Oliver, played an especially significant role. “In June or July 2012, they were sent away [ from Cheetah Experience], and I was absolutely shocked. I remember saying: 'But I thought you guys owned these lions.' And they said they were looking after them for somebody else, and the lions had gone back to their breeding facility.”
Obi and Oliver would have gone on to the next stage of the industry – either to be hunted, or killed for their bones – had Cathrine, and partner Lizaene Cornwall, not intervened and purchased them for the sanctuary they have set up together. “[The industry] uses the goodness of people's hearts to trick them into giving money and falling in love,” Cathrine says.
Even Cheetah Experience says that it didn’t know what was really going on. Founder and director Riana Van Nieuwenhuizen says that she now realises some of the lion cubs they raised went back to facilities where they would have been hunted. “I would never have done that if I’d known,” she says. “We were good at saving lives – I will never ever save a life and then give it away and let that animal be hunted by an idiot.”
Riana also denies claims made on the ‘Volunteers in Africa Beware’ Facebook page that they are still trading cheetahs with canned hunting breeders. She says the people behind the social media account refuse to listen to what she says, or make the effort to visit Cheetah Experience to find out her side of the story.
At this point, it’s probably worth saying a couple of things about canned hunting. Theoretically, in 2008 the South African Government banned this much-vilified form of trophy hunting with its Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) regulations. Section 26 prohibited a whole catalogue of methods for hunting lions (and many other species) that includes poison, traps, snares and dogs. It specifically states that an ‘animal may not be hunted if it is trapped against a fence or in a small enclosure where the animal does not have a fair chance of evading the hunter.’
But it is worth noting, says Chris Mercer, co-founder of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting, that lions can still be hunted in enclosures. So, the question is: who decides what ‘small’ means and what constitutes a ‘fair chance’? And, as Chris pointed out when TOPS first came into force: “South African conservation structures are too dysfunctional to monitor compliance with any regulations, so the lion farmers will ignore any inconvenient restrictions anyway.”
There are, however, many people in South Africa who view opposition to canned hunting, as well as the bone trade, as sentimentalism masquerading as wildlife conservation. One is Ron Thomson, co-director of the True Green Alliance, a campaigning organisation set up to promote ‘sustainable utilisation of wildlife’ and to oppose what it calls the ‘animal rights movement’. Ron was previously a game warden in Zimbabwe, where wildlife management frequently involved shooting man-eating lions, and he’s not squeamish about getting wildlife to pay its way.
Ron claims to have thoroughly investigated the captive lion industry and, in a document submitted to a recent parliamentary inquiry, he describes how he visited 40 out of the estimated 200 lion farms in South Africa. Overall, his conclusion was very positive. “This industry has huge potential for South Africa, and it is worth [the] government releasing the industry from its quagmire of unnecessary over-regulation,” he wrote.
What does he feel about the view that there is something abhorrent about breeding lions in this way? “I can understand the sentiment, but it’s illogical,” he says. And there’s something else at work, he believes. “You have got people in the West who are judging people in Africa by their standards. We need to start respecting other people’s cultures – we don’t have to understand them.”
Captive lions are fuelling a burgeoning bone trade, a relatively new business that is replacing, or supplementing, that of tiger bones. Rice wine is said by its proponents
Even if we could accept the idea of breeding lions like livestock, the fear is that the bone trade is fuelling illegal poaching.
to absorb nutrients from bones that are steeped in it, and thereby it is believed to pass characteristics of the animal on to the consumer. As far as anyone knows, all or most of the bones come from South Africa, which is legally allowed to export a certain quota every year – in 2017, it was 800 skeletons; in 2018, it was 1,500 (almost double).
But even if we can accept the idea of breeding lions like livestock, assuming it can be done in a way that is humane, the fear of conservationists is that the bone trade is fuelling the illegal poaching of wild lions. On the whole, the main threat to the species is when big cats come into conflict with people and their livestock – illegally killing lions, often using carcasses laced with deadly poisons, is a growing problem. There has also always been some commercial value for their teeth and claws in African traditional medicine, or muti. But the bone trade may have created a whole new incentive to go and take down one of Africa’s top predators.
Evidence of the trade first came to light in about 2005, according to Bones of Contention, a report published by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring group, and Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. From about 2008, it became clear that breeders were starting to exploit this new and potentially lucrative business opportunity. Captive lion numbers, the report says, are estimated to have doubled between 2005 and 2013. Bones of Contention was critical in shining a spotlight on the new bone trade, but the report didn’t find any evidence that it was having an impact on wild populations.
But what if it is? Panthera’s Paul Funston says that poaching is clearly on the increase in some areas. In Limpopo National Park in Mozambique (which shares a boundary with Kruger in north-east South Africa), they’ve seen an escalation in the illegal killing of lions over the past seven years – 49 in total in that time, reducing the population of the park from nearly 7o to about 20. “The poaching gangs decimated the white rhinos,” Paul says, “then they started on elephants, and now lions. Of the 49 lions, 38 had had their body parts removed – mainly teeth and claws – but in two cases all the bones had been taken.”
Mozambique's Niassa Reserve has also recorded 87 killings since 2013, though there is less information about why the lions were killed. But Paul is certain of one thing – the growing “neo-colonisation” of Africa by China is leading to a proliferation of traders who are interested in wildlife products, whether they are rhino horns, elephant tusks, pangolin scales – or lion bones. There’s a lucrative market in the Far East, and most traders care little about where the products are sourced.
The big question is whether farmed lions can completely satisfy the growing demand for bone products. Ron says breeding them increases supply and thereby reduces the pressure on wild populations, so “it’s not worth these guys going out and shooting these animals.” This argument is also used to justify the ranching of rhinos for their horns.
Paul isn’t convinced. “Just imagine the size of the market you have in the Far East – potentially billions of people,” he argues. “If just 0.1 per cent of this market want to buy lion bones, I doubt the market could cope, unless we have a future where tens or even hundreds of thousands of captive lions are being raised for this purpose.”
It would also be a future where wild lions are even more at risk – or so he and many others believe. “Finding evidence of a link between legal captive breeding and illegal wild poaching is the Holy Grail that everyone is searching for,” one researcher responds in an email. “If you find anything concrete, do let me know.” The future of one of our most iconic predators may just depend on it.
JAMES FAIR writes about wildlife, conservation and travel. jamesfairwildlife.co.uk
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A lion in a breeding cage on a South African farm. While bigcat farming is growing, the wild lion population in Africa may be about 20,000.
An American bow hunter accompanied by a professional guide. 18,000 hunters are thought to travel to Africa every year.
Lion bones are hung up to dry on a hunting concession in South Africa. These bones are crushed and used in Asian medicines and ‘lion wine’.