Cap­tive big cats

Does farm­ing cap­tive lions for a global trade in bones re­duce pres­sure on wild lion pop­u­la­tions – or make things far worse?

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By James Fair

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. james­fair­

WANT TO COM­MENT? Is cap­tive lion farm­ing ac­cept­able or not? Email us at wildlifele­t­[email protected]­me­di­

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’.

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