SCANDAL OF THE LION CUBS BRED FOR SLAUGHTER
A new documentary highlights the scandal of lions being bred to be hunted
DEEP in the South African bush, hidden away from prying eyes, scores of lion cubs are crammed into cages. This place masquerades as a wildlife sanctuary – claiming that it is doing vital conservation work – but that is far from the truth.
In fact behind the electric fences these young lions are being bred for one reason: when they reach maturity the cubs will be shot in the name of sport.
It is known as “canned hunting” and is big business. About 95 per cent of the lions shot by hunters in South Africa are bred in captivity in small compounds which have been likened to battery farms.
Long before they arrive, the hunters can even browse through online catalogues and select the specific lion they want to kill.
Most prized are big males which are sold for up to £ 30,000 each but prices start from about £ 3,000 for a female. As a rule of thumb the bigger the lion’s mane the greater the price on his head.
The so- called hunts are often farcical because the lions are released in confined areas, surrounded by fences, where they are easy to track down. Additionally lions which have been reared in captivity don’t have the same fear of humans as wild animals.
The sickening trade in these magnificent beasts is revealed in a new documentary, Blood Lions: Bred For The Bullet, on the Discovery Channel this week.
It is thought there are more than 200 such farms in South Africa alone, operating amid tight security with up to 8,000 captive lions. Remarkably it is all perfectly legal.
Campaigners who are trying to end canned hunting, which operates on a smaller scale in Zimbabwe and Namibia, have faced threats. Programme- maker Ian Michler, an environmentalist who has spent more than a decade exposing the practice, says: “It’s brutal. This is a multi- million pound industry which is being justified under the guise of conservation, research and education.”
HE REVEALS how some lion farmers are offering deals to lure hunters of two free lionesses for every male bought for the bullet. In South Africa it’s believed that at least 1,000 lions are being killed in canned hunts every year. Lions are easy to breed in captivity and the head of the king of the animal world is regarded as the greatest trophy of them all.
The government there has tried to ban predator breeding but lost a court case five years ago and lion farms have flourished.
“Since then we’ve probably had a doubling in the size of the industry,” says Michler, who has filmed undercover. “It is disheartening.”
Hunters, who often have little experience, can buy packages lasting two or three days which guarantee a kill or your money back. In contrast hunting a wild lion can take weeks. It is more expensive and there’s no guarantee of a shot.
In July the case of Cecil, a 13- year- old lion killed by an American dentist in Zimbabwe, brought big- game hunting into the spotlight. Cecil, who was wounded by an arrow then tracked for 40 hours before being shot by keen amateur hunter Walter Palmer, was a wild lion and the best- known animal in Hwange National Park. The lion had been lured from the park.
But for those whose time is precious canned or captive hunting, as it’s also called, is the ultimate quick- fix. “It’s a slam- dunk deal. You are going to get one,” says one professional hunter, who admits he is uneasy about what’s happening.
At the farms the cubs are taken away from their mothers when they are between three and 10 days old. This encourages more breeding, ensuring a ready supply of lions but weakening the lionesses. In the wild, cubs remain with their mothers for up to two years. Conditions in the compounds are often poor because the owners’ only aim is to breed as many lions as possible. It is also claimed that canned hunting is being unwittingly propped up by gap- year students, who travel to Africa mistakenly believing they are helping conservation work. In reality there’s no genuine reason to breed lions. There has been only a handful of cases of lions reared in captivity being successfully released into the wild.
According to campaigners, one out of every two lion sanctuaries is supplying animals for hunting.
Here visitors who often pay thousands of pounds for the privilege of volunteering are allowed to handle cubs. Cynically the volunteers are often told that the cubs are orphans when in reality they have been removed from their mother.
Getting close to wildlife is all part of the experience and appeal but these unnatural interactions between humans and animals only serve to make the young lions even more tame. When the cubs are no longer suitable for “pay and play” or cute photo- opportunities their days are numbered.
At one of the genuine sanctuaries, Drakenstein in Western Province, South Africa, there is a strict no- breeding policy and animals are offered a lifetime home. Visitors are not permitted to handle cubs. Owner Paul Hart says: “We have a country where a large majority of people profess to be animal lovers but seem to be oblivious to the fact that every day captive bred, hand- reared tame lions are being slaughtered in canned hunts.
“Any captive lion has no conservation value whatsoever.”
ASPIN- OFF from canned hunting is the lucrative trade in lion bones. In Chinese medicine they are believed to cure many ills but a ban in the Far East means that there’s a thriving black market. Unscrupulous lion farmers are only too happy to boost their income by meeting this demand. And they don’t care if the lions they are churning out are sick, or barely able to walk because of some genetic problem caused by intensive breeding. In the programme one of the most distressing images is the sight of a cub pitifully dragging its almost useless back legs.
However breeding permits are simple to obtain and the authorities will only step in if there are clear cruelty issues. As the lion farms operate in such isolated areas this is notoriously difficult to prove. The farm owners, who claim they are helping to boost lion numbers, guard their trade jealously. In the programme an undercover investigator who is caught filming is warned: “I will kill you.”
Botswana, which borders South Africa, has taken a tougher stance by outlawing commercial hunting. Campaigners insist the scandal of canned hunting damages the image of South Africa, which relies heavily on tourism.
There are calls for the captive breeding of lions to be banned and for governments, including Britain and the US, to outlaw the import of animal trophies.
Will Travers, president of the Born Free Foundation, says: “The idea of killing these magnificent animals for fun makes me ashamed of my own species. Canned hunting is simply bagging a trophy as quickly as possible then pushing off home. It’s disgusting.”
Blood Lions: Bred For The Bullet is on the Discovery Channel on Wednesday October 28, at 10pm ( Sky 520, Virgin 250, BT TV 322, TalkTalk 322)