If we don’t act now, the African lion will go the same way as the rhino. This is the grim prediction from big cat experts, who estimate that the continent’s wild lion population has declined by 80-90% since 1975, to a mere 20 000.
Organisers of the world’s biggest protest against the industry on Saturday 15 March 2014 – the Global March for Lions (see details below) – claim that captive lion breeding is worsening the plight of the African lion.
Captive breeding does nothing for lion conservation or welfare, say critics, who include top international scientists and conservationists.
They claim that the industry perpetuates the widely-condemned but ongoing practice of canned hunting, fuels the illegal Asian trade in lion bone, and threatens the fewer than 3000 wild lions left in South Africa.
Read: Almost half of Africa's lions are facing extinction
Cub petting and lion ‘encounters’ feed canned hunting
Cuddling an adorable lion cub is a dream for many, but conservationists are adamant that this seemingly innocuous practice should be struck off any ethical eco-tourist’s bucket list.
Wildlife advocates like Chris Mercer, director of the Campaign against Canned Hunting(CACH), caution that any outfit advertising lion-cub petting should be viewed with suspicion.
“Anyone who pets cubs should understand that they are enriching the canned lion industry,” says Mercer.
Cubs at petting venues are often stressed from being handled repeatedly, and when they become too big to interact safely with humans they have few options. Many, says Mercer, end up as hunting fodder.
A handful of South African captive-bred lions have been placed overseas, but most zoos are well-supplied with lions – in fact, they often have too many.
“The definition of a sanctuary,” says Mercer, “is that it doesn’t do any breeding.”
One such sanctuary is the Jukani Predator Park near Plettenberg Bay. Owner Caryn Olsen explains how tourists’ insatiable appetites for “petting” create a demand which is financially tempting for unscrupulous operators:
“Forty percent of potential tourists cancel their bookings when they hear there’s no lion petting”, says Olsen.
“Walking with lions”, a form of wildlife encounter tourism where visitors go for strolls with full-grown lions, often touching them or even holding their tails, is also frowned upon by critics like CACH, as is encouraging high-paying volunteers to work with captive lions.
The objection is that these lions are also potentially valuable as commodities to be sold for hunting, should they become unsuited to interacting with humans.
And any close contact between humans and big cats holds serious risks. Untrained volunteers are often placed in dangerous situations that have lead to attacks, some fatal.
Can’t captive lions be rehabilitated?
Mercer is joined by eminent international lion researchers in the view that, in addition to the ethical and safety issues associated with lion encounters, breeding plays no role in lion conservation, because captive lions – especially those habituated to humans – can’t be successfully re-introduced to the wild.
In Walking with Lions, an influential journal paper collating the research on the effectiveness of rehabilitating lions, the authors concluded that:
“Even under the best possible circumstances, breeding lions in captivity does little to address the root causes of the species’ decline in the wild.”
Relocating carefully chosen wild lions with the correct genetic profile has, on the other hand, produced positive results in increasing wild population numbers.
What exactly is canned hunting?
The counter-argument by hunting companies advertising trophy hunting of lions is that their hunts are legal and not ''canned''.
In their position statement on canned hunting, the Professional Hunters Association of SA (PHASA) state that canned hunting, which is illegal in South Africa, is when the animal is hunted while drugged or in an enclosed hunting area too small for the lion to evade the hunter.
In captive-bred hunting, the animal is released into an extensive wildlife system to be hunted in accordance with South Africa’s regulations.
CACH retorts that this distinction between canned hunting and hunting of captive bred lions is arbitrary, and that all lion hunts in SA are canned. This isn’t a legal distinction, they argue.
“As for ‘releasing’ a tame hand-reared lion in to an ’extensive wildlife system’,” says CACH, “there's no minimum size specified in the Threatened or Protected Species regulations; the hunting camp might be 50 or 500 hectares”.
Furthermore, it can be said that no hunting of released captive lions is “fair”: they can’t be rehabilitated, or hunted, as wild lions in their natural setting.
Watch: Follow the Spoor's video that explains how canned hunting in SA works
The lion bone trade
There is a growing demand for lion bone from the Asian market. According to CACH, a lion carcass can fetch about R11 000, which is processed in Asia and sold as tiger bone cake for about R800 000 per carcass (R11 000 - per 100 grams).
CACH fears that the huge profits involved may stimulate an increase in the poaching of wild lions for their bones.
Thousands March for Lions
People from 44 cities around the world, from Stockholm to Sao Paulo, Vancouver to Melbourne, and Hong Kong to Cape Town, marched for a ban on captive lion breeding and hunting in SA, and on trophy imports into the USA and EU
The march was initiated by South African wildlife activists and was held on 15 March 2014.
Almost half of Africa's lions facing extinction
French zoo shows off rare Asiatic lion cubs
Hunter, L et al Walking with lions: why there is no role for captive-origin lions Panthera leo in species restoration.
IUCN Red List. Panthera leo.
Image: Global March for Lions
Image of woman holding a cub: Shutterstock
Olivia Rose-Innes is Health24’s EnviroHealth Editor. Read more of her columns and articles or post a question to her expert forum.