South Africa has a strong hunting tradition, but few people express much enthusiasm for its debased canned form. It is still legal to bring a lion carcass back to Britain (or anywhere in Europe or North America) as a trophy and much of the demand comes from overseas.
Trophy-hunters are attracted by the guarantee of success and the price: a wild lion shot on a safari in Tanzania may cost US$80,000, compared with a GBP8,000 captive-bred specimen in South Africa.
Five years ago, the government effectively banned canned hunting by requiring an animal to roam free for two years before it could be hunted, but lion breeders challenged the policy and a high court judge ruled that such restrictions were “not rational.”
The number of trophy-hunted animals has since soared. In the five years to 2006, 1,830 lion trophies were exported from South Africa; in the five years to 2011, 4,062 were exported, the vast majority captive-bred animals.
Demand from the Far East is also driving profits for lions breeders. In 2001, two lions were exported as “trophies” to China, Laos and Vietnam; in 2011, 70 lion trophies were exported to those nations.
While the trade in tiger parts is now illegal, demand for lion parts for traditional Asian medicine is soaring. In 2009, five lion skeletons were exported from South Africa to Laos; in 2011, it was 496.
The legal export of lion bones and whole carcasses has also soared.
Breeders argue it is better that hunters shoot a captive-bred lion than further endanger the wild populations, but conservationists and animal welfare groups dispute this. Wild populations of lions have declined by 80 percent in 20 years, so the rise of lion farms and canned hunting has not protected wild lions. In fact, said Fiona Miles, director of Lionsrock, a big cat sanctuary in South Africa run by the charity Four Paws, it is fueling it.
The lion farms’ creation of a market for canned lion hunts puts a price-tag on the head of every wild lion, she said; they create a financial incentive for local people, who collude with poachers. Trophy-hunters who begin with a captive-bred lion may then graduate to the real, wild thing.
“It’s factory-farming of lions and it’s shocking,” Miles said. “The lion all around the world is known as the iconic king of the jungle and yet people have reduced it to a commodity, something that can be traded and used.”
An alternative use for the captive-bred lions might be tourism.
We go for a “lion walk” with Martin Quinn, a conservation educator and lion whisperer. This involves strolling through the veld with three adolescent white lions, which have been bred on Moreson ranch, and trained by Quinn and his assistant, Thompson. These striking white lions bound around us, rush on, and then lie in the grass, ready for an ambush. Armed only with sticks, Quinn and Thompson control them, while warning us that they are still wild animals.
It is an unnerving experience, but Quinn hopes this venture will persuade Moreson ranch that a live lion is worth more than a dead one.
He claims that since he began working with lions at the ranch in January, the owners have not sold on any lions to be hunted. He hopes the ranch will eventually allow the offspring of its captive animals to grow up in the wild.