Photo by Vince O’Sullivan
Africa / Poaching

Canned Lion Hunting: The Brutal Truth

When Cecil the lion was poached for sport this past summer, it seemed as if the whole world spoke out at once in outrage over the killing. There were outcries on social media calling for a ban on trophy hunting and for the dentist that killed Cecil to lose his clinic. Even Jimmy Kimmel got teary-eyed talking about this on his show. Anger soon turned into action, with people in cities across the world taking to the streets to protest poaching. Cecil became a martyr for lions everywhere because his death put the spotlight on lion trophy hunting like never before; large corporations such as British Airways were starting to take a stand against this sort of hunting and there was finally a large scale discussion about the issue. It was quite amazing to see all this outrage over one animal, but the fact of the matter is that Cecil is not the first nor will he be the last lion to be hunted as a trophy. Lions are constantly fighting for survival from well-known threats such as habitat loss and poaching, but there is also a much more veiled threat that is still equally as destructive: canned lion hunting.

Canned lion hunting is a practice that involves placing a lion in a caged-off enclosure to be baited and shot with little to no effort. The lions involved in this have been bred and raised for the sole purpose of being a trophy on someone’s wall, with hunters often paying up to $20,000 for a lion. Canned lion hunting has become quite a lucrative business for the lion ranches involved in this so-called “hunting.” Canned lion hunting has been taking place primarily in South Africa, which has slightly more than 250 lion ranches with up to 7,000 lions in certain ranches, and has been on a steady rise over the past decade or so. Most of the demand for lion trophies, though, does not come from within South Africa. Instead, it’s usually wealthy people from the U.S. or Europe looking for an easy way to bag a big game animal. What better way to do so than shooting a clueless animal in an enclosure where you are guaranteed a kill?

As thousands of lion trophies are exported each year from South Africa, ranches are using questionable tactics to breed the maximum number of cubs that will be available for hunting. Workers separate newborn cubs from their mother within the first few hours of birth so that the mother can become fertile again. Breeders say that the practice is completely harmless because the cubs are not able to survive on their mother’s milk and that the lions feel no separation anxiety whatsoever, but animal welfare experts say that this argument is completely baseless. They say that the ranches’ explanation is simply a cover-up for the factory-like production of lions and the mistreatment of the animals. Given that many of the lions are emaciated and often crammed into cages that are barely large enough for a person to move around, welfare experts would be right to say that lion ranches are just covering their tracks. A problem is that the lion ranches make it seem that their lions are completely well taken care of. A lot of ranches, especially smaller ones, host activities such as cub petting or “walking with lions” which depict a benevolent image and attracts tourists, whose money then unknowingly goes into the canned hunting industry.

The canned hunting industry has tried to further protect its interests by forming the African Predators Breeders Association (APBA) and the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa (PHASA). These lobby groups have certainly paid off because they have continued to promote how beneficial canned lion hunting is to both conservation and the South African economy. In 2008, when the South African government tried to place limitations on how hunts were conducted by saying that a lion must roam free for two years before it can be shot, the breeders and hunters associations won a challenge in high court which effectively nullified the mandate. Fast forward to now, and it seems that the South African government is quite supportive of canned lion hunting. Many within the government claim that the canned lion hunting is invaluable to South African economy and beneficial to conservation. With this support, lion ranches now function with little to no regulation. The APBA and PHASA say that the ranches follow the guidelines set out by the associations, but this is not entirely true because many ranches are not part of the groups so they are not required to follow any particular rules.

The main claims for conservation that the APBA and the PHASA make are that surplus lions can be released to improve the wild gene pool, that a good portion of their profits go towards lion conservation efforts, and that canned lion hunting protects wild lions by decreasing the need for illegal poaching. At first glance, these may seem to actually make logical sense, but there is little truth to these claims. As evidenced by the documentary “Blood Lions,” the idea that the captive lions from ranches can improve the wild lion gene pool does not make sense because of the deplorable conditions that captive lions are reported to be under. There is absolutely no chance that any of them would be physically or genetically fit enough–due to inbreeding–to survive for an extended period of time in the wild. There is also no concrete evidence that shows that lion ranches are using some profits for conservation efforts, and they have no real incentive to do so either. But the most glaringly false claim out of them all is that canned hunting relieves pressures on wild lions.

The idea is that by allowing people to hunt lions legally, the demand to poach illegally will decrease. But this ignores a multitude of issues, the biggest of which is the increase in demand for lion bones in East Asia. Animal bones are highly regarded as having healing properties in many East Asian cultures, so with the rapidly declining tiger populations no longer reliable, countries like China have turned to lions as a substitute. Canned lion hunting first opened up lions to this market, and many conservationists now believe that as result this has opened up new avenues for poaching in other countries in order to keep up with the demand in China. A lot of this is speculation, but many conservationists believe it because people in places like Tanzania are offered money for lion bones and claws. To put all of this into numbers, the amount of legally transported lion bones from South Africa to China rose from 55 kilograms in 2011 to 739 kilograms in 2012. This is only the reported statistics—the true number is probably much higher. If this connection is true, then the horrible reality is that the situation for lions in Africa could soon become as dire as it has been for elephants and rhinos in recent years.

All in all, there is very little evidence to support the idea that canned lion hunting has been good for South Africa as a whole. From a moral and ethical standpoint, the industry is clearly in the wrong with how ranches treat their lions. Economically, the canned lion hunting trade has only generated about one-fifth of one percent of South Africa’s tourism income, and its job creation rate is also quite minimal. Most South Africans themselves are actually put off by canned hunting and have even taken to the streets in significant numbers to protest the industry’s practices. Africa’s lion population once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, but has since decreased to just 30,000 in a matter of 100 years. By 2050, lions could actually become extinct in the wild. The South African government must recognize that the canned hunting industry is not all it makes itself out to be and that it is playing a huge role in the decimation of one of Africa’s most iconic animals.

Sure, the canned lion hunting industry would essentially be toppled if the U.S. or EU enacted a ban on the import of trophies, but that is much easier said than done. It would be much more effective if the South African government itself took the initiative to say enough is enough and free itself from the influences of foreign capital. South Africa’s people have stood up against canned lion hunting and the facts speak for themselves. Although it may have failed in the past, the government still does have the power to regulate the canned hunting industry.

In this globalized world, we must realize that the predicament that wild and captive lions are in is no longer just an African dilemma. Lions are now facing pressures from all over the world like never before, and things like canned lion hunting should no longer be considered acceptable. Losing lions would not only devastate African ecosystems, but also hurt the world economy. Australia actually took the monumental first step earlier this year in banning all lion trophies from entering the country, causing waves for the conservation movement and sending a strong message for other nations to do the same. The political and social settings seem to gradually be changing in favor of banning lion trophy hunting, and while it is not an easy fight, it is definitely one worth having