South Africa’s canned lion hunting industry has been dealt yet another PR blow, with the contentious breeding of captive-bred lions and the horrors they endure detailed painfully in Lord Ashcroft’s new book, Unfair Game.
The book is the latest in a series of exposés seeking to convince government to scrap its quota on lion bones and parts allowed to leave the country. Unfair Game follows Lord Ashcroft and his team as they risk their lives completing two covert operations – Operation Simba and Operation Chastise.
Along the way, the team, made up of British ex-Special Forces servicemen and Humane Society International (HSI) undercover reporters, begin to uncover the sinister operations of canned lion hunting and the trade of lion bones and parts.
Comparing the workings of lion farmers and buyers, both local and international, to a drug ring, the criminal elements involved in the industry and the millions it generates in under-the-table deals not only exposes the dangers in stopping the trade of lions, but also the lack of empathy and concern for the welfare of lions, and animals in general.
Part of the book even compares those engaged in canned hunting to serial killers, exhibiting the same lack of emotion when witnessing the traumatic and disturbing deaths lions must endure, for their parts to become trophies for hunters.
Unfair Game by Lord Ashcroft
The canned lion industry is the circle of life that captive-bred lions are born into. Cubs are ripped away from their mothers hours after birth, to be petted and bottle-fed by tourists, explains HSI-Africa wildlife director Audrey Delsink. When the cubs grow up, they are forced to take part in lion walks with tourists. And when they reach maturity, they are put on display to be killed by hunters, mostly from the US, who want nothing more than to ship their prized lion trophy back home.
These ‘hunts’ actually involve the lions being drugged beforehand, and placed in an enclosure. This makes it easy to ‘find’ the beast, and even easier for the tourist to shoot the animal, preferably in a place that will not diminish the trophy’s value.
After the lion is killed and the hunter is given his prize, the rest of the lion’s carcass is stripped and the bones are treated to be purchased by buyers. Bones are destined for Asia, where they are used in medicine and jewelry. And often, consumers who purchase these bones are led to believe that they are in fact tiger bones.
Tourists are often not aware that the venues they are visiting are masked as canned lion hunting facilities, and many voluntourism (a portmanteau of tourism and volunteerism) facilities in South Africa trick unsuspecting tourists into spending time with cubs, supposedly for conservation purposes.
Delink explained that unethical voluntourism venues that partake in canned lion hunting rob legitimate conservation efforts in the country, as well as the much-needed funds to conduct ethical research, fund anti-poaching activities, and support local communities.
“Volunteerism facilities offering physical animal interactions also pose a significant threat to human safety and public liability,” Delsink lamented.
She added that captive carnivore interactions are potentially deadly for tourists too.
As of May 2018, the department of environmental affairs said that since 1996, 40 people were either injured or killed at captive carnivore facilities in South Africa. The most common attacks took place while people were inside the camps with carnivores, with at least 24 of these incidents taking place over the past 22 years.
“This is clearly a significant safety threat to tourists that frequent these facilities and every negative interaction is a significant blow to Brand and Tourism SA,” she warned, explaining that despite numerous efforts from HSI-Africa and other organisations, and an open letter to then-environmental affairs minister Dr Edna Molewa, the legal trade of lion bones and the captive-bred lion industry continue to thrive.
And considering how little the canned lion industry actually contributes to the country’s GDP, it becomes clear that most of the money made in the industry form part of an illicit and extensive underground trade.
Delsink said that contrary to popular belief, canned lion hunting and trade also does not benefit the economy or communities. A recent scientific paper recorded that the industry generates about $180 million every year – a mere 0.96% of the country’s total tourism GDP contribution in 2019.
“Therefore, the reputation damage to South Africa and the cost to our tourism… especially in the wake of Covid-19, is a far greater risk that our country can least afford,” said Delsink.
The scientific paper Delsink references projects that South Africa’s tourism sector could suffer as much as $2.79 billion in reputational damage brought on by canned lion hunting and trade.
Many international trophy hunting organisations and lion scientists alike have condemned canned lion hunting. But in order to push SA’s ethical tourism agenda, the captive lion breeding industry must be challenged and removed as a whole, said Delsink.
To add further insult to injury, Unfair Game emphasises that the captive-bred lion hunting and trade industry provides no conservation value whatsoever, and poses a significant threat to wild lion populations in southern Africa.
Due to the limited gene pool in breeding captive lions, many lion farmers have allegedly resorted to kidnapping and poaching wild lions.
Delsink explained that in a report submitted to the 18th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), big cat scientists from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) warned of the potentially devastating impact to wild lions.
The IUCN said that the legal trade of lion bones has raised “significant concern over the opportunities for illegally killed wild lion parts to enter the legal trade, as has been demonstrated persistently with ivory”. It added that the legal trade feeds into the persistent demand for lion parts and bones.
“The problem is that the demand for trophies and bones exists and will continue to exist so long as there are willing government agencies to approve imports and exports of lion hunting trophies, and allow for a legal lion bone trade in South Africa,” Delsink explained.
When asked about the country’s lion bone quotas and the possibility of reducing or eliminating them to curb the captive lion industry, department of environment, forestry and fisheries (Deff) medial relations director, Peter Mbelengwa, responded curtly that a media release will be issued to everyone, to address the issues laid out in Unfair Game.
Worryingly, department of tourism chief communications director Blessing Manale admitted that he had not seen or read the book, despite the numerous damaging allegations of South Africa’s deceptive and unethical tourism practices associated with captive lion breeding, hunting and trade.
The last lion bone export quota was established in July 2018. Conservation Action Trust reported last year that Deff intended to set another export quota, despite a parliamentary motion suggesting that the Department end the captive lion industry. However, Deff remains mum on Unfair Game’s allegations, and the latest discussions surrounding lion bone export quotas.
In Deff’s 2018 release, it explained that lions are bred in South Africa “for various reasons”, including hunting, and as “a potential source for the establishment of new lion populations. Some are sold to start new conservation areas, whilst others are donated to countries whose own lions have long become extinct.”
This is in stark contradiction to Lord Ashcroft’s, and HSI-Africa’s views that captive-bred lions do not add to the conservation value of an area whatsoever, and the likelihood of re-wilding captive-bred lions that have experienced trauma and abuse is very slim. The likely outcome of most captive-bred lions, should the industry be scrapped, would be euthanasia.
There are currently just over 3,000 lions left in the wild, but there are over 12,000 captive-bred lions in South Africa – a staggering four times the wild lion populations.
Delsink raised concern over the lack of Norms and Standards for keeping captive-bred lions. Unfair Game also discusses the NSPCA’s reports of a decrease in welfare standards and increased cruelty within the captive lion breeding industry over the past ten years.
Another issue not addressed by Deff is the cross-breeding of lions and tigers, called ‘ligers’. These animals are often born with a host of defects and problems, but a three-year-old liger is the same size as a nine-year-old lion. This means more bone weight, which translates to more profits once it is slaughtered.
One of the most topical issues brought on by captive lion breeding, hunting and trade is the possibility of diseases being contracted by humans and lions.
Delsink explained that multiple infectious disease outbreaks have been linked to the wildlife trade.
“Typically, it is the facilities where many wild animals are crowded together under unhygienic and stressful conditions, and where they are frequently slaughtered on the premises, that create the ideal conditions for the spread of zoonoses. An estimated 73% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic.”
Due to the lack of captive lion norms and standards and reported cruelty, this translates directly to the canned lion hunting industry.
As explained in Unfair Game, lions living in deplorable conditions on lion farms that are slaughtered for their bones pose a risk to consumers, unless they are boiled before being eaten. It also puts lion farmworkers’ health at risk.
But other tourist activities within the industry, such as cub petting and lion walks, also pose significant threats to both tourists and lions. Lion cubs contain a host of parasites that can easily be picked up by people handling them, which could result in disease, infection or death.
In addition, Delsink pointed to the potential risk captive lions face, after keepers at the Bronx Zoo spread Covid-19 to tigers and lions at the facility. And due to the number of infectious diseases manifesting increasingly regularly, the threat to captive lions and other captive wildlife is significant.
Delsink emphasised that governments around the world should identify and address the source of Covid-19, and analyse as country-specific trade and activities, to prevent another pandemic.
“The emergence and worldwide spread of the Covid-19 pandemic has had an overwhelming effect on both human health and the global economy. Understanding how this disease first arose should be of critical concern to governments around the world.”
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