Canned Hunting and Cub-Petting are Big Business in South Africa

South African government must regulate this growing industry to protect lions from trophy hunters and over-eager tourists

It is difficult to imagine an Africa without one of its most popular and revered creatures, the lion. Known by many as the King of the Jungle, the lion has traversed the wide-open spaces of Africa for centuries, capturing the hearts and imaginations of people around the world. Unfortunately, lions no longer roam as freely as they once did.

 Lion CubPhoto by Tambako The Jaguar, on Flickr Canned hunting and cub-petting are deeply intertwined, part of a cyclical process that turns lions into profit in South Africa.

In the last fifty years alone, approximately 50 percent of Africa’s lions have disappeared. What has happened to them all? In South Africa, many have fallen victim to poachers. Recently, lions have also faced the threat of canned hunting — hunts in which animals are confined in an area from which they cannot escape — to increasingly detrimental effect. 

Not only is canned lion hunting legal in South Africa, it is a flourishing industry, popular especially amongst those who travel from outside the continent to shoot big game for trophy and sport. The industry is so popular, in fact, that in 2012, it generated approximately 807 million South African rand, roughly 70 million US dollars. Canned hunting is not the hunting of wild lions, however, but rather captive ones, and whereas trophy hunters often claim “fair chase” as a key element in their hunting activities, canned hunters simply pay to kill a lion in an enclosure.

The canned hunting industry has thrived in South Africa in large part because it is under-regulated. As Chris Mercer, co-founder of South Africa’s Campaign Against Canned Hunting, put it via email, “[The] government, to protect the canned hunting industry, has adopted a strained and unrealistic definition, based on silly permit conditions.” Essentially, anyone interested in bringing a lion trophy home through a canned hunt can do so, as long as they possess a permit, adhere to symbolic regulations, and have enough money to pay for the experience (some hunters pay as much as $38,000 to kill a lion).

Some hunters and wildlife conservation advocates argue that canned hunting can help conserve threatened species. That for every captive lion killed, a wild lion is saved. The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute suggests that, “establishing captive populations for saving species from extinction is an important contribution… to conservation.”

I recently discussed this idea via email with Mercer. When asked how people use hunting as a front for conservation, his answer was straightforward:  “Those in favor of hunting say that captive-bred lions are helping to ‘save’ the wild population.” In essence, pro-hunting propaganda claims that every tame lion killed is a wild lion saved. This is not the case, however, and is based on the false assumption that, as Mercer puts it, “every hunter who is prevented from shooting a tame lion will automatically go out and kill a wild lion.”

The lucrative and cruel business of canned hunting belies an even more sinister one: cub-petting. Cub-petting offers tourists and volunteers the opportunity to interact directly with lion cubs. Of course, tourists must pay to pet the cubs, and many do not realize that cubs are the product of widespread factory farming, a practice in which lionesses are bred to have two to three cub litters in a year. This reproduction rate is not only unnatural for lionesses, but is also unhealthy. It is also unnatural for the cubs, which are taken from their mothers at a young age and thrust into the hands of starry-eyes tourists.

What is not revealed to the general public is that these cubs are bred for slaughter: After supporting the cub-petting industry, they will be fed into the canned hunting industry.  According to Mercer, “All lion farmers breed lions for slaughter. Lion Park and Seaview have been exposed recently but all lion farms do it. Wherever lions are being bred, that is a lion farm, however they try to pass themselves off as ‘sanctuaries.’” There are more than 160 such lion farms in South Africa.

In a recent 60 Minutes segment, Kevin Richardson, also know as the lion whisperer, discussed this problem, explaining lions that grow up in the cub-petting industry do not end up back in the wild. Nor do the lions go to good homes, something that parks are quick to tell their tourists and volunteers to convince them to donate time and money to the “sanctuaries.” Richardson posed it perfectly in his interview when he asked, “Where are these good homes? Because I’d like to visit a few of those good homes myself, and maybe even some of my cats could go to these food homes. The reality is, there aren’t any.” 

Unfortunately, this is true. But why sell these young lions into canned hunts? Because lions cannot be released back into the wild, captive lion breeding results in a surplus of animals, animals that are expensive to care for. Mercer explains in the 60 Minutes segment, “We know that there is no other market for adult lions other than the hunting industry. Lions eat meat. Meat’s expensive. So every day that that huntable lion remains with the breeder is money lost. They have to get rid of it. And it’s the hunting operation that takes it”

As a result, canned hunting and cub-petting are deeply intertwined, part of a cyclical process that turns lions into profit. So, could the abolishment of cub-petting ultimately decimate the canned hunting industry? I asked Mercer what he believed would happen if cub-petting ceased to exist, and his answer gave me a dose of reality: “This will never happen. Regulatory capture means that [South African] conservation decisions are actually made by Safari Club International in [the United States], which has aggressively occupied and now controls regulatory authorities in ‘rangeland states’ like [South Africa] or Tanzania. Breeding lions as living targets will continue but will gradually reduce in numbers owing to the ever-increasing costs of breeding lions, and the reduction in income from the cub petting spin off.”

With 8,000 captive lions in South Africa — compared to just 4,000 in the wild — the issue of canned hunting must be addressed. Political action and government regulation are much needed. As Mercer commented, South Africa has to “find the political will to protect wildlife.” 

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