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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.” 

Jacalyn Beales
Jacalyn Beales is a writer and animal welfare advocate in Toronto, Canada. She is also the founder of PACH (People Against Canned Hunting). You can follow PACH here.

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Canned animal hunts, elephants slaughtered for their tusks, 400 bears, including pedals, a handicapped bear, murdered in new jersey this month…we are drowning in a violent sickness inherent only to the human race.  We have descended into a decay that knows no bounds.  If it’s an animal and money can be made from it, it is shot, poisoned, skinned, beaten, etc. We are destroying the life on this planet at record speed, and the greedy parasites that are doing it are so pathetically stupid they can’t see that inevitably, they are destroying themselves.  I think we are doomed.

By Emily Dickinson on Thu, October 27, 2016 at 12:42 pm

70 MILLION us dollars? Where did all that money go?
they say this money helped south Africans right? but there ae so many people suffering in this country…it’s scary and disgusting these animals are brutally killed for what? so our president can be sponsored to build a big ass house and buy a plane instead of helping the people that live right next door to him. these animals are facing extinction but this canned hunting still continues in this country! Rhino’s have been poached for so many years and the president has never made an effort to reach out until a month ago…this is sick…hunting and killing animals is sick? and legalising this is SICK! let those that can help save animals make a difference

By Pearl on Thu, November 26, 2015 at 2:29 am


By Constance on Thu, October 08, 2015 at 10:40 am

Since the poaching murder of Cecil the Lion, a good percent of the world has awakened to the plight of African lions, but few still understand the dynamics of “canned hunting”.  Kevin Richardson is doing a good job raising awareness, and hopefully the film ‘Blood Lions” will put this on many more people’s radars.

It is a despicable industry, but the $$$ that a select few, and their employees, reap from the trade is going to keep it going unless there is another economic model to replace it.  I am terribly saddened by what seems to be a no-win situation for African lions.

If Africa could get an infusion of corporate investment, to create, say,  a high technology sector to employ people, that is one way to bring people out of poverty, provide opportunities, and not rely on farming that steals wildlife habitat.  The government of SA and Zimbabwe do not care, rhinos and lions, giraffes, hippos could vanish or live only in captivity bred for hunting, if it made them $$.  It will have to come from outside——-  as a result of global anger and powerful people, seeking alternative solutions, that saves these animals from extinction.

By Leslie Young on Sat, August 29, 2015 at 7:38 pm

Hi please help ,read,share and support us to save the lions and wildlife

By syngin on Thu, August 27, 2015 at 3:13 am

did not see a petition to sign to stop canned hunting!!!!!!!  This is Murder & Evil!!!!!!!! Will never return to this corrupt & greedy country!!!!!!!! Americans should boycott South Africa!!!!!!! Money talks & they don’t want to lose tourist trade!!!!!!! The hunters are sick cowards!!!!!! Years ago Massai boys defended their cows with spears and shields!!!!!  Many were maimed or killed!!!!! They didn’t stand behind high powered guns!!!!!!! Canned hunting is only shooting fish in a barrel!!!!!!!!

By Cecile Pearsall on Sun, August 23, 2015 at 10:14 pm


By Eloise Smith on Wed, July 29, 2015 at 9:25 am

Volunteering at lion breeding parks.
My experience started also by false pretenses of what was being said to me firsthand about the project introduction which made me to believe I was doing something good for conservation in which later to the truth being revealed showed a different picture.
They first start to tell you that they breed lions so that they can reintroduce them back into the wild. Then they take the lions away from the mother to give to volunteers to raise and saying that they won’t survive because of diseases plus mother always rejects them and and and,,, which if this was the case then all wild cubs will die in the wild if this was true. Volunteers by joining these places and raising a lion cub they think that one day they will be like Simba, roaming free in his own Kingdom happy where that is never the case EVER. Reason why they take the cubs away from the mother is so that the female lioness can come into estrus cycle sooner to have more babies. More babies more money.
First understanding into this is to know what conservation all about is. Number one rule is as a true conservationist will know is to interfere as little as possible to the wilderness. Let me elaborate on this more of what I mean simply.
When you habituate a wild animal to a person it will be hard for that animal to be reintroduced successfully back into the wild, there has been occasions on very small accounts with much effort put into such a process successfully.  Reason being is that the animals is not familiar to their environment from young age, then struggles to find the ropes teached by wild fellow animals as to how to survive in the wild.
Once habituating a lion cub that lions fear for man disappears, it’s also does not learn to hunt on its own or is shown how to hunt coz he is always depended on man feeding him so he associates man now with food.  Now if the lion is in the wild and sees man he will not be feared and will become dangerous as he now sees man and thinks he will get food. Can you imagine a tourist safari and lion running up jumping into the car thinking where is his food, tourist will panic and all chaos will break loose. Even if so taking that lion back into the wild will take a long process of what we will call a soft release process of up to 3 months even longer to unhabituate them to humans, taking into account that the lions can’t be just released anywhere, you have to consider all measures involved for the natural ecosystem that is already in place such as existing prides structures as one. Most cases there is not enough land. I had talk to a scientist the other day that is part of the Parks Board Association of South Africa; he said he is sitting with big situation. 70 wild lions in one region that need new homes of which there is none in the whole of South Africa. He said, all the game reserves are to the top level off holding capacities to their lion populations and if going over that will overtake the balance of natural ecosystem, of which to many lions will eat all the game on the reserve. This will entitle the reserve to not be self sustainable anymore.
Now what these places do after the cub reaches a certain age is they stop all human contact and put them into separate enclosures, ranging from 11 month old to 4 years old and on. When a lion reaches almost full maturity in these separate enclosures of different ages all in one pen that could be from 4 to 20 individuals, with females and males split into separate camps. They will follow then a waiting game until an age is reached for a trophy hunter to select his trophy of the lion he wants. Also take note that this all happens on a different website, plus the hunter overseas has no idea that these lions are being reared by volunteers. He is under the impression that they are Wild lions. So from the age of 5 onwards up until 8 they are put up on this site to be hunted. The hunter selects his prize over the internet of a photo he saw and ready himself to come to Africa to hunt a lion in the wild. Meanwhile what happens while he is on his way? Lion goes off being heavily sedated sometimes without veterinaries at hand, breaking law taken to a different property of about 100 hectares. Once the lion arrives still sedated, they tie a piece of carrion to a nearby tree so when the lion awakes, he finds nice meal waiting for him.  Hunter has now arrived to claim his prize hunt. He goes on a walk thinking they tracking this lion, while people already know where the lion is. The hunter shoots the lion very easy. Lion still half sedated and attention is fully on the carrion, plus the lion is used to man, it has no fear for man anymore.  So makes it much easier hunt. Satisfying customer that has no questions to he is happy prize. Then these Companies make half a million of that hunt in profit of which only R500 goes to conservation fees.  That is not even a percent of the money of which the lion was sold for. Company is actually making no loss to this situation as he had volunteers that came in to pay fortune to raise these lions plus tourist that come in to take pictures with these to be hunted cubs one day. All thinking it’s for conservation. With all this the breeders sell the bones then to the Asian market making another extra profit. That why some these places have tigers also which sole alone purpose is to sell their bones to the Asian market for millions.
So let’s take the stats that are currently against the wild lions favor in Africa. Currently there are only 3000 wild lions left in South Africa, 7000 are captive lions in these breeding parks. South Africa is one of the main places where this all happens with breeding projects. Wild lions currently in South Africa are battling just to keep their head above water as their environment is being taken away and land for them to roam free is becoming more and more less as the human population is expanding. Due to the fact that we not also taking in poaching, unethical hunting plus human wildlife conflict with farmers of rural areas that farmer with cattle see lions as vermin, shoot on site if they see one (these cases are more up north of South Africa. With all this!!!! Breeders of captive lions, go and take wild lions out of their natural environment to be used as a breeding machines, reason to harness a better trophy new bloodline. To the fact if you can think now off how much that already is interfering into the genetic structure of the lions and the existing environment.  Future to where it is going as the numbers of lions are dramatically dropping in Africa due to all these reasons. 20 years ago you could find 200 000 lions in Africa, today a mere less than 20 000. 95 % fall due to these cases. One thing we won’t have back is those numbers , yet what we can do is protect what we have left.  To be appreciated as is. Try finding ethical solutions that will be sustainable and humane. Protect the remaining pockets of wild lions going forward would be the only solution.

By Divan on Sat, May 30, 2015 at 2:55 pm

I am a South African citizen who has grown up surrounded by the good and the bad of the South African game Industry. I have been involved in the South African hunting Industry for about 15 years. I would like to point out that the vast majority of South African hunters would like to see those who run canned hunting operations punished for what they are doing. It reflects horribly on those of us who have no wish to hunt lions just for the fun of it. It is a symptom of the human race that wherever there is money to be made somebody will throw the law book and their ethics into the trash in order to make extra cash. A second issue that needs to be addressed is the idea that no money goes to the people of South Africa. This is not true nor is it a lie. The way that money goes to the community from a hunt that takes place is not by giving them a portion of the fee paid for the animal. Money is channeled to the community through Jobs created by the owners of hunting farms who need extra employees in their business. Thirdly people who call for more government involvement clearly have no idea of how bad the Government currently is in South Africa. None of the ministers actually care about the wildlife, all of their policies are centred around getting support for their party. (Just look at the purposes land reforms) The solution to canned hunting in South Africa is to support those in the hunting community trying to stop it and not to throw everyone into the same category and criticise them as a whole. I hope this has made some sense I have tried to present my points clearly.

By Mike the concerned African on Wed, April 22, 2015 at 2:49 am

This is disgusting would they want that done to their childten stoled from their patents sold and then drugged as its clear in the picture this poor little cub is drugged so that they can make money from people can patting them then when they get older sold and shot for sick minded cowardly people for their enjoyment
How can any decent human being get enjoyment from killing an anima, and the people that sell the lions are no better they dont care as long as they make a fortune again how can they enjoy blood money.

By gladys gauci on Sun, February 08, 2015 at 3:35 am

Name and shame these parks!!!

By lori on Tue, February 03, 2015 at 12:43 am

I just don’t understand the human race sometimes, what is with this need for hunting for sport? It all boils down to financial greed, government corruption and egotistical idiots who need to find a healthier and more humane hobby! As for the cub petting, I’m at a loss for words, the whole article just breaks my heart.

By Sally Nolan on Sun, January 25, 2015 at 10:59 am

PHASA the “Professional Hunters Association of South Africa”. Actually stands for “Perverts Helping Americans Screw Africa”, and is nothing more than a front for SCI. Here’s a pic from one of PHASA’s FB pages where they are telling their members to adhere to SCI’s African wildlife policies:

By Neon Blade on Thu, January 22, 2015 at 9:34 pm

How sad are the circumstances that have cumulatively brought this reality about for the earths most precious lion species.  Everything about this problem speaks to twisted greed, conflicted tourism priorities and indifference to the basic humane ideals and ethics South Africa should hold in practice as to a precious gift from God.

None of this will stop and finally be over until the sick minded individual who willingly pays thousands of dollars to walk into a pen enclosed area holding a gun, with the lustful intent of killing captive, gentle lions - STOPS.

By Stacey Blake on Thu, January 22, 2015 at 6:27 am

white south african goverment.curuption

By philip mercer on Thu, January 22, 2015 at 12:34 am

Everything is becoming extinct we don’t own or Need these precious animals. Earth is so diverse it can and will fix the imbalance we caused. Please live together find other sports keeP our wildlife as they should. It’s backward cruel and greedy. We are a vile species and I’m ashamed of what man is doing. We were given this life as an opportunity a gift all for free. But it didn’t say destroy everything. Without them there’s no us. No ocean no us. We share this place-we don’t own it!!!!

By Laura on Wed, January 21, 2015 at 10:56 pm

Who do we write to…against the canned hunting?

By laura stout on Wed, January 21, 2015 at 10:44 pm

This practice of canned hunting is the MOST barbaric of practices because you raise a cub to understand and receive only affection and cuddles from human beings from the time he is a baby cub, then when you deem him too big, put him in a small cage & when he approaches for cuddles, you shoot him, often clumsily! What an absolute betrayal of the trust these gorgeous creatures place in us to offer compassion, safekeeping, for some sordid hunter in whose warped mind decides to slaughter the most beautiful ones as trophies and feel proud of so doing- hunting he calls it- cruelty & abuse is what i call it ...what a pathetic excuse of a man, or woman! These people also roam our streets and vote! How scary a thought is that?!!!

By Deborah Stephens on Wed, January 21, 2015 at 8:33 pm

Why can´t people leave these animals alone! these wild animals are not our property…..the are here to live there one life ...Not for as to abuse torture, drug, theme… Ore kill!!!! Stop these stupid babaric greed people .....Human race are the cancer of Earth ...THE DEASTROY EVERTHING ON THIS Planet!!!

By marisol melgarejo on Wed, January 21, 2015 at 11:51 am

Great article, but I would argue with the “it generated approximately 807(sic) South African rand, roughly 70 million US dollars”

I’m assuming you meant 807 Million Rand.
This figure, and several others have been bandied about by PHASA (The Professional Hunters Association of South Africa)in the press a lot lately.
They are trying to give the impression that the SA economy needs this blood-thirsty anachronistic industry. It doesn’t. PHASA is nothing more than a front for “Safari Club International” and “Dallas Safari Club”. The vast majority of funds generated by hunting in SA goes to American owned businesses running in SA. (0% of SA “Outfitters” are USA companies, and the same with taxidermy, and trophy importing services. One very big lie.

By neonblade on Wed, January 21, 2015 at 12:13 am

They always say that the money they spend goes to help the people of their country…really I would like to where?  Instead of taking this money to kill these precious animals give it to the people of that country directly!  Really people you kill an innocent animal and this is called a sport? Take up running! What is wrong with people???

By Holly Fivek on Tue, January 20, 2015 at 7:44 pm

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