Episode 10 – 6 July

Two different people asked me questions about lions this week: The one asked –

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“Is it ok to play with lion cubs?” and another tweeted me to ask about my feelings regarding “canned lion hunting” and whether it contributes to conservation. To answer these questions and to be brutally honest, I’m passionately against both. But the questions did get me thinking because playing with lion cubs and the canned hunting industry are very much interconnected and actually, the one stems from the other! So I think its crucial to discuss lions in general as well as these two practices and I’m going to TRY and be as unbiased as possible and present the debate that’s really still playing out in our country as we speak. But before we get into all the controversial stuff, let’s look at the current statistics:

I spoke to various wildlife experts and according to them, Africa’s lion population has shrunk by 75% in the past two decades. That is an enormous percentage! Not only that, but they are also currently labelled as “vulnerable” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s list of threatened species and in west and central Africa, they are classified as “endangered”. Now you probably asking the question, why? Well, its very simple….Trophy hunting, human encroachment, poaching, lion poisoning, and human/lion conflict have become grave concerns, prompting educational and awareness campaigns. Another threat is the increasing trade in lion skeletons, the exact same thing that’s happening with Rhino horn is happening with lion bones. In Asia, lion bones are a very popular commodity for healing and for traditional purposes.

According to a wildcat conservation group, Panthera, lions have vanished from over 80% percent of their historic range and are extinct in 26 countries. Also on their website they say that lions are increasingly coming into closer contact with humans as Africa develops and lion habitat is converted for human use. So, the truth of the matter is that there is a great possibility of wild lions going extinct and if they do it will not only be an emotional loss. National Geographic explorers, Beverly and Derreck Joubert, filmmakers based in Botswana, say that the second wild lions go extinct, it will bring with it environmental havoc. As they explain: “Lions are the most vital center point in many ecosystems. If we lose them we can anticipate eventual collapse of whole environments, right down to the water systems, as prey shifts or migrations stop, and species overgraze and destroy the integrity of important vegetation.” As the Jouberts believe and I fully agree with them: “Saving the lions from extinction is a cause that not enough people know about.”

Canned lion hunting: a necessary evil?

A topic which has been all over the news the last couple of weeks, but firstly, a huge thank you to journalist Aletta Gardner for her fantastic article, which I’m using freely to help explain the debate. She also manages to keep a balanced head over an issue that I am anything but balanced about to say the least !

Canned hunting, for those of you that don’t know, allows a hunter to shoot a lion in an enclosure from which it cannot escape while the hunter gets to sit safely in his or her vehicle. It’s a win-win for the hunter and a no-win for the lion…. and perhaps now you can see why I personally call it unfair and cruel.

But for the Campaign Against Canned Hunting (the CACH), this “cruelty” is only one part of the problem. It suggests that the industry poses a real and direct threat to the future of the species.
They also argue the “insidious” consequences for Southern Africa’s wild lion populations where lion breeding and canned hunting cannot be seen as a separate issue from conservation of wild animals. Chris Mercer who heads the campaign, has been calling for a complete ban on canned hunting for 13 years. He thinks many South Africans are under the wrong impression that the practice was in fact outlawed and worries that the legal battle which ensued with predator breeders in the 1990’s left lions even more vulnerable, as they were removed from the Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) list.

But why did this happen? The outrage over canned hunting in the late nineties demanded some sort of action from government. The compromise was a 24-month “wilding” rule – so before you could shoot a captive-bred lion it had to roam in a camp with some buck for up to two years. And because the Environmental Affairs Department didn’t want to delay the protection for other listed large predators when litigation was brought against this regulation, it opted to leave lions off the TOPS list for the time being.

Another concern is that the industry could inadvertently fuel the lion bone trade by stimulating the demand from Asia and leading to a poaching crisis very similar to the one facing rhinos. Wild lions are being killed because the bones are cheaper. Why pay $165 a kilo for bones when you can pay a poacher $10 a kilo for bones”??

But let’s be fair and look at what the breeders say? The South African Predator Association (Sapa), which represents lion breeders flatly denies that its industry does any harm whatsoever to the future of the species. On the contrary, they believe it contributes in a real way to the conservation of the wild lion populations.  They say “the 6000 captive bred lions represent a significant lion population that cannot be dismissed or disregarded in terms of the survival of the species.  The captive bred population can serve as a healthy gene pool, which may be used in a number of ways to save the African lion.”  It also argues that allowing controlled hunting and breeding, alleviates the pressure on free roaming populations and claims that captive bred lions may be introduced into the wild.

Now the question: is it ok to play with lion cubs?  Who can resist a chance to stroke a precious lion cub and for most of us it’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment to bond with a wild animal. But sadly this practice supports the same two industries I’ve just been complaining about – Canned Hunting and Lion Farming. Every year thousands of people visit facilities where they can interact with lion cubs. Every day, a captive bred lion is killed in a canned hunt. Most cubs at these facilities are the product of factory farming. The cubs are taken from their mother when they are still tiny and this means the female lion can produce another litter in six months time, instead of two years time, which would be the natural pattern if she had the opportunity to raise her own offspring. These factory farmed cubs are often kept in unsuitable cages with little regard for their social requirements –  that is their fundamental need to be raised in a pride. So now, instead of bonding with other lions, these cubs bond with hundreds of different humans when we pose with them to get our picture taken.

And what happens to these human imprinted animals when they have outgrown their usefulness? Well sadly, these inbred human imprinted and psychologically damaged animals have absolutely no conservation value. They cannot be rehabilitated into the wild. They cannot be used to supplement dwindling wild populations. They can be only used as prey items in the canned hunting industry.

As the team from the Drakenstein Lion Parks suggests – next time you are presented with the opportunity of playing with a lion cub, first ask; where are the cub’s mothers? Why aren’t they being raised by their mother? Where do the cubs come from? What happens to them when they grow too big? If they are rehabilitated, do they have the opportunity to live out their natural lives or is their rehabilitation just to facilitate their death at the hands of hunters?

At the end of the day it is up to you how you spend your money but I urge you to please practice responsible tourism!

Well let’s leave the debate there for today… but I’d love to hear your opinion? Are lion breeders a necessary evil?  Should government put a complete ban on canned lion hunting?

 Check out “The Big Cat Initiative” – http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/big-cats/

 ” Panthera” – http://www.panthera.org/


And remember, take care of the earth, and she will take care of you!