Outrage is growing in South Africa over the hunting of half-tame lions that activists say are “bred for the bullet” of foreigners paying tens of thousands of dollars for the kill.
Johannesburg (dpa) – A thick-maned lion is walking in the bush when a shot rings out. The lion rises up in the air, writhing in pain. More shots. The lion collapses into the grass.
The hunt, which is shown in the new South African documentary Blood Lions, is no ordinary one.
The hunter did not walk long in the bush to stalk his prey, according to the film. The lion was half-tame and used to humans. It was brought in for an easy kill by a foreigner paying approximately 20,000 dollars for gunning it down in a confined space.
Such “canned” lion hunts in South Africa have come under growing criticism after the killing of GPS-collared lion Cecil in neighbouring Zimbabwe in July sparked a global outcry.
About a month earlier, a US tourist had been killed by a lion in a Johannesburg wildlife park. The park said the victim had been careless, but conservationists attributed the incident to boredom and stress endured by lions in captivity.
South Africa is one of the continent’s main markets for trophy hunting. Foreign – mainly US – hunters spent more than 1 billion rand (72 million dollars) and exported about 44,000 trophies in 2013, according to the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa (PHASA).
The hunted animals range from antelopes and zebras to giraffes and rhinoceroses, with lions among the most expensive animals to hunt.
Nearly all of the approximately 800 lions hunted in 2013 had been bred in captivity, according to PHASA.
Activists say most of the hunts are canned hunts – in a small space where the animal cannot escape – while PHASA says they are exceptions.
Canned hunting exists in a legally gray area, with the national legislation only stipulating that hunted animals must not be drugged and that they must be hunted in an “extensive wildlife area”, the size of which is defined by each province.
The growing popularity of the hunts has contributed to the number of lions on private ranches increasing from less than 1,000 in the late 1990s to a number between 6,000 and 8,000, said conservationist Ian Michler, one of the filmmakers behind Blood Lions.
South Africa only has an estimated 3,000 lions in the wild.
Unlike other animals kept in privately managed wildlife areas, lions are often hand-reared. Cubs are taken from their mothers and given to tourists to pet – an industry that involves about 2,500 cubs annually, according to Linda Park from the Campaign Against Canned Hunting (CACH).
At Moreson Ranch in Free State province in January, 23 cubs had been crammed into a small enclosure. The management did not comment.
At Johannesburg’s Lion Park in August, four cubs had more space. A leaflet said there were strict rules on their exposure to visitors and that they would never be hunted. The cubs could nevertheless be touched by dozens of people queueing to see them.
In some ranches, older lions are made to accompany tourists on “lion walks.”
Many of the captive lions will be killed by a hunter’s bullet or arrow, according to activists.
“The lions are not fed for a week. When they see the vehicle [carrying the hunter] coming, they think it’s bringing food,” Park said.
Hunters say they target older animals, but Park says they want the best-looking trophies, “and those are not old.”
Activists also criticize the conditions on breeding farms. Cubs used for petting are deprived of maternal milk and adult lions may live mainly on chicken. Poor nutrition and inbreeding leave the lions weak and genetically damaged, according to CACH.
The lion hunting industry is linked to the export of lion bones to Asia, where they are used in traditional medicine. About 1,160 lion skeletons were exported legally between 2008 and 2011, according to the wildlife trade monitoring organization Traffic. Michler puts the figure at 1,094 skeletons in 2013 alone.
Africa’s lion population has dropped by about 40 per cent to a number estimated at between 20,000 and 36,000 individuals over two decades, according to the organization Pro Wildlife.
Despite trophy hunters killing hundreds of lions annually, they are a small threat compared to human population increase and dwindling natural habitats.
Breeders say they help to preserve lion populations, but Michler says lions bred in captivity are unable to fend for themselves and cannot be released into the wild.
“Those lions are bred to be killed,” he said, with the single goal of making money.
PHASA opposes “illegal” hunting of lions, its CEO Adri Kitshoff said, pledging that the association would investigate any such incidents that were reported to it.
She said lions used for petting and walks should not be hunted. “We are in a dialogue with lion breeders to discuss breeding conditions,” she added.
The government is meanwhile looking at “improving” the legislation on lion welfare, said Magdel Boshoff from the Department of Environmental Affairs.