Lying about Lions - the truth about farms breeding wildlife   

A blog by our Campaign Lead, Simon Pope


Last week we reported on a move by the South African authorities to ban the commercial breeding of lions on farms. This is an issue that FOUR PAWS has campaigned on for many years.  

Tens of thousands of caged lions have been bred on an almost industrial scale across South Africa, mainly for the purpose of being fed into the hunting industry or killed for their body parts, which are often used in traditional medicine. These lion farms also bring in tourist revenue, through a range of associated activities, some of which aren’t so immediately obvious.

A few years ago, I spent several days at a lion farm. 

I was helping some local vets with a residential training exercise they were undertaking in southern Africa, and they’d chosen a venue in a private wildlife reserve because it had classrooms and accommodation. But when I arrived, my suspicions were immediately raised.    

This venue was quite cleverly presenting itself as being home to an organisation that gave paying volunteers the opportunity to spend time “studying” lion behaviour. They would be involved in monitoring and recording their daily routines and supporting a “legitimate” research initiative.  

But this was far from the truth. For a start, there were some highly non-scientific activities being offered, including walking with lions in the African bush. This was intriguing, but I couldn’t help but wonder how walking through the bush with 20 chattering volunteers would help teach a young lion how to catch its dinner.  

You could also attend “exciting” behaviour enrichment sessions or learn about lion “maintenance” (whatever that was...) but what wasn’t clear was why these animals were in captivity in the first place – was this a zoo, a conservation breeding programme to release animals into the wild (as it claimed to be) or was this a genuine sanctuary? The truth was it was none of these, instead it became obvious that this was a lion farm.

One day, I tagged along with 20 or so paying volunteers from around the world to ‘walk’ with three large lion cubs. The heads of each one came up to my waist. They were playful - with each other, but also with us. They trusted us. One even kept trying to chew through my shoelaces and having succeeded, joyfully scampered off with my boot, shaking it like a toy.  

I asked one of the supervisors, how many lions from this programme had been released into the wild? He looked sheepish. “It’s an ongoing programme”, he said. “We’re learning a lot as we go along.”  

“Yes, but how many?” I asked. “You’ve been going since 2005, and it’s now 2013, right?”  

The answer was none. No lions had been released into the wild at all. Over those eight years hundreds of cubs would have been born there, but where had they all gone?  

The truth was a hard reality. These caged lions were a production line churning out cubs that served a commercial purpose for those volunteers willing to pay thousands of dollars to pet, feed and walk with lions. But what the volunteers never saw, or probably even realised, was what happened next.

When a lion becomes too big to keep or too big to use in the “exciting” human interactions, it was likely killed – either by a trophy hunter or to have its body parts sold for use in traditional medicine. These animals, born in captivity, do not fear humans and therefore make an easy kill for the hunter. 

There are approximately 350 lion farms across South Africa, where animals are suffering and ultimately face a gruesome fate, which is why we have been campaigning for an end to lion farming in South Africa. But there is hope. 

Following the Government announcement last week, the cruel practice of keeping lions in captivity for profit will soon end, with lion breeding centres shut down, and the commercial exploitation of these big cats banned. Importantly, cub petting and walking with lions will also stop.  

FOUR PAWS is urging the South African government to develop a comprehensive roadmap with clear time-bound targets for ending all big cat exploitation within the industry, ensuring a future where these magnificent animals are respected and protected.  

In the longer term, it seems likely that the captive breeding and commercial exploitation of rhinos, leopards and elephants will also end in South Africa, and we hope that other southern African nations follow suit. Some of the lion farms being closed will try to relocate and carry on as before, masquerading as something they are not. It’s vital that animal lovers like you avoid any activities like this and always remember to #TravelKind.

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Simon Pope

Campaigns Lead UK

Simon works in the Campaigns Team at FOUR PAWS UK. He has a background in Campaign Communications across the charity sector. Simon is passionate about animal welfare and utilises his years of knowledge and experience to bring about change.

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