Bred for the trophy


The world was outraged by the recent killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe. Lion trophy hunting, however, is an even bigger sport
in South Africa where lions are bred especially for the hunting industry. Trophy hunters shoot nearly thousand lions a year
and Asians nowadays even buy their bones.
“In the future, lions might only to be seen in cages.”


PRETORIA – A mounted lioness stares at us from her pedestal when we enter the office of African Sky Hunting in Pretoria. This company organizes expensive hunting safaris for rich trophy hunters to shoot antelopes but also elephants, leopards and lions in South Africa. “An American client, who shot fifteen lions in total, considered this lioness to be too small and so he donated her to us”, marketing manager Andrew Harvey chuckles.

South Africa is the epicenter of the so-called ‘canned hunting’, which involves lions born and raised in cages or small enclosures. When they are ‘booked’ by a hunter, the fully-grown, captive-bred lion is taken from its pen to an enclosed area of at least 2,500 acres for a minimum of 96 hours. After this time the tourist is allowed to hunt down and shoot the animal dead using rifles or bows. Grown up in a pen, most of these lions don’t run and are easier targets to hit than wild lions.


Canned lion hunting is big business in South Africa. Trophy hunters pay around 9,500 dollars to shoot a lioness. Prices for a male lion start at ‘just’ 20,000 dollars and may even go up to 90,000 dollars. “That price may be paid for a big male with an unblemished head and long black manes”, Harvey says who adds that by paying 30,000 dollars his clients are allowed to choose ‘their lion’ by looking at lion pictures. This is relevant, as most trophy hunters like to take a selfie after shooting their prey and once more pay thousands of dollars to a taxidermist to mount their lion or to make a rug out of it and take it home.

“It’s common now for trophy hunters to want more spectacular scenes,” says taxidermist Katharina Hecker, dressed in jeans and white jacket, while she meticulously drapes the skin of a newly shot male lion on a white plastic mold. The big cat has been positioned with its front legs on the back of a buffalo mold. Around us, dozens of kudus, impalas, zebras, giraffes, ostriches and elephants – also mounted -, gawk at us while they are waiting to be shipped to their owners around the world.


While canned hunting is most popular among Americans, who traditionally are passionate hunters, many Europeans also shoot lions, including Danes, Spaniards and some Dutch. Seven lion trophies have been exported from South Africa to the Netherlands between 2007 and 2012, for instance.

While on holiday in South Africa, a growing number of Europeans is also tempted to go lion cub petting. These little cubs with soft fur and mischievous brown eyes are irresistible to most people while being a good moneymaker for the petting lodges: every day, thousands of visitors pay at least thirty dollars for ten minutes of ‘interaction’ with the baby lions.


Most of these tourists, however, are unaware of the dark sides of cub petting. Most lodges, for example, remove cubs from their mother when they are only two weeks old, while in the wild they stay together for at least two years. “Otherwise they will become too wild, making it too difficult for us to hand raise them in order to make them tame”, Priza, a zookeeper from Ukutula Lion Park, one-and-a-half hours of driving from Pretoria, explains.

She doesn’t mention the fact that by removing the cubs, mothers are also able to breed again, to produce about two to three litters of cubs in a year while in the wild a lioness will only reproduce cubs every second or third year.


Once too old for petting, many lions are further used by taking them on hikes with tourists. But what happens when the two-year-old lions get too big and wild for hugging and walking? “Most of these lions end up in the canned hunting industry”, Linda Park of the South African organization Campaign Against Canned Hunting (CACH) says during a demonstration in front of the Lion Park in Johannesburg. Hundreds of South Africans are holding up banners with slogans like ‘Save our Lions’, ‘Bred for the Bullet’ and ‘Pet to death’. “The petting lodges should inform their visitors that these cubs are later going to be shot by trophy hunters”, states protestor Colin Smith (52), dressed in T-shirt and shorts.
Most lodges deny any link with the canned hunting industry and claim to send their adult lions to reliable zoos and parks. This is impossible, according to Park: “All the zoos and parks in the world would be overloaded after just one year.” Without generating an income by keeping mature lions is extremely costly as mature lions eat at least 25 kilos of meat per week. “The canned hunting industry provides the solution,” says Park.


Rodney Fuhr, director of the Lion Park in Johannesburg, admitted to the American news channel CBS News last year that they have sold lions to hunting lodges in the past.

Also the Ukutula Lion Park fell into disrepute after a tourist adopted the one-year-old lion Ricky in 2013 and was promised to receive regularly updates about ‘his lion’. When Ukutula failed to provide these updates, even after several inquiries by the Canadian tourist, he came to the conclusion that his lion probably was no longer alive and launched the successful #wheresricky campaign on twitter to inform tourists about the dark sides of cub petting.


In the meantime, the number of South African lion breeders increases (see box), maybe also because they´ve got an additional selling market. Asian traders started taking an interest in South African lions in 2008, when the number of tigers declined to extinction. In traditional Chinese medicine, tiger wine, made using powdered bones, allegedly cures many illnesses including ulcers, cramp, rheumatism, stomach pain and even malaria. The beverage is claimed to also have the ability to boost virility.

Despite the lack of scientific proof, the potion is very popular, so with tiger bones being increasingly scarce, vendors are replacing them with the remains of lions. Traders quickly realized that South Africa, home of 6,000 captive lions, could be a promising source of the mystic ingredient.



There has been a sharp increase in the sale of lion skeletons to Asia, rising from 0 in 2007 to 197 in 2009 and to even 519 in 2011, numbers of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna) show. More than 3,800 kilo of lion bones was shipped to South Eastern Asia in only six months in 2012, states a recently published report from the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) of Oxford University.

“Although trophy hunters sometimes take the scull home as a souvenir, we taxidermists don’t need the bones for a lion trophy. We only use the skin which we span over a plastic mold”, taxidermist Hecker explains while using her fingers to fold the skin into creases on the head of the mounted lion. She adds with a smile that breeders started digging up the lion bones they had buried here and there for lack of an outlet, in order to sell them to Asians.


Prices of lion bones rise rapidly, as a result of the growing Asian demand. While traders paid only a few hundred dollars for a lion skeleton a few years ago, nowadays a breeder receives around 2,000 dollars for a lion carcass, according to WildCRU. Someone who uses the lion bones in traditional medicines in Asia, might even be able to earn up to 70,000 dollars with one lion carcass, states Pieter Kat, founder of conservation organization LionAid.

Advocates of the lion ranching industry say that by breeding lions for hunting, they’re helping conserve the species. “For every captive-bred lion hunted, we save animals in the wild,” says Pieter Potgieter, chairman of the South African Predator Association (SAPA). If there were no captive hunts, he says, there would be more sport hunting and poaching of wild lions. Potgieter also believes that skeletons from captive-bred lions in South Africa are helping to supply the demand for lion bones in Asia, in effect protecting lions in the wild.


Luke Hunter, head of the global big cat conservation organization Panthera, strongly disagrees. “There is no evidence that captive breeding of lions helps to diminish the demand for wild lions. Thousands of captive tigers are bred in meager facilities in Asia for wildlife trade. Yet the high demand for wild tigers remains the same.” Kat from LionAid adds that Asian medicine values the bones coming from wild animals more than those from lions bred in captivity. “They will say that wild animals are of superior quality compared to farm raised animals. This is an additional concern because of this a premium price will always be put on wild animals versus those raised on breeding farms in South Africa.”

Likewise, the IUCN Red List –classifying the lion as ‘vulnerable’ –states that although carcasses of captive lions currently supply the bone demand in Asia, the growing demand might threaten wild lions as well. How long will it take before the demand exceeds the legal supply?


Asian traders will not hesitate to buy the bones of wild lions, conservationists fear. “The traders who export lion bones legally are the same people smuggling horns and ivory of poached rhinos and elephants to Asia”, Park states. She is concerned that the legal trade in lion bones from South Africa fuels the demand, stimulates Asians to invest in this industry and will ultimately devastate wild lion populations.

Above all, Park fails to understand how breeding animals in cages and bringing hunters to shoot them can have something to do with conservation. “At this rate, we seriously have to take into account that in the future lions are only to be seen in cages.”


The numbers of lions in the wild have plummeted in Africa, from an estimated 200,000 a century ago to some 30,000 nowadays. Lions require large areas to roam, and outside national parks and reserves, they often clash with livestock farmers and local communities. The IUCN Red List classifies the animal as ‘vulnerable’, but the hunt of both captive and wild lions is still legal in countries like South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Tanzania (in Kenya and Botswana it’s forbidden). Advocates of the trophy hunting industry claim that it’s good for conservation as the money raised from the sale of hunting permits is used for conservation.

In 2007, the South African government tried to ban canned hunting by requiring an animal to roam free for two years before it could be hunted, severely restricting breeders and hunters’ profitability. But lion breeders challenged the policy in South Africa’s courts and a high court judge eventually ruled that such restrictions were ‘not rational’. The number of trophy hunted animals has since soared. In the five years to 2006, 1,830 lion trophies were exported from South Africa; in the five years to 2011, 4,062 were exported, a 122% increase, and nowadays nearly 1,000 lions are fatally shot every year by trophy seekers in South Africa, which is more than two lions per day. Most of them are bred in captivity.

Many South Africans smell money and the number of lion breeders grew from 170 breeders with in total 3600 lions in 2008 to nowadays 200 breeders with in total 6,000 lions, which is double the number of lions in the South African wild, states the ‘Management Plan for Lions’, a report that was recently published by the South African government. According to Harvey from African Sky Hunting, lions are easier to breed than a housecat.

While some lion breeders claim that captive breeding enhances the overall gene pool, because some of those lions can be introduced into struggling wild populations, several biologists stated that captive-bred lions and their offspring are poorly suited for survival and release back into the wild, in a 2012 report in the journal Oryx.

Globally, the resistance against canned hunting is growing. Australia, for example, banned the import of lion trophies earlier this year. “They raise these majestic creatures only to shoot and kill them, for pleasure and for profit,” Greg Hunt, the environment minister, said who called canned hunting ‘cruel’ and ‘barbaric’ and hoped other countries would adopt similar measures to help prevent the decline of lion numbers. Several airlines, including South African Airlines, Delta Airlines, American Airlines, British Airways, Lufthansa and Emirates, announced to that they will no longer allow lion trophies on their cargo planes. Most trophies, however, are being shipped to their owners. The European Union still allows the import of lion trophies.

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