Have you seen your social media feed adorned with photos of tourists petting young lion cubs in South Africa?
Have you ever wondered why South Africa seem to have so many lion cubs, in what are known as lion parks?
There’s a reason and it’s a reason we must all start to face up to, accept and stop without hesitation.
IT’S A SCAM.
When I began campaigning this issue in 2013, it wasn’t new. It was a growing industry. Linked to a far darker, more sinister legal industry in South Africa. Playing with cute little lion cubs is the tip of the iceberg and like icebergs, it’s what you don’t see which is even more worrying.
When tourists and volunteers visit one of the numerous ‘lion parks’ in South Africa and enter the play pens that hold the young motherless lion cubs, they are each told a lie. This lie is repeated and repeated, churned out like the lion cubs are churned out of their mothers, a conveyer belt of man’s perverse, misguided greed.
“These lion cubs are orphaned (or abandoned)
by their mother.”
We can all do research. I’ve done it for 5 years, both as an animal advocate and being involved in the tourism industry, but anyone can spend 5 minutes on Instagram, searching hashtags (such as those including lion cubs, lion parks, cute cub etc) and the search results are endless. There are thousands of images of young, motherless lion cubs (along with cheetahs and even tigers) and all of them being interacted with by tourists & volunteers.
How could this be, that there are so many mothers out there, willing to abandon their young?
Are there so many lionesses in South Africa being killed, or dying and orphaning their young cubs?
Things don’t add up.
South Africa has an estimated 3,200 lions remaining in the wild and an estimated 20,000 wild lions remaining in the whole of Africa (Source: Department of Environment Affairs and US Fish & Wildlife Service). Yet incredibly South Africa, yes SOUTH AFRICA ALONE has an estimated 8-10,000 lions in captivity (Source: DEA).
In recent years, there have been concerns about wild tiger populations and rightly so. Wild tiger populations have stooped to current numbers of approximately 3,890 (Source: WWF). In the Unites States, captive tigers out-number their wild counterparts with approximately 5-7,000 captive tigers in the US. The situation in Asia even more astounding, with somewhere between 8-10,000 tigers in captive facilities are bred and killed for their parts. In China, this figure accounts for approximately 6,000 captive tigers (Source: wildlife activist Judith Mills).
The initiative in China was to supposedly breed tigers in captivity with the aim of reintroducing them to the wild – sadly this wasn’t the case and these force-bred tigers merely profited the tiger part industry, for use in tiger wine, tiger rugs and other bone/teeth/skull products.
We are seeing the same happen in South Africa with lions, with the intense farming for non-conservation related benefits.
Whilst tiger farms are a feed lot for tigers, where they’re bred like cattle for their parts to make luxury goods, such as tiger bone wine and tiger skin rugs. South Africa adopted the exact same concept for lions, a cattle-like industry supplying lion cubs for tourists to play with, adult lions for captive lion hunts (aka canned hunting) for lazy trophy collectors and lion skeletons for shipment to Asia for nonsensical fictional remedies.
South Africa’s Farming Industry
Wildlife farming is big business in South Africa, everything from Antelope, to Buffalo, to yes Lions, are bred on farms, and forcibly. I and many other do not deny a farmer his or her right to make a living, but this isn’t what breeding lions is about.
On the face of it, Lion Parks act as a nursery – offering daily care to the young lion cubs, feeding them, providing a place to sleep – and oh, a place for tourists to come along, pay R100 ($10) and manhandle them daily, young babies banded around like binoculars on a safari drive – an average life for one of these young cubs. These “nurseries” or lion parks appear fantastic, doing great work and seemingly looking after the lion cubs. Some of these lions may even go on to live a full life at the park, with grass beneath their paws.
I stop short from celebrating grass beneath a lion’s paws, as I remember the facts and reasons why they are there.
Let’s take a moment to calculate captive lion numbers;
According to South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, South Africa has an estimated 8,000 captive lions in approximately 200 facilities. We say approximately, because paperwork can be an unknown entity on issues concerning captive lions and other captive big cats in South Africa. Added to this the number of private (backyard) breeders, breeding and dealing in lions, that operate without permits or even being known about.
Most conservationists estimate that there could be as many as 10,000 captive lions in South Africa.
I recall one conversation I had in 2016 with a South African farmer, who had recently purchased 2 young lion cubs from a wildlife breeder, his reasoning being that “lions make good guard dogs”. Such reasoning is preposterous of course and only goes to highlight the issues we face in todays’ society, in closing the lion farming industry down and educating people to a more responsible & ethical way of life.
Each of these lion parks or other facilities such as private owners, may have between 1-4 lionesses which are used for breeding. If we take a conservative average of say 2 lionesses per facility (that’s 200 facilities x 400 lionesses), and let’s say these lionesses give birth once every year, with a litter of 3 lion cubs per birth – that equates to 1,200 lion cubs born every year.
But wait, not all facilities have 2 lionesses. Some may have 1 lioness and some may have more than 2 lionesses.
Like farms exist for Antelope and Buffalo farming, farms exist for lions too. These farms are like any other, machines, churning out animals for the mass market, with no thought of the consequences, no ethics and no principles.
This is mass production lion farming.
We can take the above equation and multiply it further. Why? Because lion farmers speed-breed their lionesses. Once a lioness gives birth, the cubs (with their eyes still closed and unable to see their mother) are ripped away. This removal introduces the lionesses to come into Estrus once more (allowing the female to come into heat and breed again), quickly after giving birth, she will be ready to be impregnated again, and again – an estimated 2-3 times every year. It’s worth noting that wild lions usually breed once-per-year.
So, let’s take the lower number for us to give another conservative perspective. That’s 200 breeding facilities, with 2 lionesses each facility, breeding both of those lionesses TWICE every year, producing litters of 3 lion cubs each (200 x 2 x 6).
A conservative minimum estimate based on government figures for the industry;
200+ facilities are breeding an astonishing
2,400+ LION CUBS EVERY YEAR.
Where are all these lions going?
One thing is clear and that is that there is no documentary evidence, of any captive bred lion in South Africa, having been released into the wild – yet that is also one of the lies told to tourists & volunteers.
Canned Hunting and the Lion Bone Trade
It sounds crazy to say, but this is all legal; breeding lions, trading & selling lions, killing lions, trading the bones of lions, all part of a lucrative industry – yet it’s only lucrative for the breeders, the canned hunting operators and lion facilities. Lion conservation certainly isn’t benefitting, no lions are being released into the wild, so what’s the point?
Captive lion hunting is the hunting of captive bred, tame lions (with no fear of humans), within a confined environment. Otherwise known as canned hunting.
Regulations set out by the South African Government at an attempt to govern this industry, furthers the embarrassing misrepresentation and handling of canned hunting and their efforts to end this disgraceful industry, by labelling it as ‘captive lion hunting’ and attaching prerequisites such as;
“the animal may not be hunted if it is in a small enclosure where the animal does not have a fair chance of evading the hunter.”
The trouble with this definition, is that canned hunting is canned hunting, including the hunting of lions within confined areas. Hunting captive lions in all inclusive. All captive lion hunts involve a captive bred tame lion and they are all done within some form of enclosed space (ie. not wild habitat, where the lion may have chance to run free away from his killers).
So why are these lion parks claiming that their lion cubs are “orphans”? The truth is, they’re not.
The Link Between Canned Hunting & Cub Petting
What exactly is the link between petting a lion cub at a lion park, to the hunting of a captive bred lion in an enclosed area?
It’s often the same lion.
BREEDING: Often done forcefully, multiple times every year. Breeding is either done by a dedicated lion farmer, or on a smaller scale by a local lion park facility or private individual. Lion farmers will often loan their new born lion cubs to petting facilities, before being returned to them or traded after approximately 2 years – it’s a common story I’ve heard from volunteers, describing days when new born cubs would arrive by the box full.
REMOVAL OF CUBS: Usually this happens after only a few hours or days, when the new born lion cub will be ripped from their mother.
VOLUNTEER EMPLOYMENT: Local and International volunteers are tempted to South Africa, with the tantalizing prospect of caring for these newly “orphaned” baby lion cubs. These innocent volunteers pay for such work experience at lion parks.
TOURISM: Local and international tourists, in their thousands, pay around R100-R200 ($10-$20) for the opportunity to play with baby lion cubs. The older lions (from around 6 months old, to 2 years old) are subsequently used for ‘walking with lions’ experiences, usually at the same facility.
TRADE: The cub petting facility and the canned hunting facility are two different aspects to the lion industry. You can think of it as, lion parks are the supply chain for canned hunting. Once the cubs have been petted and the older lions walked with by tourists (following 2 years of an abusive life), the lion parks then trade and sell their lions to anyone with a permit – this is when lions end up in canned hunts – it’s also when & how lion parks can disguise their links to this gruesome industry.
Lion parks wash their hands of their lions.
CAPTIVE LION HUNTING (AKA CANNED HUNTING): Following 2 years of abuse at the hands of lion parks, force breeding, ripping cubs away from their mothers and allowing tourists to manhandle them daily – the lions are sold and traded. A few lions are sold to zoo’s around the world, the majority are sold to local South African wildlife dealers and captive lion hunting organisers.
There have been several exposés on various lion parks around South Africa (CBS 60 Minutes, Carte Blanche, The Guardian to name just a few), which have uncovered these sales and permits, demonstrating how the cub petting facilities are selling their lions to known captive lion hunting outfits.
The hunt itself attracts trophy collectors paying anywhere from $4000 for a lioness, to $40,000 for a white male lion – now you know it’s a canned hunt, because hunting wild white lions is illegal. The hunt takes place on an enclosed piece of land, often the size of half a soccer field, complete with typical vegetation and grasses – to the hunter, it looks like Africa. The lion, fresh from captivity is released into this enclosed area – legally, the hunt organiser needs only release the lion into this area for 36 hours for it to be classed as “fair chase”.
What is fair about killing a captive bred, tame lion
in any form of enclosed area?
LION BONE TRADE: Again, legal. Dealing in lion skeletons is an extra incentive for lion farmers and captive lion hunt organisers, it allows them to financially benefit from every-last piece of the lion, by stripping the lion’s skin and shipping their skeletal bones to Asia for the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) market – prices brought per lion skeleton are approximately $1000-$1500.
The lion cub you petted, has now been abused for 2 years, shot (at 5-6 years of age) and skinned for their bones. South Africa’s lion bone industry, mirrors the China’s captive tiger industry – large scale animal farming for bogus means and no benefit to conservation.
Lion Parks in South Africa are Scams
It’s important to stress here (to avoid any misunderstanding and any failed attempt at legal slander cases brought against me by the various lion parks – of which I’ve personally had a few failed attempts, a common scare tactic such entities seek to use against those who speak out against them), that these facilities offering tourists opportunity to play with lion cubs, are not the so-called canned hunting outfits. Yet it is one (and in most cases) part of the endless cycle of lion exploitation in South Africa … and you didn’t even know about it!
Recently, I conducted a small research task on social media to highlight this issue. I took Instagram as my source, considering that Instagram is a monopoly of various photographs of people’s journeys and experiences – one of them being visits to lion parks across South Africa.
90% of visitors to lion parks in South Africa,
are LIED TO
and told the lions they play with, are orphaned
First, I searched two-three hashtags as mentioned previously, bringing up the appropriate results of tourists interacting with young motherless lion cubs. All of the posts had a date range of between 1 day to 3 years, to ensure that each of these 100 posts were not of the same lion cubs – showing a clear endless supply of lion cubs for tourists.
I posed the following question to no less than 100 Instagram users; “Did the park inform you about where these lion cubs (that you are interacting with) came from?”
The level of injustice and deceit told to tourists by these facilities is shocking, as you can see from the following replies I received;
These comments represent approximately 90% of answers gained from my questioning. The other 10% stated that they either; could not remember, were not told by the facility or that they didn’t ask concerning the whereabouts of the cubs’ mothers.
This represents an astonishing proportion of visitors to these lion parks, who are being told that the park’s lion cubs are orphaned or abandoned by their mothers. But are they? … Whilst a portion of captive born lion cubs may be orphaned or abandoned, through either the lioness not surviving birth, or rejecting her young following birth. Mothers abandoning their young or dying in the wild and orphaning their cubs is not unknown in the wild – but not on this scale.
What we have here is MASS exploitation;
Cruelly ABUSING thousands upon thousands of lions,
SCAMMING thousands of tourists & volunteers every year…
and it’s being ALLOWED to happen.
This must end.
I believe it is time, that this heinous crime against nature ends. An industry that is not only fuelling the trade in wildlife and wildlife parts, but blatantly lying to innocent tourists and volunteers.
In March 2016, the United States Department of Agriculture barred zoos from allowing cubs under 4-weeks old to be petted or fed by members of the public. You can read the introduction of this policy here: www.aphis.usda.gov/publications/animal_welfare/2016/tech-neonatal-nondomestic-cats.pdf
I urge and plea with South Africa’s Government to adopt a similar regulatory policy, going one step further and ban all public use of big cats with members of the public.
The effects of any such restrictions are positive, and would;
- Result in a decline in the non-conservation related breeding of big cats (namely lions, tigers, cheetahs, leopards and mix-breeds).
- Create better monitoring capability of both the legal and illegal wildlife trade in South Africa.
- Ensure both local & international tourists are safeguarded from deceitful practices.
- Protect South Africa’s reputation as a respectable, responsible tourism destination
- Repair South Africa’s conservation reputation, following years of abuse towards the African Lion.
How & why this scam has been allowed to build over the past 10 years and for it to continue, is in the past.
The tourism industry must work together and call on South Africa’s Government to stamp this deceitful practice out. As individuals we can all play our part, byeducating social media users who post mages of lion cub petting and asking them if they were aware of this scam.
We must all call this industry for what it is. A SCAM.
I believe in progress and believe South Africa’s Government and President Cyril Ramaphosa can lead this beautiful country and people to better times, without this bad practice and bad taste in the mouths of both local people and millions of visitors to South Africa.
It is up to all of us to stamp out the wrongs that we see. Please let’s start by stamping out the scam that is interactions with lions.
Article © Paul Tully, February 2019
All views expressed are of the authors own.
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