South Africa and the captive lion breeding industry

Lion cubs are object of a brutal business in South Africa. Picture: David Nash

By Faye Peeters/ET - 22. März 2019 [Deutsch]

South Africa is the country with the most captive held lions and is legally supporting a massive breeding industry. And this breeding industry has nothing to do with conservation!

Although captive lion breeding has only recently been the focus of media attention, it has actually been around for over 20 years.

 More than 8000 lions are currently held captive in over 200 farms and lion breeding is a huge income stream. Cub petting and lion walks have become an integral part of tourism.

The industry thrives on unsuspecting tourists and volunteers, who flock every year to South Africa to “rescue” lion cubs. Volunteers will pay easily up to 1000 €/week to care of “abandoned” lion cubs. Indeed, lion breeders tell them the cubs were “cast off by their mother” or “she was not able to feed them” and therefore need to be handraised.

Unfortunately, this could not be further from the truth. In fact, the captive bred lion is abused from the day he is born, until the day he dies. It is not much different from intensive livestock farming.

The childlike features of the baby lion - its large eyes and so on - trigger the cuteness-response that provides on a deep genetic level for a predisposition towards empathy with them and care.

The "cuteness-response" is brutally abused by the SA lion breeding industry. Bild: C4L

First the lion cub serves as a prop for volunteers and tourists, then as youngster the victim is passed on as an accessory for weddings, the opening of shopping malls and so-called lion walks in the bush.

Finally, especially the male lion will be sold off to a hunting outfitter and shot by a tourist in a confined space (canned hunting). Captive held lions can be killed by hunters for as little as 16.000 $.

That lion is used to humans, so will not flee or fight. He can not escape the enclosure he is in, therefore the hunt is fixed or “canned”. Although canned hunting has been condemned by some hunting associations such as Safari Club International, it still is an attractive and cheap opportunity for a one-time hunter.

All trophy collectors satisfy their sick psyche -some of the trophy-killers even their urge for mass-murder. This has nothing in common with true traditional hunting.

And last but not least, the carcass of the lion is exported to Asia, where his bones are turned into tiger wine or cake. It does not matter that there is no scientific proof of any medicinal effects, there is an enormous demand for these products.

It is estimated that a lion can “earn” 70.000 – 100.000 $ in his short lifetime.

It is key that foreigners stop contributing to this abusive industry.

Unfortunately, misinformation under tourists and volunteers is rampant. Often, this is due to a language barrier. Although there are many accounts of volunteers and stories about the lion breeding industry and canned hunting available in English, this is not the case in other languages. Recently, a German soccer team visited one of the notorious lion breeding centers in South Africa. It was a PR disaster which could have been prevented, if more information had been available.

Therefore, two NGO’s (Stichting SPOTS and Campaign against Canned Hunting) decided to create a multi-lingual website with information on the lion breeding industry. The website is currently available  in six languages (and more languages to come): 

The aim of the website is to inform tourists and volunteers and persuade them not to visit or volunteer at a lion farm.

Award-winning documentary “Blood Lions”


Decline of the lion population

In 1950 there were over 400.000 lions roaming the plains of Africa.

Today, probably less than 20.000 lions are classified as “wild” and considered as living in their natural habitat.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) states that the lion population has decreased 43% in the last 21 years.

The survival of wild lions is threatened by:

• Humans encroaching on wildlife territory

• Human/wildlife conflict resulting in e.g. poisoning

• Diseases such as TBC, distemper, FIV, sarcoptic mange etc.

• Snaring of wild lions for bushmeat (especially in Western and Central Africa)

• Hunting and poaching

The colonial mindset and behaviour is deeply embedded in the lion killers.

At the same time, we have seen an increase in captive held lions to the extent that there are now more captive than wild lions. Lions are used for entertainment in circuses and increasingly as a “status”-pet. The country with the most captive held lions is South Africa, legally supporting a massive breeding industry. Cub petting and lion walks have become an integral part of tourism in South Africa.

The captive lion breeding industry in South Africa

Although the South African captive lion breeding industry has recently gathered lots of media attention, it has actually been around for over 20 years. It was first highlighted in a BBC investigative documentary called the Cook Report in 1997. In 1998, Gareth Patterson (wildlife expert, author and public speaker who is known internationally for his work protecting lions and elephants) published his book called „Dying to be free“. He exposed the myths of South Africa’s conservation image and how, even at present, these myths are largely believed and unquestioned. 

At the turn of the millenium, animal activists and wildlife warriors Chris Mercer and Beverley Pervan started campaigning and ultimately founded CACH (Campaign Against Canned Hunting) in 2007. In recent years, campaigns by ECOTERRA Intl.Four PawsBorn Free and Blood Lions have gained wide media attention.

Captive lion breeding is a huge income stream in South Africa. Over 8000 lions are currently held captive in 200+ farms. Each lion is exploited from the day he is born, until the day he dies. Lion farmers have reduced “the King of Beasts” to a commodity, not very different from intensive livestock farming.

It should also be noted that interactions with lions are not limited to South Africa, these activities have become increasingly popular in other African countries and indeed across the world.


More Info:

Don’t pet, but protect!

Logo Campaign Against Canned Hunting

Campaign Against Canned Hunting (CACH) is a South African NGO, founded by Chris Mercer and Bev Pervan. They started campaigning at the turn of the millenium and received the Marchig Trust Award in 2007. CACH has since been at the forefront of efforts to expose the lion-breeding industry. With volunteers in many countries, CACH campaigns to secure a ban on captive breeding of lions for the canned hunting industry.



Join the movement to stop lion farming and canned hunting. Watch our animation 'The Bitter Bond' then sign our petition to urge the South African government to end canned hunting.

THE GREAT ESCAPE – Help provide a better future for a fortunate lion

'Hilts' the lion was rescued from a lion breeding facility in South Africa and is now in our care.

We are absolutely opposed to canned hunting and campaign to bring an end to this practice once and for all. 'Hilts'' future was a bullet. Now it's a life free from harm.


'Canned hunting': the lions bred for slaughter

Canned hunting is a fast-growing business in South Africa, where thousands of lions are being bred on farms to be shot by wealthy foreign trophy-hunters


By  - 


They are adorably cute, with grubby brown fur so soft it seems to slip through my fingers like flour. It is only when one of the nine-week-old cubs playfully grabs my arm with its teeth and squeezes with an agonising grip that I remember – this is a lion, a wild animal. These four cubs are not wild, however. They are kept in a small pen behind the Lion's Den, a pub on a ranch in desolate countryside 75 miles south of Johannesburg. Tourists stop to pet them but most visitors do not venture over the hill, where the ranch has pens holding nearly 50 juvenile and fully-grown lions, and two tigers.

Moreson ranch is one of more than 160 such farms legally breeding big cats in South Africa. There are now more lions held in captivity (upwards of 5,000) in the country than live wild (about 2,000). While the owners of this ranch insist they do not hunt and kill their lions, animal welfare groups say most breeders sell their stock to be shot dead by wealthy trophy-hunters from Europe and North America, or for traditional medicine in Asia. The easy slaughter of animals in fenced areas is called "canned hunting", perhaps because it's rather like shooting fish in a barrel. A fully-grown, captive-bred lion is taken from its pen to an enclosed area where it wanders listlessly for some hours before being shot dead by a man with a shotgun, hand-gun or even a crossbow, standing safely on the back of a truck. forHe pays anything from £5,000 to £25,000, and it is all completely legal.

Like other tourists and daytrippers from Jo'burg, I pay a more modest £3.50 to hug the lions at Moreson, a game ranch which on its website invites tourists to come and enjoy the canned hunting of everything from pretty blesbok and springbok – South Africa's national symbol – to lions and crocodiles. After a cuddle with the cubs, I go on a "game drive" through the 2,000 hectare estate. Herds of blue wildebeest, red hartebeest and eland run from the truck, then stop and watch us, warily: according to the guides, the animals seem to know when visitors are not carrying guns. At the far end of the property is an abandoned farm, surrounded by pens of lethargic-looking big cats. One pair mate in front of us. Two healthy looking tigers tear at chicken carcasses rapidly rotting in the African sun.

The animals look well cared for. But Cathleen Benade, a ranch assistant who is studying wildlife photography and is devoted to the cubs, reveals that they were taken away from their mothers just an hour after birth and bottle-fed by humans for the first eight weeks of their life. After dark, as the lions roar in the cages below the pub veranda, Maryke Van Der Merwe, the manager of Lion's Den and daughter of the ranch owner, explains that if the cubs weren't separated from their mother – by blowing a horn to scare the adult lion away – the young lions would starve to death, because their mother had no milk. She says the mother is not distressed: "She's looking for the cubs for a few hours but it's not like she's sad. After a day or two I don't think she remembered that she had cubs."

Animal welfare experts disagree, however. They say breeders remove the cubs from their mother so that the lioness will quickly become fertile again, as they squeeze as many cubs from their adults as possible – five litters every two years. For an animal that is usually weaned at six months, missing out on the crucial colostrum, or first milk, can cause ill-health. "These breeders tell you they removed the cubs because the mother had no milk; I've never seen that in the wild," says Pieter Kat, an evolutionary biologist who has worked with wild lions in Kenya and Botswana. "Lions and tigers in captivity may kill their young because they are under a lot of stress. But the main reason breeders separate the young from their mother is because they don't want them to be dependant on their mother. Separation brings the female back into a reproductive position much faster than if the cubs were around. It's a conveyor-belt production of animals."

lion bred in captivity in south africa
A lion bred on a farm in South Africa for commercial use. Photograph: Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

South Africa has a strong hunting tradition but few people express much enthusiasm for its debased canned form. It is still legal to bring a lion carcass back to Britain (or anywhere in Europe or North America) as a trophy, and much of the demand comes from overseas. Trophy-hunters are attracted by the guarantee of success, and the price: a wild lion shot on a safari in Tanzania may cost £50,000, compared with a £5,000 captive-bred specimen in South Africa. Five years ago, the South African government effectively banned 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 the vast majority captive-bred animals.

Demand from the Far East is also driving profits for lions breeders. In 2001, two lions were exported as "trophies" to China, Laos and Vietnam; in 2011, 70 lion trophies were exported to those nations. While the trade in tiger parts is now illegal, demand for lion parts for traditional Asian medicine is soaring. In 2009, five lion skeletons were exported from South Africa to Laos; in 2011, it was 496. The legal export of lion bones and whole carcasses has also soared. "It's definitely a rapidly growing source of revenue for these canned breeding facilities," says Will Travers of the charity Born Free. "The increase and volume are terrifying."

Breeders argue it is better that hunters shoot a captive-bred lion than further endanger the wild populations, but conservationists and animal welfare groups dispute this. Wild populations of lions have declined by 80% in 20 years, so the rise of lion farms and canned hunting has not protected wild lions. In fact, according to Fiona Miles, director of Lionsrock, a big cat sanctuary in South Africa run by the charity Four Paws, it is fuelling it. The lion farms' creation of a market for canned lion hunts puts a clear price-tag on the head of every wild lion, she says; they create a financial incentive for local people, who collude with poachers or turn a blind eye to illegal lion kills. Trophy-hunters who begin with a captive-bred lion may then graduate to the real, wild thing.

"It's factory-farming of lions, and it's shocking," says Miles. She began working to protect lions after watching a seminal documentary about canned hunting. "The lion all around the world is known as the iconic king of the jungle – that's how it's portrayed in advertising and written into story books – and yet people have reduced it to a commodity, something that can be traded and used."

An alternative use for the captive-bred lions might be tourism. We go for a "lion walk" with Martin Quinn, a conservation educator and lion whisperer. This involves strolling through the veld with three adolescent white lions, which have been bred on Moreson ranch and trained by Quinn and his assistant, Thompson. These striking white lions (which tend to be very inbred, say animal welfare groups) bound around us, rush on, and then lie in the grass, ready for an ambush. Armed only with sticks, Quinn and Thompson control them, while warning us that they are still wild animals. It is an unnerving experience, but Quinn hopes this venture will persuade Moreson ranch that a live lion is worth more than a dead one.

He claims that since he began working with lions at the ranch in January, the owners have not sold on any lions to be hunted. He hopes the ranch will eventually allow the offspring of its captive animals to grow up in the wild. (Breeders sometimes claim their lions are for conservation programmes but examples of captive-bred lions becoming wild animals again are vanishingly rare; even the most respectable zoo has never established a successful programme for releasing captive-bred lions into the wild.)

Pieter Kat, who founded the charity Lion Aid, says the lion walks are simply another income stream for breeders before their lucrative charges are sold on. Van Der Merwe is doubtful that Quinn's lion walks could replace the income the farm receives from selling its lions: "We keep them up until six months for attractions for the people so they can play with them and then we sell them to other lion parks," she says. She insists her ranch's website is wrong, and it does not hunt lions: "We sell them to other people who have the permit for lions. What they do with the lions is up to them. So we don't know what they do with the lions, but we don't do the canned hunting."

Three hours' drive from the ranch is Lionsrock, a former lion breeding farm transformed into a sanctuary for more than 80 abused big cats since it was bought by Four Paws. Some come from local breeding farms, but Four Paws also rescues animals kept in appalling conditions in zoos in Romania, Jordan and the Congo. Unlike in the lion farms, the animals here are not allowed to breed, and instead live within large enclosures in their natural prides, family groups of up to 10 lions.

Lionsrock can rehouse another 100 lions but does not have space for every captive-bred lion in South Africa. Four Paws and other charities working in South Africa want a moratorium on lion breeding because they fear that if lion farms were abruptly outlawed thousands of lions would be dumped or killed. After its high court defeat, there is little sign that the South African government will take on the powerful lion breeders again any time soon. "If we can stop people supporting those industries in the first place and make them aware of what's actually going on and what the life of a [captive-bred] lion is actually like, I believe there will be an outcry," says Miles. "There's far more value for a live lion long-term."

Lion breeders such as Van Der Merwe are not so sure. She says her caged lions have little to do with canned hunting, but admits that if the authorities banned canned hunting, "it would probably not be good for us … There's a lot of people from overseas coming to shoot lions. All the people know you come to Africa to shoot the lion or have a mount against your wall to say 'I've shot a lion'. They surely bring some money into South Africa."

She sees nothing wrong with hunting lions or keeping them in captivity. In fact, she says, she is part of a family of animal lovers: "We grew up with them, so it's nice. It's like babies in your house – when they are really small they walk around in your house and they follow you."


Patrick Barkham