Captive lions and canned hunting – is it over?

In 1999 we were camping at one of the rest camps in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park with no one else in sight. We pitched the tent a few metres from the meagre perimeter fence. It was in the early morning hours when I woke, sensing a primal presence lurking in the darkness. I could hear the breathing and footsteps outside above the echo of my pounding heart. Intently concentrating, I was about to exit the tent with my torch to investigate, when a mighty guttural roar split the silence of night and reverberated through to the furthest chambers of my soul and consciousness, leaving me frozen solid, my mind struggling to make sense of what I had just heard. It felt like the lion was inside the tent with me. The mighty roar repeated and suddenly the thin nylon fabric of the tent felt utterly defenseless against the mighty predator outside. I held no confidence in the white strands that separated the lion from the vulnerable humans inside. Fortunately, this big male had other matters to contend with, and vanished into the darkness. 

My prior introduction to lions were through the books of Peter Hathaway Capstick – Death in the Long Grass and Death in the Silent Places and Maneaters, as well as The Man-eaters of Tsavo by Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson, who gave a chilling and vivid account of two lions that allegedly killed over 100 people, mostly railway workers, who were constructing the railway bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya. 

It would be almost two decades later when I would experience another close lion encounter, despite numerous interim sightings from the safety of a car or game vehicle in national parks and game reserves. In October 2019, I accompanied two seasoned guides and a trainee guide on a bush walk next to the Olifants River bordering the Kruger National Park. Our objective was to approach a small pride of lions on foot so that the trainee guide could log more hours tracking dangerous animals. The lions included a young male accompanied by two young fit females. As we approached, they cautiously eyed us, stood up and walked away into dense riverine bush. We proceeded to follow them but one of the females doubled back, coming above us on a raised embankment. We couldn’t see her as we made our way up, and in a blurred second she charged while one of the guides chambered the rifle with split-second reflexes. The bolt-action sound fortunately stopped the lioness in her tracks, and she quickly vanished into the thicket, a cloud of dust hanging in the air —the only evidence of what had just occurred. We decided that discretion was the better part of valor and moved away in the opposite direction, constantly looking back to find the lions watching us intently. I was elated. The charge was so fast that my adrenal glands had little time to react, and my mind only replayed the encounter later that evening. 

The Kalahari experience and lowveld encounter sits at the heart of what makes ‘Africa’ —Africa. As the birthplace of humankind, lions and people have co-existed for hundreds of thousands of years. The roar of a lion is encoded deep in our genes and brings out every heightened sense to its extreme pinnacle throughout our mortal body. I hope that generations ahead will still get to experience the thrill of the real wilderness. And this brings us to the topic at hand. Captive lions and canned hunting. 

The range of lions historically expanded from Cape Town across most of Africa, and into the Middle East, Arabia and Asia, where today a small population survives in the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary in western India. During Roman times, lions were caught, tamed, beaten, chained, displayed, and made to perform in circuses and amphitheaters, where public executions were carried out using lions and other big cats, in an act called damnatio ad bestias, Latin for “condemnation to beasts”. Throughout the centuries people have continued to be entertained through zoo displays, travelling side-shows and circuses. Fortunately, these dismal attractions are becoming increasingly rare. 

For the record, I am not opposed to ethical wildlife hunting and zoological gardens, as I believe that both sectors have made a considerable contribution to wildlife conservation and education. Zoological gardens across the world continue to do a sterling job in breeding critically endangered species (ex situ conservation) and provide many urban communities with the chance to engage with wildlife and provide educational opportunities about imperiled natural areas. But in both the game ranching industries and captive facilities, there are those whose sole purpose is exploitation of wildlife for profit. 

The canned lion debate has raged on now for the better part of a decade, and this debate has often become heated, pitting animal rights activists and welfare organisations against those that keep and breed lions and other big cats in captive situations. Some of these facilities offer the experience of petting a captive-bred lion cub or “walking with lions” as part of an eco-tourism experience. Investigations have revealed that the destiny of many of these lions is to end up being released into hunting concessions where they are hunted with little or no chance of escape, and becoming domesticated —having little fear of the humans hunting them. Others end up supplying lion bone to Asian markets for traditional medicines.  

Recently, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment released a High-Level Panel report on the management, breeding, hunting, trade and handling of elephant, lion, leopard and rhinoceros. This report follows on from a Colloquium on Captive Lion Breeding held in 2018, in which it was recommended that an end to captive lion breeding be implemented. This report is awaiting endorsement from parliament, but there is still a long road ahead. Given the number of captive lions in various places, how will the welfare of these animals be taken care of, including feeding? And what will happen to all these animals? There are also numerous legal hurdles to overcome. 

At the time of writing, I have only glanced over the report, and thus need to give it the attention it deserves. However, my greatest concern is that it gives a broad overview of the situation —but offers no insight or directives as to how the captive lions, or canned hunting, will be managed and regulated, and the timeframe involved. There seems to be glaring uncertainty as to the road ahead. Although Section 9 gives recommendations, i.e., guiding vision and principles, these are largely focused on the wildlife economy at large, and the inclusion of previously disadvantaged minority groups into the sector, but steers clear of explicitly stating how captive and or, privately-owned lions, elephants, and rhinos will be managed. My experience over the years is that South Africa is excellent at producing volumes of reports, papers, white papers, legislation, recommendations and additional reports following further stakeholder engagements… but these processes often result in very little action being taken on the actual ground. We can only wait patiently for the outcome and hope that the animals involved reap the benefits. And most importantly, that the rampant poaching of wild rhino, pangolins, and other wildlife species is tackled with equal fervor and commitment. 

The security of private ownership of species like rhino should be carefully weighed up against state sanctuaries who are losing the fight around protecting these iconic species in so-called protected reserves. The issues are complex, but it remains to be seen howthis High-Level Panel report will play out to the benefit of all South African’s, the species involved, and how it shall be extended to Africa as a whole. We plan to look into this in more detail in forthcoming issues.


Report: The High-Level Panel of Experts for the Review of Policies, Legislation and Practices on Matters of Elephant, Lion, Leopard and Rhinoceros Management, Breeding, Hunting, Trade and Handling. High-level panel report – for submission to the minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries. 15 December 2020. 582pp.  

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