Our Expert Q&A on South Africa’s Captive Lion Breeding Industry
April 7, 2021
April 9, 2021
In October 2019, the South African government appointed a High-Level Panel to advise the environment minister on the country’s controversial captive lion breeding industry and lion bone trade as part of a larger analysis of the management of several iconic wildlife species, including elephants, leopards and rhinos. The panel concluded its deliberations in December 2020. So far, the government has not yet released the panel’s report nor commented publicly on its recommendations or next steps.
Below, Panthera’s Lion Program Director, Dr. Paul Funston, answers some of the most frequently asked questions about South Africa’s captive lion breeding industry and why Panthera has joined other leading scientists, advocacy organizations, South African tourism boards, businesses, and even major hunting organizations, in calling for it to be phased out responsibly.
South Africa is obviously renowned for its amazing wildlife viewing in iconic national parks like Kruger. People might be surprised to learn that South Africa has more captive-bred lions than any country in the world.
South Africa houses more than 8,000 captive-bred lions in commercial breeding facilities around the country. Many of these lion farms market themselves to tourists by offering opportunities to feed or pet young lions. Once the cubs are too big to handle safely, they may go on to be sold as easy targets for trophy hunters in captive or “canned” hunts, or, their bones and body parts may end up as trinkets or substituted for tiger bone wine, products of South Africa’s legal lion bone trade.
Can captive-bred lions be used to recover dwindling wild lion populations?
Commercially captive-bred lions are usually not suitable for reintroduction into the wild due to inbreeding and behavioral issues that come from being raised by humans. Furthermore, wild lion populations when reduced due to various human perturbations will recover quickly once the human impacts are remedied, thus there are few plausible options for introducing captive-bred lions to wild settings. When a population is re-established in an area it’s important to consider behavioral and genetic heritage that are not met by current breeding efforts.
What are the risks of South Africa’s lion breeding industry to wild lions?
South Africa’s captive lion breeding industry is presumed to have created an international market for lion bones and derivatives; there’s no evidence of demand for lion products in Asia prior to South Africa’s first legal exports in 2008. Today, there’s growing concern that South Africa’s legal lion bone trade could be fueling a parallel illegal trade in lion body parts and providing a means to launder tiger and other cat parts poached from the wild. Any increase in the illegal killing and trafficking of lions could be devastating to wild populations given the crisis facing lions across most of Africa.
Is there a relationship between the legal bone trade and the increase in targeted poaching of wild lions in some parts of Africa?
Our research showed that the increase in poaching for body parts in parts of Mozambique and several other areas within the African sub-region from 2012-2019 closely correlated with the increase in legal lion bone exports from South Africa. While more research is underway to fully understand the impact of trade on wild lions, our data indicate that targeted killing of lions is tracking with the demand created by South Africa’s legal trade and will likely continue to increase as the Asian market grows. Given the fragility of many of the currently affected lion populations, all stakeholders, including CITES, IUCN and the South African government, should prescribe caution in the meantime.
Is it possible that the increase in targeted poaching is also tied to increasing demand for lion products—skins, meat, teeth, claws, etc.—for traditional use within Africa rather than international demand?
Evidence suggests that poaching for both markets is taking place. Illegal trade in cat products for traditional use in many parts of Africa, especially of skins, is equally concerning with respect to the potential impacts on wild lion populations already under pressure from numerous human-caused threats. Still there is no evidence suggesting a need for captive breeding facilities to supply cat products for traditional use in Africa.
Are you concerned that ending the legal lion bone trade might actually increase poaching and illegal trade in lion parts?
South Africa needs to act courageously and urgently to bring an end to the illegal trade in lion parts, which has become the new greatest threat to lions in many parts of Africa. This begins with ending the legal trade in lion bones to Asia and sending a clear signal to traders and markets that it will no longer perpetuate the demand for lion products abroad.
At the same time, the government must double down on its commitment to protect wild lions at home and throughout the region, refine its policies around traditional use of lion and other cat parts, and enforce the laws prohibiting illegal wildlife trade. This includes prioritizing benefits to rural communities living with lions to make sure that these iconic symbols of Africa are worth more alive.
What does Panthera recommend the government do to phase out the lion breeding industry?
Panthera believes the industry should be phased out responsibly, minimizing the impact on captive lions and farmers’ livelihoods to ensure the best outcome. This starts with halting the breeding of captive lions as soon as practicable through separation of males and females and contraception programs carried out in adherence with industry protocols. The sooner these facilities transition to alternative business models, with no breeding, no trading, and no interactions between tourists and animals, the better.
As part of this transition, we call upon the South African government to immediately discontinue the legal lion bone trade and assist lion farmers with the responsible disposal of stockpiles of lion carcasses to ensure that body parts and their derivatives don’t enter the illegal trade.
Does commercial captive breeding benefit wild cats in any way?
Panthera opposes commercial captive breeding of all wild cats. There’s no evidence that commercial captive breeding benefits wild cat populations, as its supporters propose; indeed, there’s mounting concern about the potential negative impacts these operations may have on wild cats, from perpetuating demand for wild-caught cat products to providing a front for the illegal wildlife trade.