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South Africa Announces Plan to End Captive Lion Breeding

The captive lion industry encompasses everything from cub-petting attractions to the sale of lion bones

Authorities have found many captive lion facilities to be overcrowded and at risk of disease outbreaks. (Courtesy of Blood Lions)
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On Sunday, South Africa’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment took steps toward ending the country’s captive lion-breeding industry, beginning by stopping new permits for new captive lion facilities, and revoking current permits, Rachel Fobar reports for National Geographic.

The decision comes alongside a 600-page report of recommended changes to wildlife management policies. The report recommends implementing bans on keeping lions in captivity, breeding them, and using them in tourist interactions like cub petting and enclosed lion hunts. Next, South Africa’s parliament will decide whether to make the recommendations into law. The recommendations already have government support, so the announcement has been seen as a victory for both lion conservation and animal welfare.

“This is a significant shift in thinking, and it’s far, far greater than anyone would have thought a year ago, or even six months ago,” says Ian Michler, director of Blood Lions, a nonprofit organization that has advocated for ending captive lion breeding in South Africa, to Elizabeth Claire Alberts at Mongabay. “And it’s the first time we believe that we have a ministry or government that is really committed to dealing with these issues.”

There are currently about 350 facilities in South Africa housing between 8,000 and 12,000 captive lions, according to Panthera, a nonprofit organization focused on wild cat conservation. Previous reports showed that the lions often live in crowded, dirty conditions. Young lions could be used for tourist attractions like petting cubs or walking with adolescents, and some farms practiced “speed breeding” where cubs are removed from their mothers after just days so that the adult female can breed again, Morgan Winsor reports for ABC News.

“Thousands of farmed lions are born into a life of misery in South Africa every year in cruel commercial breeding facilities,” says World Animal Protection wildlife campaign manager Edith Kabesiime in an email to National Geographic. “This latest move by the government of South Africa is courageous—taking the first steps in a commitment to long-lasting and meaningful change. This is a win for wildlife.”

When lions get older, farms either use them for further breeding, or sell them to hunting facilities. In “canned” hunts, the lion is kept in an enclosure for trophy hunters, who can then keep the heads and skins of the animals. The lions’ bones could then be exported—South Africa was one of few countries that allows the sale of lion bones. The new recommendations would end that trade.

South African conservationist and economist Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, who served on the panel that reviewed the policy recommendations, tells National Geographic that he was in favor of ending the captive breeding of lions but advocated for keeping a regulated lion bone trade.

“This now effectively shuts off the last official legal conduit of big cat body parts to the market, worldwide,” says T’ Sas-Rolfes to National Geographic in an email. “Whether that matters or not in terms of prices and poaching incentives remains to be seen.”

Conversely, supporters of a ban on the lion bone trade say the legal sale of lion bones has spurred more demand. Fobar reported for National Geographic in 2019 that captive lions bred for the bone trade are often kept in especially poor conditions because owners do not care what the animals look like, unlike lions bred for tourist attractions, where appearances matter more. The growing demand may also have encouraged poachers to kill more wild lions.

The report recommends lion bone stockpiles should be destroyed, and lions currently kept in captivity should be humanely euthanized, as they would be unlikely to survive in the wild.

"The panel identified that the captive lion industry poses risks to the sustainability of wild lion conservation," said South African Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Barbara Creecy in a statement Sunday, per ABC News. She added that the recommendations "will result in both protection and enhancement of South Africa’s international reputation, repositioning the country as an even more competitive destination of choice for ecotourism and responsible hunting."

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