/ 13 July 2023

Lion owners in talks to exit industry

Lions Rest At Breeding Farm In South Africa
In January last year, the department of environmental affairs in the Free State and the national department of forestry, fisheries and environment, together with the SPCA, inspected Steilfontein farm, in Petrus Steyn, where several feline predators were held captive. (Pers-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images)

Some captive lion owners are interested in voluntarily leaving the controversial captive lion industry in South Africa, but winding it down will take time and trust.

So said Kamalasen Chetty, the chairperson of a ministerial task team tasked with identifying and recommending pathways for captive lion owners to get out of the business.

He said there are 519 facilities and about 7 400 lions in captivity. By comparison, wild lion numbers are 3  000 to 3 500. 

In a recent renewed call for registration of interest, captive lion owners were invited to enter into private discussions with the task team appointed by Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Minister Barbara Creecy in December last year

“We’re beginning to see some interest and we did indicate to the lion owners that we’ll do all this in total confidence and confidentiality,” Chetty said. “All of them insisted, ‘We’ll talk to you but we’ll talk to you confidentially.’”

He said a typical discussion is “quite detailed” and involves understanding the particular business of the lion owner, and then considering options for that business. 

The task team would “definitely consider carefully and responsibly” the future of the captive lions, the potential effect on workers, as well as positive economic outcomes for the owners, Chetty said.

The team was established after a recommendation by a high level panel on the management, breeding, hunting, trade and handling of elephants, lions, leopards and rhinos in May 2021. 

The panel identified that the captive lion industry poses risks to the sustainability of wild lion conservation because of the negative effect on ecotourism, which funds lion conservation; harm to the “authentic wild hunting industry” and the risk the trade in lion parts poses in stimulating poaching and the illegal trade

It recommended the closure of the captive breeding sector, including the commercial use of captive lions and their body parts

Creecy has extended the task team’s mandate by six months to December 31 to give it sufficient time to conclude outstanding work such as finalising stakeholder consultations, determining funding mechanisms and compiling a report.

Since January, a key component of the task team’s work has been discussions with associations in the lion industry, owners, scientists, traditional healers and nonprofit organisations. 

Provincial nature conservation authorities have also provided information about captive lion in their provinces, which will be consolidated into a national audit of captive bred lions.

“The questions we were trying to answer are, okay, if there are going to be volunteers out of this process, what exactly do we do?” Chetty said. 

“What are the veterinary checks that we need in place, what are the various considerations we need to give to translocate lions, moving them into facilities we would call lion safe havens; what would be the process for managing the birth of lions and do we sterilise them, do we separate them, do we look at birth control techniques? 

“We spoke to a range of experts around that and part of that is to generate protocols [that] will advise us.”

In the next two weeks, the team will inspect a number of facilities. 

“The key thing is to look at the lions, the state in which the lions are housed and the wellbeing of lions.” 

Chetty said a number of organisations have said they are willing to set up “safe haven” for lions but they would not be allowed to reproduce. “A few of these have been identified and there’s the potential to set up more facilities.” 

Caring for lions is costly and funding relies on local and international donors “so the relocation of some of those lions into those kinds of facilities will be one option”, he said.

“If there are any compromised lions, we would look at the humane euthanasia of those lions, as advised by [a] professional veterinarian.”

Most people the task team had spoken to are opposed to mass euthanasia of the captive-held lions “so how do we repurpose the facility from a breeding facility to one that has excellent standards to upkeep the welfare of the lions and ensure that those lions will live out the 

rest of their lives without any breeding?”

On mass euthanasia, Karen Trendler, the welfare representative on the high-level panel, pointed out that the public and people “forget these lions are bred to be hunted — it’s just a different manner of death”. 

She said lions are limited by territory, habitat availability and prey. “We currently already have limitations on that for our wild lions and they’re having to manage wild populations because they breed and they don’t have territory to move into. We can’t just take them [captive lions]and put them back in the wild.”

On the possibility of rewilding some of the captive-bred lions, Chetty said this is a controversial issue. “There are a range of other opinions that suggest that it’s not advisable to rewild lions  …  it requires a lot more research to understand whether you can rewild lions that are held in captivity, and this is about understanding the entire ecology and biology of lions that are held in captivity.”

Because exiting the captive lion industry is a voluntary programme, Chetty said incentives were being provided. 

“The industry would want compensation. We’re arguing there is no mandatory shutdown at this stage so we don’t think compensation is necessary. What we’re specifically talking about are incentives, which are being developed and finalised.”

These include veterinary care, veterinary lion assessments if there is movement of lions to a new “sunset facility” and the euthanasia of compromised lions. 

About five to 10 workers are employed at each facility, giving a total of 3 000 to 5 000 workers. “Part of our mandate is to look at what alternatives we provide for workers in the form of retraining, looking at existing and new facilities, which are not lion facilities, which would be environmental facilities and how they would be trained for that.”

Facility owners had invested a lot of money in their operations. “If the land is being used for something else, we will certainly facilitate interaction between them and the department of agriculture to look at perhaps, do they want to move from lions into cattle or buck farming.”

There was a possibility and this would be assessed case by case, “where we give each farmer a nominal fee for the number of lions that they would give up”.

“For example, if you sell a lion for hunting you get R150 000, for bones that were being exported, they would get R100 000,” but Chetty said these amounts could never be matched.

“However, we would provide an incentive to give up their lion in that instance and that’s a nominal amount — that’s our discussion with different donors and fundraisers and hopefully we can get more people interested.” 

Better and more lucrative incentives needed to be found, including ways of making the biodiversity industry more inclusive so that more jobs can be generated.

“What we’re looking at is an industry that’s been allowed to exist. They’re very strong, they’ve got good lobbying capabilities and it’s an industry that until recently was very wealthy,” he said. 

“We’re not going to convince all the farmers but we’re going to convince some of them … it’s a long road to build trust and slowly wind down the industry.”

Trendler said that before the task team was set up, there was a move in the lion industry to say, “Okay, we’ll do away with the working lion — the cub-rearing and the hands-on lion and the lion walking — and rather go for ranched lion where there’s minimal human contact [when the cubs are] not being pulled from their parents … It will be very interesting to see whether that is going to be the eventual compromise and what the implications of that are from a welfare conservation and ethical perspective.” 

The task team’s work is “one step in quite a challenging process”, she said. “The industry is years and years old and it’s grown and grown and to try to wind it down now after it’s gone on for so many years, is an enormous task.” 

Of the task team’s work, she said there have been some excellent recommendations. “It’s just the numbers that have to be accommodated.”

The South African Predators Association and Wildlife Ranching South Africa did not respond to the Mail & Guardian’s inquiries.

Lion owners register their interest in voluntary exit here or by sending an email to Kamalasen Chetty on [email protected].