Canned Hunting | The Gruesome Truth About the Industry Which Breeds Lions for the Slaughter
Mpora investigates the multi-million pound lion breeding industry, which treats wild creatures like cattle
“Oh my god, look at him!" Inside the open-topped Land Rover, everyone is jostling to get a better view. We’re all talking at once, but in excitable whispers - as if we’re terrified that anything louder than a camera shutter will anger or scare away the king of beasts.
Less than two metres away from us, the adult male lion couldn’t care less. In fact, he looks positively bored, yawning and rolling onto his back with his paws in the air. After about five minutes he gets up, shakes his magnificent mane out, and squats down in the bushes for a poo.
“You see," says Craig, our guide on this trip round South Africa’s Addo National Park, “he doesn’t even care that we’re here. To him the vehicle is just this funny animal that shows up every now and then but doesn’t do anything." This, Craig explains is because the animal posing so obligingly for us is a “wild" lion.
“Guys will literally walk up to a caged pen, like a kennel, put a rifle through and shoot an animal on the other side. It's horrific stuff."
You might think that all lions are, by definition, wild animals. Increasingly however that’s not the case. In fact, wild lions - animals that’ve had little or no contact with humans and so behave entirely naturally around them - are now in a minority in South Africa. There are currently around 2,750 wild lions, like the ones in Addo National Park, in the country, but there are reckoned to be more than twice that number - between 6,000 and 8,000 animals - who’ve been bred and are kept in captivity.
Why? Well lions are viewed as the ultimate prize by trophy hunters who will pay vast sums to kill them, stuff them and hang their heads on the wall. Keeping a lion under truly wild conditions is an expensive - not to mention uncertain - business however. So increasingly these supposedly wild creatures are being bred, raised and reared in cages specifically to be shot. A multi-million pound industry has grown up around captive-bred lions which treats them as literal cash cows, seeking to exploit every aspect of their life cycle for commercial profit. This is the murky world of ‘canned lion’ hunting, one of the most controversial topics in conservation today.
As a qualified ranger, or field guide of 18 years standing, it’s something that Craig Duffield feels strongly about. “It’s a highly, highly unethical industry," he tells Mpora. “It’s legal, they’re not breaking the law, but there are so many unethical practises." Craig is not a fan of any sort of hunting he explains, but canned hunting is particularly nasty.
“Some outfits offer online menus where you can pick out which individual lion you’d like to kill from a list with prices next to each one"
“There's a big difference between guys going out and tracking a wild lion and shooting it, as opposed to going into a small enclosed area where the lions most often have been hand-raised by people. Their exposure to people is ‘this is somebody who's been friendly to me’. They don't have that wild lion interaction with a human being. And there's a good chance that the lion has already been drugged so it cannot react in a way that it might normally, even just to get away. There's a whole lot of manipulation of the environment for that hunt. It's just... it's totally unethical."
It gets worse though. “Some of the canned hunting is even more sinister," Craig continues. “[Sometimes] you have a bit of an enclosure to shoot this thing, but some are even more sinister - guys will literally walk up to a caged pen, like a kennel, put a rifle through and shoot an animal on the other side. It's horrific stuff."
Warren Manser, another ranger I spoke to, agrees: “Canned hunting is not a challenge. It's basically a drugged lion, in an enclosure, you walk in and shoot it and walk out again." But if this horrifically efficient, production line approach is ethically reprehensible, it is also excellent business. Hunters will pay more (“easily 1 million rand [£50,000]", according to Warren,) to shoot a wild lion, but the margins on captive-bred creatures are usually better. At a game auction, Manser tells me, “you can pick up a lion cheap, for about 30,000 rand (£1,500)". Trophy hunters who aren’t fussy about shooting a captive-bred creature will pay anything up to £25,000 to kill one.
Lions who’ve been well fed their whole lives are also seen to provide “better" trophies than wild lions, with fewer scars. Furthermore canned hunting operations can all but guarantee a kill. Some go as far as to offer online menus where you can pick out which individual lion you’d like to kill from the comfort of your own home. And the enclosed space of course means it takes much less time than it would to stalk a properly wild lion. Like shooting fish in a barrel, the kill is “in the can" before the ‘hunt’ begins - hence the phrase ‘canned hunting’, first coined by a pioneering ITV investigative program called the Cook Report in 1997.
Unsurprisingly, whenever the murky workings of this industry have been exposed, they’ve caused outcry - both in South Africa and further afield. Bruce Young is the director of Blood Lions, a searing 2015 documentary which shines a light on today’s canned hunting industry. “People still just don't know about this issue," he tells me over Skype. “Even in South Africa, that's been the overwhelming reaction [to the film], they didn't know this was going on."
“The death of Cecil the Lion and the public outcry meant the hunting industry as a whole was suddenly headline news."
Internationally, the film was given a huge boost when the killing of Cecil the Lion threw a spotlight on trophy hunting. “We released [Blood Lions] on the 22nd of July last year and I think it was about two days later that the news of Cecil's shooting in Zimbabwe broke," Bruce says. Cecil’s death - and the public outcry - meant the hunting industry as a whole was suddenly headline news. So a film about one of its nastier aspects was bound to resonate.
Certainly the scenes in the film make for pretty shocking viewing. It’s not just the footage of lions being shot in enclosed spaces either. The documentary makes clear that the actual death of a canned lion is just one stage in an exploitative cycle. Bruce explains: “There are five elements to this exploitation of lions that happens. First is the intensive breeding." Blood Lions includes heart-wrenching footage of lion cubs being taken away from their mothers at a few weeks old, caged separately and fed by hand. This has the dual effect of getting the cubs accustomed to humans at an early age and allowing the lioness to become fertile again so she can breed more frequently than she would in the wild.
Bruce continues: “Second, there’s the cub petting, which is a big part of South African tourism." People flock from around the world to cuddle, feed and pet lion cubs, often in the mistaken belief that they have been orphaned. In fact they’ve frequently just been taken from their mother too early so that she will can breed again. “Everyone wants to pet a lion cub, everyone wants to play with a lion cub, they want a photograph of themselves on Facebook with a lion cub, and the wool is pulled over their eyes," Karen Trendler, a wildlife rehabilitation specialist, tells the filmmakers.
Blood Lions also includes interviews with several young “voluntourists" - gap year kids from Europe and elsewhere who have paid to come and work on so-called sanctuaries in the belief that they are helping the conservation effort. “For 30 days, I paid US$2,800 (£2,100)," says ‘Alexa’ a young French Canadian who spoke to Bruce and his team. Warren Manser tells Mpora: “The thing is the word sanctuary is used very, very vaguely. It's a tourist attraction, so people can go and visit them and make themselves feel good, and they use the word 'sanctuary' to make it sound good."
“Walking with lions," is the third stage of a canned lion’s life, according to Bruce. “When they get a bit bigger so they can no longer be petted, they train them to walk." It’s another money-spinner for the pseudo-sanctuaries, charging tourists to go on a guided walk alongside nearly mature lions who, having been handled by humans from a very young age, are almost completely tame.
“They blow a lot of smoke and use a lot of mirrors to make it appear that what they are doing is conserving lions - because they’re breeding them and they claim they’re returning some to the wild," says Bruce. But he and his team believe “that is a complete fiction". Experts say it’s extremely difficult to “re-wild" a lion once it has been tamed. They’ve also rubbished the argument that somehow the sale of lions is contributing funds to an overall conservation effort. As Craig Duffield points out: “That's not going into conservation, that's going into someone's pocket".
Bruce explains: “The three things which differentiate a true sanctuary from one of these tourist operations is that a true sanctuary does not breed, does not trade, and allows no [human] contact."
“People flock from around the world to cuddle, feed and pet lion cubs, often in the mistaken belief that they have been orphaned. ‘The wool is pulled over their eyes’".
The next stage is the canned hunt itself. Of course many of the breeding operations that call themselves sanctuaries claim to be horrified at the suggestion that the lions they raise might go on to be shot. But Bruce and his team believe this is - at best - wilful ignorance on the part of the owners. “They deny it," he says. “On camera they deny it and in any public forum. They say: ‘We, as a breeder, do not sell to any hunting operation.’ But of course there are middlemen who buy lions, who have no connection to a hunting operation themselves, but then they sell them on."
Once a lion has been hunted (or rather released into a small enclosure for a short period of time and possibly drugged before being gunned down) its head and skin are removed to become the hunter’s grisly trophies. But there is still more money to be made from the carcass. “The fifth exploitative element [of a canned lion’s life cycle] is the lion bone trade," Bruce explains. The selling of lion bones for traditional Chinese medicine.
A 2009 article by conservation campaigner Ian Michler, who appears in Blood Lions and was an integral part of the team, asserts that: “The price of lion bones has leapt [...] to more than US$300 (£225) per kilogram." He concludes that “at present prices, the bones of a lioness are worth more than the average asking price to shoot one - around $4,000 (£3,000)."
Of course the operations that breed lions are not always the same as those that offer hunting, just as those which offer hunting don’t always offer taxidermy services, or sell bones. But there are outfits that seek to squeeze a profit out of more than one aspect of the lion’s life cycle. One such operation is Benkoe Safaris, which features heavily in the documentary. “His whole operation is on the same property," says Bruce. “He just moves the lion from the breeding camps over to a slightly bigger area of bush and tells the hunters: ‘This is not a tame lion, this is a wild lion’."
In order to gain access to the property, Bruce enlisted the help of Rick Swazey, an American who posed as a would-be canned hunter. The crew’s intentions were eventually rumbled, a scene which they caught dramatically on camera. “I think our camera equipment - and in particular the sound equipment - looked that bit more professional than some of the video crews [that usually accompany hunters]. And the big fat farmer who threatened us, he had been the target of one or two previous exposés, so he was a bit suspicious," explains Bruce. But the fact that the Rick was there with them in the first place cuts to the core of what is wrong with canned hunting.
Swazey, a bearded American who talks about his Second Amendment rights and shoots M16s in firing ranges at home, considers himself a proud hunter. And yet, having seen a promo video for Blood Lions, “he was personally moved to offer his help," according to Bruce. He’s far from the only member of the hunting community who see the practises involved in canned hunting as beyond the pale.
“Swazey, a bearded American who talks about his Second Amendment rights and shoots M16s in firing ranges at home, considers himself a proud hunter - but sees canned hunting as beyond the pale."
Warren Manser tells me a story about an incident which made the news in his home province of the Eastern Cape: “About two years ago there was this American who was on the hunt for this big male lion. He was tracking it and hunting and tracking... eventually he shot the lion, got there and it had a collar on. And he was not impressed. He was like: ‘What kind of hunting is this? It's not bloody hunting, you okes have been following this thing, you know exactly where it is. You come and put all this shit on about us travelling and stalking and all that and it’s all put on.’ It was a big thing."
While you might expect trained wildlife experts like Manser or Duffield to condemn canned hunting, what’s interesting is how many hunters are also disgusted by the practices involved. “The folks who come here knowing these animals are in an enclosure, knowing these animals are hand-raised and yet still pull that trigger. It’s… it’s not a real hunt," a visibly shaken Rick Swazey tells the camera after being kicked off the canned lion farm.
Although it undoubtedly ups the drama of the film, getting a hunter like Rick onside wasn’t just good for the movie, Bruce explains, it’s also good for the broader campaign against canned hunting. “I learned a lot from Ian [Michler]," says Bruce. “With his long experience of meeting and dealing with many of these people, the only way to achieve any traction and affect any change is by holding the middle ground in the whole debate." By taking this approach, he explains, “we've been able to engage with the hunting community who don't want to be seen to be supporting something like a canned hunt where it's really a tame lion that has just been popped off".
It’s an approach that’s worked too - at least when it comes to getting hunters’ attention. “To his credit, the president of the Professional Hunter's Association [of South Africa] came to see our film at the festival two days after the premiere. We chatted to him afterwards and within 24 hours he put out a statement. It didn't mention the film, but said the practise of canned hunting needed to be addressed within the hunting community of South Africa, and that they will address it at their next AGM."
There’s a financial incentive for the wider industry to act too. Blood Lions’ exposure of canned hunting practises has fed into a backlash against hunting as a whole. Many airlines now refuse to carry hunting trophies and in December last year the importing of lion body parts was banned in the US - the world’s largest hunting market. These moves have hit the entire hunting industry hard.
Which begs the question - if even hunters are against canned hunting, then how is it still happening? The official line from the Department of Environmental Affairs, the ministry responsible for regulating hunting, is that “canned hunting is illegal in South Africa". However campaigners believe this doesn’t explain the full picture, as the definition of exactly what constitutes canned hunting is vague.
Bruce says “they are weaselling and dodging the issue and using semantics to justify their answer." Ian Michler agrees: “To get away from the stigma that the phrase ‘canned hunting’ had, the breeders, hunters and the government redefined canned hunting." So while drugging or baiting a lion are now technically illegal, shooting a tame, captive-bred lion that’s been hand-reared and trusts humans in a small enclosure is not.
“If even hunters are against canned hunting, then how is it still happening?"
These debated definitions make it harder to separate what Craig Duffield refers to as “quote unquote ‘ethical’ hunting" operations from the ones who are playing hard and fast with the rules. In fact the definitions are so vague that even the South Africa Predator Association (SAPA), which represents breeders, can claim to be against ‘canned hunting’ - at least according to their narrow definition of the term.
The problem isn’t just that the laws aren’t watertight either, it’s that they’re not being enforced effectively. The statement from the Department for Environmental Affairs concedes that there are “rogue elements [...] operating within the lion breeding and hunting industries, and that these need to be rooted out." But questionable practises are hard to police out in the bush, and according to campaigners unscrupulous operators continue to bend the rules. Bruce says: “The official line is that all hunting in South Africa is carefully controlled and permitted, it is patently evident that the ‘control and permitting’ is not happening".
The waters are muddied further by the claims - loudly trumpeted by hunters of all shades - that trophy hunting as a whole contributes to conservation. “The broader hunting industry claims to be the real conservationists," says Bruce, despite the fact that the arguments about the economic or anti-poaching benefits of any kind of hunting are at best disputed.
Statistics from neighbouring Botswana, where all trophy hunting is banned, suggest that wild lion populations are no safer when hunting is legalised. Figures quoted by National Geographic in the wake of Cecil’s death suggest that “Zimbabwe would have brought in more in just five days by having Cecil’s photograph taken rather than being shot", and in South Africa the numbers show that hunting’s contribution to overall tourist revenues is negligible.
“Zimbabwe would have brought in more in just five days by having Cecil’s photograph taken rather than him being shot"
This hasn’t stopped hunters from claiming that “hunting is the biggest contributor to conservation," according to Bruce. And these arguments, although highly questionable, provide the moral justification for South Africa’s powerful pro-hunting lobby. Unfortunately they also give lion breeders and hunting operations indulging in dodgy practises a smokescreen to hide behind.
In its statement on canned hunting the Predator’s Association claims “the breeding of lions in captivity has a crucial role in the preservation of everybody's most admired big cat". This assertion is, Bruce says, “a complete fallacy". Lion breeding, and the lack of regulation around it, is precisely the problem. “If it wasn't legal to breed them other than in regulated, monitored conservation environments, then [canned lion hunting] would stop," he says.
South Africa’s government-administered National Parks, which are “globally recognised for [their] conservation successes" might be one such environment. In contrast, Bruce says of the current lion breeders: “They’re just farmers. Farmers are businessmen. They've seen an opportunity to make a buck and they're doing it. If they were not allowed to breed then, it would take time but they'd find another product to farm."
Craig Duffield agrees: “I don't think any place should be having lions that people are going to be playing with and cuddling," he says. Nature he believes, should be left to its own devices as far as possible. It is, of course the fact that lions are wild creatures - not domesticated animals - that makes them such a draw for tourists. It’s this that left my group open-mouthed in Addo and it’s this that brings millions of other tourists like us to South Africa each year. Ironically, it’s this same wild beauty that makes lions so appealing to hunters.
But by breeding these creatures, by farming them like cattle and by killing them like cattle, the canned hunting industry is stripping them of their wildness. It’s removing the very thing that makes them so special in the first place, reducing the the king of beasts to the status of a battery hen. For anyone who has a genuine interest in the wild, including hunters, that can only be a bad thing.
You can find out more about the campaign against canned hunting and download Blood Lions at bloodlions.org. Get involved by attending or organising a screening and petitioning to have canned hunting stopped.
As a general rule, the Blood Lions team urge tourists and volunteers not to visit farms that offer cub petting or walking with lions. The Campaign Against Canned Hunting (a separate organisation) has excellent advice on ethical volunteering and ethical tourism on its website.