The big cat con: Inside Africa's shocking battery farms for lions

Sally Williams
Some ranches are effectively battery farms  - copyright@Fergus Thomas fergus.thomas14@googlemail.com

The growing appetite for 'conservation holidays' has shone a light on the dark – and poorly regulated – industry of lion farming, where felines are destined not to be 'released into the wild' - but to be shot by trophy hunters and their bones exported to Asia for use in traditional medicine.

Beth Jennings, 25, is mad about animals. After leaving school she worked for Dogs Trust, and then opted to spend a holiday looking after lion cubs rather than lying on a beach. Though it was called ‘volunteering’ she had to pay to do it: £1,500 for two weeks working at a game park in South Africa, plus £1,000 for flights and jabs. But she knew the wild lion population was in crisis, and this was her chance, according to the UK agency that sold it to her, to prepare orphaned cubs ‘for their eventual release into the wild’. She saved for more than a year, using her 21st-birthday money.

In South Africa, Jennings found about two dozen volunteers at the safari park, mainly girls in their early 20s, many from Scandinavia. But she was happy to be there. ‘Under the African sun I prepared for a hard day of work – bottle-feeding, cuddling, bathing and playing with lion cubs,’ she later wrote. 

Yet by the second day she was worried. The lion cubs, it turned out, were not orphans. Staff took them away from their mothers when they were two weeks old so tourists could pet them and give them bottles.

‘The cubs make all these noises, which sound cute when you don’t know what’s happening. But then you realise it’s them calling out for their mothers,’ Jennings says. 

Cub-petting, she explains, is lucrative – she estimates over 50 visitors a day at the safari park where she volunteered. When they are no longer cute, some progress to ‘walking with lions’ – where people pay for a close encounter with a big animal. When this becomes too risky, adult lions are moved into larger enclosures. And from there, Jennings discovered they are not, as staff claimed, ‘shipped to the Democratic Republic of Congo where they are all living happy lives’.

Instead they are more likely to be sold and transported elsewhere in South Africa to be shot by trophy hunters in so-called ‘canned hunting’ enclosures. Canned hunters can pay as little as £4,000 to shoot a female lion, less than half the cost of hunting a wild lion in Tanzania. Or the lions are killed for their skeletons. South Africa is the largest exporter of lion bones for use in traditional medicine in Vietnam, Thailand and Laos.

‘I was told so many lies,’ Jennings says. ‘By the agency selling the trip, by the park staff – they are pulling the wool over so many people’s eyes.’ 

Beth Jennings with a lion cub Credit: Courtesy of Beth Jennings

Lions are an iconic species. It seems for all the people keen to cuddle them – bottle-feeding orphan cubs is always going to appeal to the vast wildlife-tourism market – there are an equal number keen to kill them. Royals like to pose with them, too – the Duke of Sussex was pictured tending a sedated lion in the wild not long ago, which is doubtless the kind of thing that volunteers think they will be doing.

In 1980, about 75,800 wild lions roamed the continent of Africa. Today it is estimated that fewer than 30,000 survive. In South Africa, there are barely 3,500 wild lions left. Behind the fences of the lion farms, however, the country’s captive lion population has grown. In 1999, there were about 1,000; today, some 8,000 are spread over more than 200 farms. (These numbers are estimates – experts agree there is a lack of transparency.) Lion farming and canned hunting are legal enterprises, and canned hunting has been worth millions to the economy. But such has been the outcry within South Africa and abroad about the practice of breeding lions expressly to be shot for sport, that the market has collapsed in the last few years – unintentionally fuelling the other equally controversial market for the country’s captive-bred lions, the bone trade.

South Africa’s lion farms are spread across the country, but many are concentrated in Free State, a large province south of Johannesburg. Some are private; others are open to the public. Even those that present themselves as a tourist attraction are often involved in breeding lions.

A cub on a South African ranch Credit: Fergus Thomas

‘South Africa is the only country really that breeds predators for commercial use,’ says Karen Trendler, head of wildlife trade and trafficking at the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA). ‘From the time a cub is born and removed from the mother, it has five to seven years of quite a brutal cycle before it is slaughtered or hunted.’

The plight of southern Africa’s lions often makes the headlines. In 2015, the release of Blood Lions, an affecting documentary on predator breeding in South Africa, coincided with the death of Cecil, a wild lion who was killed by an American dentist and recreational big-game hunter just outside Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. Globally, there was outrage, and 42 airlines – Virgin Atlantic and British Airways among them – announced or reaffirmed bans of wildlife-trophy shipments on their flights. (Lion trophies are still allowed into the UK, however, despite a pledge by the government in 2015 that they would be banned unless the industry improved. A march supporting a ban is to take place in London today.)

A lion on a South African ranch Credit: Fergus Thomas

But the biggest change was the US announcement in 2016 of a ban on the import of trophies from captive-bred lions in South Africa. Americans accounted for 80 per cent of the canned-hunting market. ‘It was a huge move forward,’ says Richard Peirce, the wildlife conservationist, film-maker and author of Cuddle Me, Kill Me, an exposé of canned hunting published last year. (The book was written with the assistance of James, a 34-year-old from Devon who went undercover as a volunteer on a lion farm.) ‘Canned hunting is nowhere near as big as it used to be.’ But as one source of income shrank, breeders went looking for new markets.

The export of lion bones to south-east Asia started in 2008, a consequence of a ban on breeding tigers for their bones, instigated at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, in 2007. Tiger bone is used for traditional medicinal preparations. ‘Very few people can tell the difference between a lion bone and a tiger bone so it creates a convenient grey area,’ explains Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, a doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford and an expert on the illegal wildlife trade. Suppliers to the traditional medicine markets in Vietnam, Thailand and Laos realised, he says, that hunting offered an alternative source of big-cat bones.

Lion farmers then discovered they could make almost twice as much – up to 50,000 rand (£2,600) – if the skeleton was ‘intact’, ie from a euthanised rather than hunted lion (whose skeletons are often damaged). Also, trophy lions are missing the most valuable body part: the skull, with its fangs. ‘Fangs are highly prized,’ ’t Sas-Rolfes explains, used for amulets and jewellery sold throughout south-east Asia. As a result, some farmers, hit by the trophy-import ban, switched to simply breeding lions for their skeletons. The business was worth about 16 million rand (£860,000) in 2017, according to the Captured in Africa Foundation. That year the South African government issued an export quota of 800 lion skeletons, which was used up within a month. A new quota of 1,500 skeletons per year was announced in July 2018; it was reduced back to 800 in December, partly in response to political pressure from campaigners and activists.

Canned hunting – in which lions are released into an enclosed space with no possibility of escape and then hunted – is legal in South Africa and is a multimillion-pound industry.   Credit: Getty images

I arrive at the ranch where James volunteered at around 11am. Fenced off, near the veranda of the ranch’s bar, three lions are sleeping on a platform. I pay less than 200 rand (£11) to go on  a ‘game drive’. Nearby, there are pens holding a few dozen lions behind flimsy fences. The South African guide jumps down from the jeep and fills the water troughs. Fourteen or so young lions run alongside our vehicle. ‘They’re already sold,’ says the guide. ‘To a nature reserve. We’re only here to breed and protect.’ 

While James has moral qualms about the lion farming – ‘I don’t agree with it, but can understand it from their perspective’ – he was enraged by the cub-petting. The practice is easy revenue for the farmers, and allows the lioness to be swiftly reimpregnated. ‘Those little animals are there from the time the bar opens until the bar closes, in the heat, and the guys looking after them really don’t care.’ 

After lunch I pay less than 75 rand (£4) and am led into an enclosed yard with five lion cubs. The youngest is six weeks old, white and fluffy – I’m given her to hold. She is mewling, exhausted. In the wild, cubs sleep when they’re not eating. An employee says the ranch had over 100 visitors  a day just before Christmas. ‘The mothers soon forget they’ve even had a cub,’ he tells me. 

‘This is rubbish,’ says Hildegard Pirker, head of the Animal Welfare Department at Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary near Bethlehem, in Free State. There are 100 lions in her care at the sanctuary, run by the animal-rescue organisation Four Paws. 

‘Lions have feelings. They mourn. They search. We know that from observing them here.’ 

South Africa is the largest exporter of lion bones. A large male skeleton will sell for 50,000 rand (£2,600) if it is ‘intact’, ie from a euthanised rather than hunted lion.  Credit: Getty images

We discuss the cub’s diet: cows’ milk, I was told. ‘Poor-quality,’ says Pirker. She inspects a picture of its distended belly on my phone. ‘This looks like malnutrition to me,’ she says. 

I go to see another, far bigger lion farm in Free State that James also volunteered on. It’s huge: I count more than 15 enclosures. When I visit, there are around 200 lions, penned according to age – tiny cubs (removed at three weeks), juveniles, young adults and so on – rather than in prides, as they normally live. Billed as a tourist attraction, it’s clean, the lions are well fed, and staff tell us that release into the wild is their aim.

‘We are here to increase the number of these beautiful animals and rehabilitate them back into the wild,’ says an employee in his late teens. He appears convinced by his own claims, earnestly informing us that the lions are released in the north of the country. ‘Only the owner knows exactly where,’ he reports, ‘for the lions’ safety.’ 

‘Obviously these animals can’t go back into the wild,’ says Fiona Miles, country director, South Africa at Four Paws, ‘because where are these wild, open spaces? Even if they’re there, what about existing lions? Socialisation of lions is very sensitive. You could have fighting en masse [between released and established lions]. It would be impossible.’

Also, she adds, ‘If farmed lions were being rehabilitated, why do we not hear about it?’ There would be scientific papers, documentaries. ‘It would be an extraordinary achievement.’

James says staff at the large farm maintained the conservation story until the very end. Finally, another junior employee came clean. ‘We had a few beers, and eventually around midnight he said, “It’s obviously for the bone trade. You don’t have to be a genius to work it out.”’

 The export of lion bones to south-east Asia started in 2008 as a consequence of a ban on breeding tigers for their bones.  

Clayton Fletcher, a South African, knows the hunting and lion-farming business inside out. His late father was one of the first to breed lions in the 1960s and set up a hunting lodge in the Kalahari, several hundred miles west of Johannesburg, in 1980. Now renamed Tinashe safari lodge, it’s run by Fletcher and his wife. Fletcher used to breed lions for canned hunting – he had about 280 in 2007, according to reports. Now he buys them in. 

‘Greenies’ – anti-hunting activists – ‘use raw emotion to target a public that is completely uneducated in the field of hunting,’ he says. He argues that hunting is a form of conservation: if you ban hunting, according to this logic, you are removing the economic value of wildlife. ‘The one thing that saves a lion is its value,’ Fletcher says.

He is also very sympathetic to the lion farmers in the wake of the American trophy ban: ‘Suddenly 80 per cent of the industry gets stopped in one day, what do you expect is going to happen? These people have to pay salaries, feed families, feed the lions.’ 

Besides, he adds, farming lions is the same as farming cattle. Karen Trendler disagrees, saying that at least cows are slaughtered for meat. ‘Lion bone is not benefiting South Africa. It’s being exported to other countries for their cultural uses.’

But her first priority is welfare. While there are rules for hunting lions, there are none effectively regulating their slaughter. ‘Now, because farmers want to keep the skull intact,’ Trendler says, ‘we have cruelty cases pending where the animals were shot through the eye or the ear with a low-calibre bullet so it didn’t damage the skull.’

Last May, a ‘lion abattoir’ was revealed, thanks to a whistle-blower, at Wag-’n-Bietjie farm near Bloemfontein in Free State, where over 50 lions had reportedly been shot. About 100 more were allegedly marked for slaughter. A case of animal cruelty was opened as two lions were held in a small crate for days without food or water, before being destroyed.

The word ‘abattoir’ is misleading, says Trendler. ‘It’s basically ad hoc. The guys will find a big warehouse – it’s even done in the open. They bring their cooking pots, bone processors, slaughterers. The lion is shot and the bone is processed. There is no control over it.’

Since the clampdown lion bones are often sold as tiger bones as few people know the difference. Credit: Will Burgess

The industry has made changes. The South African Predator Association (SAPA), which is in favour of what it calls ‘responsible’ breeding and hunting, disapproves of cub-petting, walking with lions, and ‘the practice of inviting young people from abroad to work on lion-cub-rearing stations’. However, according to Beth Jennings, ‘it’s still a problem’. Jennings now lives in Brighton, where she is a campaign manager at International Aid for the Protection & Welfare of Animals, as well as the founder of the blog Claws Out. ‘Fewer UK agencies are sending volunteers out, but it’s a global market; they aren’t going to be short of business any time soon.’ 

Sensing the mood, Safari Club International (SCI) – the world’s largest hunting club with 50,000 members – announced an opposition to ‘the hunting of African lions bred in captivity’ in February 2018. Despite its new policy of not allowing ‘operators to sell hunts for lions bred in captivity at the SCI Annual Hunters’ Convention’, at least 10 canned-hunting operators were present at the SCI convention in Reno, Nevada, in January. ‘SCI is investigating reports that suggest the policy may not have been followed,’ a spokesperson told me.

New hunting markets are opening up in countries with no trophy bans: Russia, UAE, China. The first-ever international hunting expo in China is to take place in Shanghai, in June. Four hundred lion trophies were sent to Eastern bloc countries from South Africa last year. And despite a national freeze on any lion-bone exports since the start of 2018, owing to legal action brought by the NSPCA, there is still ‘lion bone leaking out of the country’, says Trendler. Another loophole is the legal export of live animals. About 300 live lions (and tigers) have gone to south-east Asia from South Africa over the last two years. ‘That should be ringing all sorts of alarm bells,’ says Michele Pickover, director of EMS foundation, an animal- and human-welfare charity.

American dentist Walter Palmer (left), who hunted Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe, with earlier prey

Four Paws, along with other animal charities, is calling for the closure of all lion-breeding farms. ‘No canned hunting, no bone trade, nothing,’ says Hildegard Pirker.

‘The whole industry contributes nothing to lion conservation,’ says Dr Mark Jones, head of policy at the Born Free Foundation. In fact, ‘the bone trade may present a risk to wild-lion conservation because the existence of a legal trade can incentivise the poaching of wild lions and other wild cats. 

‘The industry needs to close down,’ he continues, but he notes the challenge that presents: ‘You’re talking about 8,000 to 12,000 sentient animals on these facilities. What does closure look like in terms of what happens to those animals? Their welfare must be respected.’

The South African government recently announced it is to appoint ‘a high-level panel’ to review policies on the management, breeding, hunting and trade of various animals including lions. ‘The panel will identify gaps, seek to understand and make recommendations,’ according to a press statement.

‘The government is in a difficult position,’ Trendler admits. ‘They have allowed this industry to grow. They have given out permits and legalised it.’  ‘The South African government has created a monster here,’ says Pickover, ‘and to get rid of that monster is really going to be a challenge.’

The 5th Global March for Elephants and Rhinos, to save endangered wildlife and protest against  trophy imports, will take place from 11am today, Cavendish Square, London W1.

For more information on Four Paws, visit four-paws.org.uk