This is a highly exploitative and cruel industry that has expanded, unregulated, in the last few decades. Now, South Africa has more than 300 facilities that breed and keep an estimated 12,000 lions in captivity, alongside thousands of other species such as cheetahs, leopards, caracals, tigers and even ligers (crossbreeds between a lion and tiger). For lions, the captive population in South Africa is now three times more than the country’s wild population.
What many don’t know is that the keeping and breeding of lions and other big cats in captivity, subjects the animals in a lifelong cycle of cruelty, where they are exploited for tourism and for their products.
The Vicious Cycle
When a cub is born in a captive facility, they are removed from their mother within a matter of days. This allows them to be bottle-fed by visitors under the guise of being abandoned by the mother. This also enables the mother to be impregnated again and give birth to another litter as soon as possible. Throughout their infancy, cubs are subjected to being handled and petted by visitors for most of the day, multiple times a week. This prevents them from developing natural behaviours and often leads to nutritional deficiencies as the cubs lacks necessary nutrients from their mother’s milk.
As the cubs grow older, they are used in ‘walk-with’ opportunities where they are kept on a leash and forced to go on several walks with visitors per day. In order to prevent the development of natural hunting instincts that might harm tourists, they are forced into submission through the use of sticks and other instances of cruel negative reinforcement by their keepers.
When cubs become too big for interaction-based attractions, lions and other big cats become the targets for trophy hunting. Males with attractive manes are the most prized trophies and the lions are released into an enclosure to be shot by a hunter. This is known as ‘canned hunting’ where the animal cannot escape. The practice is largely condemned by conservationists and many animal welfare organisations. Even major hunting groups, such as Safari Club International, the Dallas Safari Club have spoken publicly against the cruel practice. However, it remains popular with trophy hunters targeting captive lions in South Africa.
The head is prized by the trophy hunter and is mounted as a souvenir to take home. Sometimes the skin is kept by the hunter too, but the remaining bones and skeleton are used for a different purpose. These are often sent to East and South East Asia to be used in traditional medicines. Though lion bone has never been formally recognised as a form of traditional medicine, lion products are increasingly being used to replace tigers, due to the diminishing tiger population and a ban on the use of their products. The bones are used in products such as fortified wines, or they may be carved into jewellery and other trinkets. Allowing this kind of trade to continue only encourages the exploitation of big cats in this way.
In addition to the cruelty and exploitation suffered by lions and other big cats through trophy hunting and the bone trade, serious welfare concerns persist around the conditions the cats are kept in. The bone trade means a profit can be made from the animals regardless of their health, so there is incentive to keep animals in high standards of welfare. The facilities in which big cats are kept in largely unregulated and inappropriate conditions such as enclosures that are too small, poor nutrition, lack of medical care, result in unnatural behaviours, the spread of zoonotic disease, distress and even physical deformities.
We must take action now to ban the keeping and breeding of big cats in unregulated captive facilities in South Africa. Establishments that allow interaction with big cats are not driven by conservation. Cats that have been handled frequently will not be released into the wild, they will only continue to be exploited in captivity.
- Visit a true sanctuary. A true sanctuary does not breed animals, allow public contact with animals, and cares for the animals for the rest of their lives.
- While travelling, make sure to enjoy wild animals in their natural habitat, rather than in captivity where possible, and only support genuine sanctuaries or conservation centres. If you are worried about an animal or institution – report it!
- Do think about what you are eating or buying. Avoid buying souvenirs or products made from animals – often endangered species – and don’t support cruel food practices.
- Do your research! Make sure you read testimonials and reviews of others who have visited an establishment to make sure there are no welfare concerns.
- If you see animals in captivity without access to shade, water, food, space to roam, or in overcrowded and dirty facilities, please contact your local SPCA immediately.
- Do not participate in trophy hunting.
- Do not visit facilities that allow interactions with big cats, this includes cub petting, bottle feeding, taking photos with big cats and walk-with opportunities.
- Avoid feeding wild animals or supporting the use of animals to solicit money from tourists e.g. animal shows and performances, selfie opportunities, or animals killed for consumption or souvenirs.
- Don’t put yourself at risk! Big cats, and other wild animal species are unpredictable and direct contact with such species poses a high risk to people.
Remember, if you can hug, ride, touch or take a photo with a wild animal, it has likely suffered from some form of cruelty to make that possible.