THREE weeks ago, I stated in this column that objectively, Cecil the Lion “has achieved far more in death than he ever achieved in life… His death has brought into sharp profile the declining numbers of lions in the wild in Africa; (and) it has shone a bright light on the hunting industry and the divide between ethical and unethical players”.
It is a sentiment that was echoed in conversations I had with some of South Africa’s leading environmentalists at the premiere last Thursday of a remarkable (and very timely, given Cecil’s death) new documentary feature film, “Blood Lions”. And I use the word environmentalists advisedly – these were not bunny huggers or animal rightists, but environmentalists and conservationists.
Tracing investigations done over 16 years by environmental writer and safari operator Ian Michler, and bringing in as an undercover investigator American hunter, Rick Swazey, it is a devastating exposé of the multi-million dollar South African predator breeding and canned lion hunting industry.
But even more importantly, it lays out in very clear terms why – contrary to other species – the introduction of captive bred lions into a wild or semi-wild environment is not actually benefiting conservation of the species at all. And that for me is the most compelling argument to have the practice outlawed. I fully support ethical and sustainable hunting where it means the preservation and enlargement of habitat, and a growth in wild game numbers through reintroduction of species – but this film makes it absolutely clear that lions, and other large predators, need to be treated very differently.
“Unless under the auspices of an authentic team of scientists and conservationists, breeding lions and other predators in cages or enclosed areas has no conservation value whatsoever,” the team behind the film says on their website.
And in a warning to foreign “volunteers”, who collectively pay up to $100 000 per month per lion farm to have their Out of Africa moments cuddling lion cubs, the team says “very few, if any of the private lion farms and predator breeding facilities in South Africa can be regarded as genuine conservation undertakings as they do not work in conjunction with recognised lion ecologists and scientists or any of the global predator conservation agencies…making use of volunteers has become one of the most lucrative revenue streams…
“There has not been a successful lion reintroduction programme using captive bred and reared lions in South Africa. Lion conservationists warn that captive bred lions are not suitable for reintroduction programmes… South Africa has no need to be breeding lions for release into wilderness areas. In addition, if there was such a need, using hand-reared or human-imprinted and genetically contaminated lions is not an acceptable way of doing this.”
Annually, some 800 captive bred lions are “hunted” in South Africa. I put “hunted” in inverted commas, because frankly, they are not hunted, they are gunned down. The film has footage of US hunter Swazey out on a scouting drive, and at the sound of the vehicle’s engine, the male lion comes trotting out of the bush, habituated as it is to associate vehicles and humans with food.
There is plenty of footage in the movie of captive lions showing terrible signs of stress and trauma, living in appalling conditions, and having their cubs removed from them after just a few weeks (and then being cuddled and hand-reared by high paying volunteers) to speed up the breeding cycle. And it is staggering to hear that there are around 200 of these breeding farms with as many as 7 000 lions on them throughout South Africa.
The screening on Thursday night left the audience – many of whom, as mentioned, were leading conservationists and who are not squeamish about hunting – shaken. Present were also members of Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Environment Affairs, and chairperson Jackson Mthembu said he would ensure the committee would investigate the issue further.
Go see the film if you can, and see the trailer at www.bloodlions.org