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Towards a cost-benefit analysis of South Africa’s captive predator breeding industry



This paper critiques the conservation and economic claims advanced by the captive predator breeding industry in South Africa. It contends that captive lion breeding offers no direct conservation value. Similarly, claims of economic significance and indirect conservation value are tenuous in light of the potential opportunity costs that the industry generates, which remain largely unquantified. Therefore, a new type of cost-benefit analysis (CBA) method is required for quantifying the potential reputation damage and opportunity costs associated with the industry. One element of the industry’s supply chain worth examining in this regard is predator interaction with tourists. This paper estimates that total gross revenue for the sub-sector is estimated at roughly $180 million per annum. These revenues represent a mere 0,96% of tourism’s total GDP contribution in 2019 ($18.8 million) but may entail extensive opportunity costs. Moreover, if the land currently supporting the interaction sector were joined up to create a number of more integrated wilderness landscapes, the total land area that could be transformed would be in the region of 160,000 hectares. Used for non-consumptive ecotourism, this could yield 960 direct jobs. Finally, the paper estimates that the potential net present value of the reputation damage being wrought on South Africa’s critical tourism sector through the industry is $2.79 billion (discounted at 5% over the next decade).


conservation opportunity costs reputation risk captive lion breeding economic damage

1. Introduction

This paper critiques the conservation and economic claims advanced by the captive predator breeding industry in South Africa and argues that a new type of cost-benefit analysis (CBA) method is required for quantifying the potential reputation damage and opportunity costs associated with the industry in South Africa.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species classifies lions (Panthera leo) as ‘vulnerable’ – not yet ‘endangered’ but worse than ‘near threatened’. Scientists have greater confidence in an estimate of closer to 20,000 lions in Africa than in a number over 30,000, and the population is likely to have undergone a reduction of approximately 43% over the past 21 years (Bauer et al., 2016). While some populations have grown, others have declined rapidly. The 16 fenced African subpopulations, categorised as ‘wild-managed’, have grown by 29 percent since 1993 (Bauer et al., 2016). Unfenced populations have done less well. The consequent claim that captive origin lions are required to bolster wild or wild-managed populations (SAPA, 2017), or may be required to do so in future, has been strongly refuted (Hunter et al., 2013a2013bMiller et al., 2016).

Despite the evident lack of direct conservation value, estimates suggest that upwards of 300 captive predator breeding facilities exist in South Africa. One academic paper (Van Der Merwe et al., 2017, p. 319) cited a figure of 297. According to the South African Predator Association (SAPA), approximately 8,000 captive lions1 live in these facilities, comprising more than 70 percent of the total lion population in the country (SAPA, 2017, p. 2). The Minister for the Environment, Forestry and Fisheries has cited a figure of 366 facilities across the country containing 7,979 lions.2 It is unclear how this figure was derived, as a complete audit of the industry has never been undertaken.

The ecological and economic tourism value of apex predators such as wild lions is not in dispute (Di Minin et al., 20162012Ripple et al., 20162014van Tonder et al., 2013). A crucial question is whether trade in lion bones from captive facilities in South Africa to Asia might threaten wild species’ survival probability through stimulating the harvest of wild lions or other felids to supply the bone trade. ‘The market preference in China for bones from wild, rather than captive, felids could result in such a stimulus’ (Lindsey et al., 2012, p. 20). Initial indications of evidence for this outcome are reported in Everatt et al (2019). Between 2011 and 2018, 61% of total lion mortality in the Limpopo National Park was attributable to targeted poaching of lions for body parts, with a clear increase in this pressure since 2014.

Lindsey et al (2012) acknowledged that supply restriction from South Africa’s captive lions could result in increased demand for bones from wild lions, assuming that consumers are indifferent to whether bones are wild-sourced or captive-origin. This point is captured in South Africa’s non-detriment finding (NDF) of 2018, which finds that the presence of big-cat captive breeding does not have a detrimental impact on wild lion survival probability within the country, and speculates that it may serve as a buffer against wild lion exploitation (Scientific Authority of South Africa, 2018). This speculation is repeated in a paper by Williams and ‘t Sas-Rolfes (2019), but it does not consider the potential impact of South Africa’s captive predator breeding industry on wild lion survival probability outside the country’s borders. Nor does the 2018 NDF.

An oft-overlooked element of the captive predator breeding industry’s supply chain in South Africa (in the literature) is predator interaction with tourists. Lion cubs are often bred in captivity at these facilities or purchased or rented from dedicated breeders. They are then exploited for human interaction (normally petting and feeding). Thereafter they typically become ‘walking lions’ (Hunter et al., 2013a), before being sold into captive-origin trophy hunting or the global lion bone trade. Some are sold directly into the bone trade (Williams and ‘t Sas-Rolfes, 2019).

This paper proceeds as follows. Section 2 locates the relevance of human-predator interaction within the broader context of the captive predator breeding industry and the reputational issues at stake. Section 3 describes the construction of a database (Appendix A) to quantify the size and potential revenue generation of the human-predator interaction sector. This section also advances the rationale for establishing a new CBA method for quantifying the potential benefits and opportunity costs associated with the captive breeding industry, given the reputational risk it poses to South Africa’s tourism industry. Section 4 presents the results from the database and quantifies the potential foregone land-use opportunities, as well as the potential foregone tourism revenue attributable to brand reputation damage. This section also discusses the significance of these preliminary findings. Section 5 concludes that reputation risk is significant and can be reasonably quantified, though the methods will have to be more rigorously developed for this type of cost-benefit work to become more mainstream.

2. Theoretical considerations and rationale for examining the economic and conservation value of captive lion breeding

Lindsey et al (2012) note that ethical issues associated with captive-bred lion hunting undermine the credibility of the wider African trophy hunting industry. They also point to conservation issues such as genetic manipulation, a problem recognised by SAPA itself (2017) despite contradictory communication that insists on the genetic health of the population (SAPA, n.d.). Lindsey et al (2012) indicated that further research was required into the trade of lion bones from South Africa to identify the potential risks and issues for lion conservation. Since 2012, a number of papers and reports have been written on the bone trade and its potential conservation implications (Bauer et al., 2018Born Free Foundation, 2018EMS Foundation and Ban Animal Trading, 2018Environmental Investigation Agency, 2017Harvey, 2018Outhwaite, 2018Schroeder, 2018Williams and ‘t Sas-Rolfes, 2019Williams and ’t Sas-Rolfes, 2017Williams et al., 20152017).

A recent scientific report notes that intensive and selective breeding of game for hunting entails a high risk of exacerbating negative perceptions about hunters, hunting in general and conservation in South Africa (Selier et al., 2018). An assessment of the literature in this report noted specifically that ‘although shooting of intensively-bred lions is legal in South Africa and was practised for years, stakeholder perceptions about the practice have changed over time as attitudes towards hunting have changed’ (Selier et al., 2018). These authors attribute the growing negative perception to the strongly negative response of hunting organisations worldwide to PHASA’s 2017 change in policy position to support captive-bred lion hunting. Tourists are also becoming increasingly conscious of the importance of not supporting activities that are deemed to be unethical (Ganglmair-Wooliscroft and Wooliscroft, 2016Moorhouse et al., 2017).

An under-explored element of the captive predator breeding industry’s supply chain is the sale and renting of cubs to facilities that sell interactions with human tourists. In the process, cubs are often removed from their mothers within a few hours of birth, distressing the lioness into early oestrus to produce more cubs than would have been the case in the wild. Volunteer tourists pay to feed and cuddle these cubs under the pretext that they are contributing towards predator rehabilitation and future release back into the wild (Peirce, 2018). The volunteer programmes that feed revenue and free labour into many of these lion farms ‘entice people, often young students who believe they are making a worthy conservation contribution, into paying substantial amounts of money to offer their services to these facilities’ (Michler, 2016).

It is challenging to ascertain how many of these facilities that offer petting or walking breed the animals themselves. It appears, from the available literature and press reports, that a large number of facilities buy or rent the cubs from specialist breeders located elsewhere and then either sell them forward (to captive-origin hunting facilities or into the bone trade) or return them to the breeders once they have outlived their interaction usefulness.

Using publicly available or email-sourced data, this paper provides a framework for assessing two claims offered by the predator breeding industry in South Africa. First, that it is economically significant – ethical concerns aside, the industry attempts to justify itself on the grounds that it has a multiplier effect on the regional, rural economy in which it is embedded, supporting not only direct employment but also other connected industries such as in the manufacturing and services sectors (Van Der Merwe et al., 2017). Second, that it has conservation value, both through private game ownership preserving land that would otherwise have been agriculturally cultivated (Cloete and Rossouw, 2014Cousins et al., 2010) and through the introduction of endangered species into the wild (Abell and Youldon, 2013SAPA, 2017).

3. Methods

CBAs are typically undertaken to evaluate policy trade-offs by attributing a theoretically derived monetary value, for instance, to an area that may be destroyed or environmentally impaired by a proposed development. Those opposed to CBAs criticise it on the grounds that it reduces natural habitats to mere monetary numbers without acknowledging its non-pecuniary value (Ackerman and Heinzerling, 2002, p. 1553). While the practice is laden with value-attribution difficulties, these are not sufficient reason to ignore CBAs. They can shed light on project externalities. Moreover, it is impractical to argue that all parts of the natural environment should be conserved because it is priceless, as that provides little decision-making criteria for choosing between two competing options, typical of the dilemma-laden world facing the policymaker. Invoking the ‘infinite value’ argument makes it difficult to motivate conservation management decisions that lead to better environmental outcomes (Colyvan et al., 2010).

CBAs often involve ‘willingness to pay’ (WTP) surveys or payment for ecosystem services (PES) (Hiedanpää and Bromley, 2014Morse-Jones et al., 2012van Tonder et al., 2013) evaluations. These methods are not conducive to the aim of this study. The negative externalities of the captive predator breeding industry may only be felt by those who are physically far removed from the facilities. A more inductive approach is therefore required, but one that nonetheless holds to principles that would be recognised by CBA practitioners.

This paper provides an assessment of the claimed conservation and economic value of the ‘visitor-interaction’ (or pre-hunting and bone-trade) dimension of the predator breeding industry supply chain in South Africa, informed by the available literature and findings derived from a database compiled by the author. The database aimed to be as comprehensive a list as possible of the number of outlets in South Africa that offer any kind of human interaction with captive predators. The database does not cover the intensive breeding element of the industry directly, as breeding has zero value in itself – breeders only make money from three revenue streams (or some combination of them):

• selling or renting to ‘interaction’ facilities,

• selling to canned hunting facilities, or

•selling directly into the bone trade.

It is not methodologically plausible at this stage to ascertain what volume of revenue is flowing to breeders, or how many facilities source from specialist breeders versus breeding themselves.3 Suffice to note that lions are being exploited at every part of the supply chain. The research value addition of this paper is derived from focusing on the little-evaluated element of human-predator interaction pre-hunting or bone-trade and linking it to downstream revenue streams in relation to the opportunity costs and negative externalities of the entire industry.

The database (Appendix A) was built with publicly available information obtained from websites or email correspondence.4 A facility was only included in the database if there was evidence that it offered human interaction with captive predators (either photographs on the website or social media showing interaction, or such interaction was openly advertised). True sanctuaries were excluded; these are defined as facilities that: do not breed predators; provide a materially better life for animals than they would otherwise have experienced (either in the pet trade, zoos or circuses); rescue animals from exploitation, abuse, injury or impairment; and do not allow any human interaction.

The database also categorises what kind of interaction is promoted; the cost of a day visit; the cost of volunteering; the annual number of day visitors (built on assumptions derived from relevant sources); the annual number of volunteers; and total gross annual revenue.

The database consists of 80 named facilities. Data about revenue was publicly available or privately obtained (via email request) for 47 of those. A sample size of 47 is a small proportion of the 297 facilities counted by Van der Merwe et al (2017), but larger than the sample of 22 that appeared in their study.

4. Results and Discussion

Based on verifiable data in Appendix A – from 47 facilities that generate revenue from exploiting predators in some form (excluding hunting and bone-processing) – annual gross revenue is estimated at $28.5m. The range is wide, with a minimum gross revenue figure of $88,560 a year and a maximum of $5.1 million a year. Based on an average figure of $606,459 and assuming that the other 250 facilities (assuming a total of 297) generate similar average revenue, total gross revenue for this sub-sector of the industry is a conservative $180 million per annum.5 These revenues represent a mere 0,96% (less than 1%) of tourism’s total GDP contribution in 2019 ($18,815,328,714).6

The descriptive statistics (in the tables below) show the heterogeneity of revenue potential and product offerings. Of the facilities that offer day visitors an interactive experience with predators, the least expensive, aside from zoos, is Moreson, which charges $4.92 for cub petting (and offers hunting on the same property). Peirce (2018) observed that within 15 minutes of arriving at this facility, 23 people had visited the lion cubs. Eleven cubs were held in enclosures of six by five metres. Assuming 80 visitors per hour, 6 hours a day for 300 days a year, the annual revenue from the cubs alone would be $708,480. The most expensive interaction for day visitors is $170 per person at Bagamoya. Assuming 100 visitors a day for 300 days a year, this facility earns $1.5 million a year. The price range and product differentiation are notable. As Table 1 below indicates, day prices average $33.65 per visitor with a median of $14.76, suggesting that most facilities use scale to maintain high profit margins.

One element of the human-predator interaction sector is the number of volunteer tourists who pay large sums to facility owners to supply their labour to maintain or build infrastructure and feed the animals. Many are lured under the pretext that they are contributing to conservation (Flanagan, 2018Peirce, 2018Schroeder, 2018).7 The least expensive volunteer tourism price is $143.50 a week (for day volunteers). Most facilities require a minimum of two weeks per volunteer and generally include meals and accommodation. Table 2 below indicates that the most expensive offering is $1,750 a week. $143.50 is relatively anomalous, and the facilities that accommodate volunteers on a longer-term basis tend to start at approximately $250. On average, volunteer tourists can expect to pay $624.79 a week. The median is $434.01 per week, which suggests that the average is being pulled up by a small number of outliers that are abnormally expensive.

4.1. Evaluation of conservation and economic significance claims

The evaluation of the claims of ‘economic significance’ (Van Der Merwe et al., 2017, pp. 320–321) are guided by the following research questions:

a) Are volunteer tourists crowding out local labour supply? If so, does this undermine the job creation claims offered by the industry, as reported, for instance, in Van der Merwe et al.?

b) What next-best, ecologically sustainable alternative economic opportunities are available and what kind of labour absorptiveness would they generate? Would they support at least as many jobs as the predator breeding industry does at present?

c) What is the potential value of the likely impairment of South Africa’s tourism brand value as a result of supporting the captive predator breeding industry (from breeding to interaction to canned hunting to the bone trade)?

4.2. Volunteer tourism

At least 12 facilities in the database openly advertise volunteer tourism, although one failed to respond to written requests for pricing information. For the remaining 11 for which data is available, they accommodate a potential 360 tourists a year (based on a conservative estimate of slightly more than 7 per week, assuming a 50-week year). This equates to potentially as many as 77 (11 by 7) direct jobs that facility owners would otherwise have to source from the local labour supply (and pay for rather than be paid). Van der Merwe et al. estimate that the predator breeding industry supports a total of 1,162 jobs; 549 directly and a further 613 through multiplier effects (2017, pp. 319–320). They argued that this is significant in a context of high unemployment, especially as rural unemployment is higher than the country average. However, they did not consider that as many as 77 permanent jobs were potentially being provided by volunteer tourists. Whether this amounts to ‘crowding out’ is a matter of subjectivity, and the jobs are of poor quality in any event. Nonetheless, the job creation claims made by the industry are worth questioning.

4.3. Alternative economic opportunities foregone

If the captive predator breeding industry were to be terminated, could alternative activities provide more labour opportunities than those currently provided by the industry? The first assumption is that lion-breeding facilities or facilities that exploit captive-origin lions for human interaction (excluding hunting) are not likely to be preserving irreplaceable biodiversity except perhaps inadvertently, due to its highly fragmented camp enclosure system. The argument that the land would otherwise revert to livestock farming or some other form of agriculture is not an argument in favour of the predator breeding industry, nor is it necessarily borne out by the evidence. Moreover, the land used for captive-origin lion hunting on SAPA-accredited ranches is a relatively small proportion of South Africa’s land under protection, as there are only eight such ranches. Even if the total land currently dedicated to the captive predator breeding industry did revert to agriculture, the resultant local employment benefit may well exceed the current employment benefits of the predator breeding industry.

Despite the difficulties of estimating the acreage currently consumed by the predator breeding industry and how labour-absorptive alternative economic activities might be, it may be reasonable to assume the following:

• Because many predator breeding facilities occur in relatively close proximity to one another (they are heavily concentrated in the North West and Free State provinces), a large proportion could feasibly be joined up (theoretically) to provide more ranching surface area.

• Joining up with other farms is not restricted only to those that also conduct predator breeding. A Google Earth search, for instance, reveals that there are a number of facilities in close proximity to each other on land that could feasibly be connected to form larger protected areas.8

• Transformed into larger ranches, there would be greater carrying capacity for wild-managed lions (instead of captive-origin) and an ethical, eco-tourism offering which may be less immediately lucrative but more labour-absorptive and sustainable than captive predator exploitation.

• A conservative average farm size of 2,000 hectares. For instance, one farm (Sondela) at Bela Bela is 4,767 ha, which is on the larger end of the spectrum.

• Taylor et al (2016, p. 3) calculate a labour absorption rate across South Africa’s wildlife ranching sector of 0.0038 per hectare (the median number of permanent employees per hectare on surveyed wildlife ranches) across the estimated 170,419km2 given to this sector. A 2019 study estimated that 90,000 jobs are attributable to non-consumptive biodiversity tourism in South Africa. If one assumes that this figure is derived predominantly from protected areas that exclude ranching and hunting, then the labour absorption figure is 0.00922 per hectare (from 9.76 million hectares of terrestrial protected area total). For the purpose of the calculations below, let us assume that an ecotourism labour absorption figure per hectare is closer to 0.006 for the sake of being conservative (and accounting for the fact that some areas currently used for lion breeding or interaction may not be conducive to non-consumptive ecotourism.

If the land currently supporting South Africa’s captive predator interaction industry (those listed in the database) were joined up to create a number of more integrated wilderness landscapes, assuming a farm size of 2,000 hectares each, the total land area that could be transformed would be in the region of 160,000 hectares. The average wildlife ranch size in South Africa is about 2,338 hectares. The proposition of joining up a number of 2,000-hectare farms therefore seems plausible.

A further 160,000 hectares towards non-consumptive biodiversity tourism – sustainable conservation – could, at a labour absorption rate of 0.006, yield 960 jobs (160,000 multiplied by 0.006). As it stands, the van der Merwe et al. (2017) calculation of 613 jobs is an extrapolation from 22 breeders applied across the 297 estimated to exist. The calculations above suggest that 960 direct permanent jobs could be created from joining up 80 interaction facilities to offer ecotourism value. With a multiplier effect of only 3, which seems reasonable in the light of a relatively conservative inclusion of only 80 facilities, the total number of jobs that could be created through alternative land use would be 2,880 (over and above the original 960) bringing the total to 3,840. In other words, the labour absorption potential of alternative economic opportunities (such as non-consumptive ecotourism) appears to be of an order of magnitude higher than what is currently offered through predator breeding.

4.4. Tourism brand value impairment quantification

Many tourists, especially volunteer tourists, are invariably unaware that they are contributing to the perpetuation of an industry that generates revenue off false pretexts and deprives the local labour force of employment opportunities in the process. Increased recognition of the fact that so many predator cubs are hand-reared for subjection to extensive human interaction, and then likely sold into the hunting industry or directly into the bone industry, seems likely to undermine South Africa’s tourism brand value. This argument appears to be especially strong with the rise of ethical tourism (Ganglmair-Wooliscroft and Wooliscroft, 2016).

Tourism demand in 2018 is estimated to have contributed at least R273,232,825,706 (R273.2 billion) to the South African economy (domestic and foreign expenditure). Employment in the tourism industries amounted to 2,892,303 (2.8 million) people (including multiplier effects). Tourism directly employed 739,657 people in 2018. Its total 2019 GDP contribution was 7 percent; R354,9 billion, though growth rates declined in 2019 by 1.5% year-on-year. Nonetheless, the total contribution of travel and tourism to employment was estimated by the World Travel and Tourism Council to be 1,483,200 (1.48 million) in 2019. A major part of tourism’s value proposition is that it is labour-intensive rather than capital-intensive (globally, it now accounts for 1 in 10 jobs). In an employment-scarce country such as South Africa, then, every policy effort should be made to protect and promote the country as an ethical destination. Of course, Covid-19 has demonstrated the importance of not becoming overly reliant on tourism for sustained conservation income. Nonetheless, alternatives are in short supply.

It is important to attempt to estimate the monetary value of the damage that is likely being wrought on South Africa’s critical tourism sector through the captive predator breeding industry. One method would be to run a large sample-size survey of tourists that have previously travelled to South Africa and ask them whether knowing the truth about the captive lion breeding industry would influence their destination preferences in the future. ‘South Africa cannot ignore the risks associated with ethics, integrity or reputation and the “triple bottom line” of economic, environmental and social issues, especially not in today’s world of immense and instant market reaction’ (Selier et al., 2018, p. 8). Selier and her co-authors also recognised that the exposure of hunting captive-bred lions affected the reputation of other role players in wildlife-based tourism as well as ‘Brand South Africa.

If wild lion survival were to be imperilled because of the captive predator breeding industry, one of the key pillars supporting South Africa’s tourism industry would collapse (Di Minin et al., 2012)9. The consequent socio-economic effects would be significantly welfare-reducing. In this respect, the exercise below attempts to place a quantitative value on such a welfare loss.

The ‘business-as-usual’ scenario assumes the following: i) continued, unregulated predator breeding; ii) annual lion skeleton export quotas despite the 2019 court judgement that such exports were illegal and constitutionally invalid (Kollapen and Republic of South Africa, 2019); iii) natural habitat destruction and fragmentation; iv) depletion of prey species; v) continued demand increase for lion bones in Asian (and other) markets; and vi) increased human/predator conflict. Under these conditions, we can assume the following:1.

Wild lions (in unfenced reserves) are at risk of extinction within the next decade in South Africa (there are only an estimated 2,876 left in South Africa’s conservation areas and a total of 3,490 in trans frontier conservation areas bordering the country). Poaching of the trans frontier Limpopo population has been escalating, as indicated above (Everatt et al., 2019).2.

Wild-managed lions (in fenced reserves – currently estimated at a population of 700) are at risk of becoming genetically unviable unless management interventions change to practice artificial takeovers (normally through a two-male coalition) (Miller et al., 2013Slotow and Hunter, 2009).3.

Wealthier tourists – who currently have a significant game-viewing preference for the ‘big five’, especially lions – are likely to become increasingly well-informed about the prevalence of the captive predator breeding industry.4.

A significant portion of wealthy tourists – some of whom may have already started to avoid South Africa in light of (3) above – will no longer visit the country, especially if the choice destination determinant is ethically conscious tourism.

One can see lions in Botswana and Tanzania, for instance, in completely wild conditions, and these countries are not tarnished by the presence of captive predator breeding. The fact that many tourists now know that the majority of South Africa’s lions are in captivity may erode South Africa’s tourism competitiveness. Reputation effects tend to impact the country level. In other words, tourists may simply decide not to come to South Africa (and visit other destinations instead) because of the reputation it has of offering captive-bred lion hunting (Selier et al., 2018).

The implications of the above assumptions are as follows:

  1. If 44.9% of the inbound non-resident tourist market is lost as a result10 of the assumptions above materialising over the next decade, then South Africa’s number of non-resident visitors (15,121,328 in 2018) will potentially fall to 8,267,416 by 2028.
  2. If South Africa loses 44.9% of its total international tourist demand ($9.2 billion in 2018) expenditure over the next decade, the total loss amounts to $4,146,880,840 ($4.14 billion). Or, in Net Present Value (NPV) terms, a loss of $414,688,083 ($414.69 million) per year, assuming a discount rate of 5%, amounts to NPV of $2,793,910,455 ($2.79 billion) at the time of writing.


This paper has shown that the element of the South African captive predator breeding industry that sells human interactions with big cats may generate gross revenues in the region of $180m a year. As a proportion of tourism’s total GDP contribution in 2019 ($21.4m), this represents a mere 0,96% (less than 1%) but may entail significant opportunity costs. No scientific evidence exists to support the direct conservation value of captive predator breeding for interaction with human beings. The idea that the industry might have indirect conservation value – as a buffer against wild lion exploitation – is a matter of speculation, which must be subjected to a quantification of its opportunity costs and negative externalities. This paper has argued that the industry’s presence forfeits the opportunity to join up currently fragmented areas that could be converted to ecotourism entities with real ecological value. Such a joining up (involving the 80 facilities offering predator-human interaction) could create in the region of 960 direct jobs. With a multiplier coefficient of 3, a total of 3,840 jobs could be created. Doing so may also improve South Africa’s reputation or brand image, which is currently being impaired. This paper suggests that the country is at risk of losing a potential $2.79 billion in foregone tourism revenue over the next decade (in NPV terms) if it continues to support the captive predator breeding industry, which in turn may put wild lion conservation at risk if demand for parts continues to grow in Asian and other markets.

Uncited reference

SAPA, , Taylor et al., 2016.

Declaration of interests

☐ The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.

☒The authors declare the following financial interests/personal relationships which may be considered as potential competing interests: The author consults to the EMS Foundation and the Conservation Action Trust, both of which are generally not in favour of wildlife trade, trophy hunting or captive predator breeding. However, neither of these entities are dependent on these positions for revenue, as they are financially independent and self-sustaining. The author has previously consulted to Stop Ivory and the Humane Society International, with the latter having funded the research presented in this paper.


This research work was generously funded by a consultancy grant from the Humane Society International to the South African Institute of International Affairs, where the author was a senior researcher during the time of conducting the research. Audrey Delsink and Dr Teresa Telecky deserve a special mention for their input during writing and stringent peer review.

Appendix A. Supplementary data

The following is/are the supplementary data to this article:Download : Download spreadsheet (26KB)

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Lions bred in captivity for the sole purpose of commercial exploitation through a range of ‘sectors’ within the captive lion industry. Managers actively manipulate all vital rates and demographics. Some are bred with minimal human imprinting (‘ranched’) and hunted in larger enclosures than their hand-reared counterparts. Others are used for cub petting activities, or what the South African Predator Association (SAPA) calls ‘working’ or ‘tourism’ lions. In petting, the cubs are exploited either at the breeding facility or sold from breeding farms to the petting facilities. Some facilities rent cubs from breeders and return them once they have fulfilled their purpose. Once cubs are too old to pet, they are either sold to hunting facilities (some of which are directly linked to the petting facilities) or become ‘walking’ lions, where tourists can walk with lions, before being sold either directly into the bone trade or to the captive-origin hunting industry. Because of the large stock of intensive-bred lions, and the declining demand for hunting, many lions are now being slaughtered directly for the sale of their skeletons into the bone trade.2

See for the official reply to the relevant parliamentary question.3

The incredibly low response rates in the Van der Merwe et al. interviews (2017) provides some substantiation for how challenging it is to obtain accurate and reliable data. Even if the sample sizes were larger (as in the ‘t Sas-Rolfes and Williams (2019) study , the quality of the data is questionable, as respondents have strong vested interests in certain policy outcomes (support of the industry); the methodological problem of self-reporting appears prevalent.4

Regarding email correspondence, the researcher asked for price information where that information was not available on the relevant websites.5

This seems a reasonable assumption and most likely results in an understatement of total industry revenue. Not all of the estimated 297 facilities earn revenue from exploiting predators for human interaction but it is reasonable to assume that the breeders earn revenue either from selling to facilities that do so or into the bone trade or the canned hunting industry (or some combination thereof). Those that sell directly to the bone trade appear to be charging between R30,000 and R50,000 per skeleton (farm gate prices) (EMS Foundation and Ban Animal Trading, 2018Williams and ‘t Sas-Rolfes, 2019), making revenue figures potentially an order of magnitude larger than the estimates offered here.6

Tourism data from the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), 2019:, accessed 22 April 2020. Not all elements of the industry are tourist-facing per se, as bone trading is not a tourism enterprise, but some form of tourism is likely to be involved in the supply chain at some point between the lions’ birth and being processed for their bones. It is therefore relevant to consider the revenue generated by the industry in light of overall tourism value, both for context and for ascertaining potentially relevant opportunity costs.7

One facility states that it is not affiliated to any parties that partake in canned hunting: ‘Almost all of the cubs that we nurture in the park belong to other predator breeders who are also not involved in hunting’. The facility admits to hand rearing cubs, something it claims as essential because the cubs are occasionally ‘neglected by their mothers due to the following: the mum does not have milk to feed them or the litter is simply too big for the mum to handle’. The reality is more brutal, as the stories in Peirce (2018) and Blood Lions (2015) reveal. Cubs are often removed from their mothers within hours of birth, causing distress to the mother and premature oestrus for ever more intensive breeding. In captivity, lionesses can produce 5 litters in the space of two years, whereas in the wild they would only produce one litter every 18 months (range 1.3 to 2.02 years). Another facility ‘offers you an opportunity to work/interact with the wild animals and gain experience like cleaning, building enclosures, feeding, and more with the wild animals, as well as the opportunity to unwind…’ This facility passes itself off as a sanctuary but has been implicated as an integral part of the breeding industry.8

See Google Earth for the Lion and Cheetah Sanctuary:,28.4539555,1170.55448405a,1057.26239235d,35y,0h,45t,0r/data=ChcaFQoNL2cvMTFjMjBmOHY1cBgCIAEoAigC, and follow the ‘places near’ tab in the top right of the screen. ‘Flying’ in to each of these places reveals vast areas of land that could presumably be joined up to form wilderness landscapes that would offer real conservation value.9

The authors make the crucial point that charismatic wild animals potentially have high ecotourism value even when populations are not viable and only a few individuals are present (that can be easily seen, especially by wealthier, less experienced, tourists). Of specific importance for assumption 2 – detailed below – is that artificially managing small populations within electrified fences may maximise economic returns but this is ‘conservation for ecotourism’ instead of ‘ecotourism for conservation’. However, these populations – at high levels for tourism consumption – may not be viable. The authors suggest that policies governing protected areas in South Africa may need to be revised to enhance species persistence through addressing, for instance, the important conservation issues facing wide-ranging carnivores (and others) by specifying larger areas. Ultimately, ecotourism and biodiversity conservation objectives should be more aligned, as the former fundamentally depends on the latter in the long run.10

This figure is an extrapolation from the Di Minin et al. study of 2012, where 519 surveys were completed, 303 of which were international tourists (58.4%). Of those 303, a striking 44.9% ‘found charismatic megafauna to be of most interest’ (Di Minin et al., 2012, p. 5). These are the tourists that are well-educated, earn relatively more than local tourists, stay for longer and spend more, and are more likely to contribute to conservation. Their willingness to pay (WTP) to see lions (among those who considered themselves ‘safari novices’) was estimated at $120 (lion adult male), for instance (only slightly lower than seeing an adult male elephant).

Original report:


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