Cape Town - Conservationist Richard Peirce believes South Africa is in a “ridiculous situation” with more lions bred in captivity for tourism and hunting than in the wild.
Almost all wild species are available to hunt, including protected animals like elephants, but lions hunted in captivity, known as “canned hunting” and walk-with-lions tourism, have become pervasive.
Peirce tallied between 200 and 300 breeders in South Africa, with official figures placing the number of lions in captivity at between 6000 and 8000. The Department of Environmental Affairs official figure is 200 as outlined in its Lion Biodiversity Management Plan.
“This can’t be true. If we look at the breeders who, on average have 20 lionesses and each are breeding six cubs a year, you get 120, and with the average mortality rate, bringing that down to 90 cubs. That’s around 24000 cubs a year. When you add those to the adult populations it must be much more,” said Peirce.
He said it was possible more lions were in captivity in South Africa in than in the rest of the continent.
“In Africa, we have between 20000 and 30000 lions. South Africa is the only country where this is happening at these levels.”
Canned lion hunting is illegal in South Africa, but there are no clear definitions in legal terms from the department, which makes the law difficult to enforce.
Peirce wrote Cuddle Me, Kill Me, in which he documents his encounters with the captive lion breeding and canned hunting industry. In the book, he writes about two male lions rescued from a breeding farm, exploitation and misery, how young cubs are removed from their mothers hours after birth and used for petting by a paying public, walking-with-lions tourism, canned hunting and lions shot by breeders for their skeletons before being shipped off as products for countries in the Far East.
A male lion with its mane costs around R412000 to hunt and animals with particularly dark, thick manes go for up to R743000. Females are cheaper at less than R50 000.
“Some cases that have cropped up recently are lions that are being used for muti - and claws and bones taken.
“We’ve come across instances were criminals have worn these during a bank heist because they believe they have more strength,” said Peirce.
He has been a lifelong conservationist and has written more than 10 books on sharks, poaching and other wildlife. He spends half of his time in South Africa and the other half in England and is working on a documentary, Lions, Bones and Bullets, to accompany his book.
He said he met the film-makers behind the controversial but successful 2015 documentary, Blood Lions, and wanted to make a documentary that continued on from that work.
“Blood Lions put a major dent in trophy hunting and played a part in the hunting lobby, which is a mega achievement but, in other ways, it divided the hunting community and caused a ripple effect in the industry.
“I want to present both sides of the argument and, if there is an argument to be made for captive lion breeding, I want to listen to it. I do not want to scare anyone from speaking to me out of a fear of being prejudged.”
Last year, Parliament held a colloquium on captive lion hunting. At the time, environmental affairs portfolio committee chairperson Philemon Mapulane said the issue was the most “controversial” in conservation.
“I think with the upcoming elections and the passing of environmental affairs minister Edna Molelwa, who was good on these issues, it will take a while before we get this on the political agenda again,” said Peirce.
He said South Africans had to be more vocal against the practice and should lobby the government to set out clear laws against hunting. He added boycotting farms and reserves that offered lion tourism such as “walking with lions, and petting cubs” would be a start to crippling the industry.
Peirce said it was possible that good arguments for the promotion of lion hunting could be made, but scientific and environmental evidence suggested there were no positives.
“Carla van der Vyfer, former head of Sapa (SA Predator Association), is doing one of the first PhDs on the captive lion industry,” said Peirce.
Van Der Vyfer was interviewed for Peirce’s book and acknowledges that canned lion hunting is illegal, but said she supported “lion hunting”.
“The industry is under severe economic strain because there are a lot of implications via the international channels but lion hunting remains legal and is regulated by government.”