Cruelty as ‘Sport’: An Overview of Canned Lion Hunting
On my first game drive in South Africa, I heard a gunshot in the distance. We were driving along a protected reserve, quietly observing the fauna and flora around us with our digital cameras. The shot was an abrupt reminder that not all areas of Africa were as peaceful as the one we were currently in. The reserve next door allowed hunting, and we discovered that occasionally we were able to hear their shots. While this particular hunting reserve did not hunt endangered animals, the cruel reality is that many others across Africa do.
Hunters come to Africa seeking the ultimate trophies. Animals such as elephants and lions are prized for their rarity, beauty, and aggression. However, many tourists are unaware of the illegitimate and unethical nature of their hunts, especially with regards to the increasingly popular canned lion hunting.
Canned hunting, which is the hunting of captive-bred lions, has become a huge industry in South Africa. Wild hunting controlled only 1.1% of the lion hunting market in 2010, leaving 98.9% of the market controlled by canned hunting. This industry has helped lift Africa’s total trophy hunting revenue to $200 million per year. South Africa, in particular, has become a hub for the industry, with markedly higher success rates of canned hunts. In South Africa alone, American and European tourists kill around 1,000 canned lions every year. Success for the farm owners comes at the ultimate cost for the lions.
Lions used for canned hunting purposes are bred for the sole purpose of eventually being hunted and killed. The slogan, “Bred for the Bullet”, has become popular amongst those against the practice. Lion cubs are often taken away from their mothers just days after birth, affecting the health of the cub due to lack of natural milk and forcing the mother into another oestrus cycle, making her more receptive to mating. In the wild, female lions will keep their cubs with them for almost two years. By separating the offspring from the mother, farm operators can increase the amount of cubs each lioness has per year. The average lioness used for breeding has around 5-6 litters every two years.
After the lions reach an age at which they are big enough to make attractive trophies, they are released in a fenced area of land for a very short period of time. Some lions have less than a week of this so-called ‘freedom’ until they are hunted. Some lions are even drugged so those paying for the hunt have a nearly guaranteed kill, which is part of the reason the reported success rate of canned hunts is 99.2%. For the entirety of the hunt the lions are at a disadvantage, and with no hope of possible survival, the welfare of the lion is completely disregarded.
Sadly, most of the time the tourist does not have a full understanding of the practices of the industry. In a study published in the South African Journal of Wildlife Research in 2012, most clients (80.9%) reported they were not fully aware of what adjustments were made to the hunting conditions in order to have successful canned hunts. However, many of the operators for these hunts reported they fully explained the concept to their clients. Even day visitors to the lion farms are not excluded from the ambiguous definitions of the hunts. Many are led to believe the lions in the farm are rehabilitated and later released back into the wild. This disparity of information perpetuates the brutal of the industry. The clients may think their experience is authentic, but instead their hunt is manufactured, which eliminates the actuality of the sport entirely.
Part of the reason canned hunting remains popular despite its immoral practices is due to the large divide in monetary value between wild and canned hunts. Canned hunts are cheaper as well as shorter in length, which is an attractive feature. Most hunters are from countries such as the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and many others. Western cultures often maintain that convenience is a priority, and this tendency has begun to influence hunting as well. Additionally, the trophies from canned lion hunting are often larger than those procured in wild hunts. This is due to the fact that wild lions must work much harder than those raised in captivity for their meals. Lions in captivity are fed a variety of meats, including beef, and some of these meats have high fat contents not typical to their diets. Thus, the lions tend to be larger.
While canned hunting has many deceitful practices, there are many who believe it can be utilized as a tool for conservation. Supporters believe canned hunting reduces hunting on wild lions which in theory would help combat the loss of wild lions ever year. However, in reality the reverse is happening. This is attributed to the need for fresh blood to support bloodlines and prevent inbreeding, so lions are taken from the wild for breeding purposes. Furthermore, canned hunting incentivizes hunters who have hunted a captive-bred lion as a trophy to consider participating in wild hunts. When asked, 79% of hunters who had hunted a canned lion said that if they were to hunt lions again they would choose a wild hunt over a canned hunt.
The practice of canned hunting puts both captive-bred and wild lions at a disadvantage. Deaths of canned lions are not necessarily protecting wild lions. The wild lion population has plummeted from around 200,000 lions to less than 20,000; all the while canned hunting has increased dramatically in popularity. What many supporters seem to disregard in their argument for canned hunting as a conservation initiative is the fact that the wild lion population is still declining regardless of the canned hunting industry’s influence.
Lions are an incredible species, and have long been highly regarded for their majesty and ferocity. They have even earned the title ‘king of beasts’. During many of my game drives I was struck by the grace in which the lions controlled their territory, and I wholeheartedly agree they truly are kings in this environment. Yet, people continue hunt these incredible creatures for the sole purpose of having a lion’s head on their walls. Canned hunting has come about because people lust for trophies, and an insatiable greed keeps the business booming. In the end, either form of hunting, both canned and wild, does nothing but hurt the lions and their dignity. In order to help protect the lions we as humans and environmentalists have to ask a serious question; is a trophy worth the risk of losing a species?