By Jacalyn Beales - Founder & Editor-in-Chief
The recently shocking news about starving lions at a notorious breeding farm in Limpopo Province has shocked the lion advocacy community. Walter Slippers, a well-known lion breeder and owner of a breeding and hunting farm in the Limpopo Province, has been outed as owning over 200 lions, more than half of which were photographed as being severely malnourished and poorly cared for. On the heels of this news comes an statement from the South African Predator Association (SAPA) in which they claim they have long warned against the so-called "rabid media campaign" against captive lion breeding, stating that animal rights activists have been utilizing the lion to further their own political and financial agendas. They seek to essentially blame animal rights activists for the state of the captive-breeding industry and the subsequent "breakdown in certain vulnerable sectors of the industry," leading to misery for thousands of animals.
The captive breeding of lions in Africa is not a new practice - it has, in fact, been occurring for more than two decades in countries like South Africa, where lions are bred in captivity for the purpose of exploiting them in cub petting and canned hunting schemes. Whereas the death of Cecil the Lion in 2015 showed the world the truth behind trophy hunting in Africa, the news of starving lions in Limpopo showcases the cruel underbelly of the captive-breeding industry and highlights how severe of an issue it has become. With over 200 lion ranches existing just in South Africa alone, with an estimate of 6,000-8,000 captive lions stuck behind cages, it's no wonder advocates rally and cry out for an end to this despicable industry. Meanwhile, organizations like SAPA and PHASA choose to strategically distance themselves from canned hunting when lions like Cecil are killed, but manage to put in their two cents when it comes to biodiversity management and the supposed "benefits" of captive breeding and canned lion hunting.
As the truth about these industries comes to light, however, we begin to see a shift away from the interest in exploiting lions for profit. Volunteer organizations, for example, are slowly but surely moving away from offering trips and travel experiences where tourists and millennials can visit Africa to pet cubs or help raise infantile lions in facilities like the one ran by Slippers. With the additional ban on lion trophies in countries like Australia, paired with the multiple airlines banning the transport of trophies from Africa, major waves are being made to ensure Africa's lions are kept off the hunting "menu." The USFWS listing the lion as "threatened" in 2015 and further restricting import permits unless hunters can prove their trophy somehow contributes to lion conservation is surely a move in the right direction.
But the decrease of interest in lion exploitation across countries like South Africa comes with its own set of difficult consequences. Many experts, advocates and conservationists knew that the lack of such interest would mean thousands of lions being left behind in cages, a stark reality we have no choice but to wake up to. As cub petting facilities and hunting operators lose money from the lack of interest in petting lions or killing them for trophy, there are still lions waiting listlessly with little hope of being saved. The old adage of "you can't save them all" could not be more true for the massive population of captive-bred lions currently existing just in South Africa alone, much less other countries and regions of Africa which face their own issues regarding captive-bred lions. The fight to save Africa's lions has been a successful one, but even success can have pitfalls. As Lion Aid recently stated, "The reality now is that we have to manage the price of success - many of the 8,000 or so lions bred to provide gun fodder are now in limbo."
The sad reality is that, despite what we all want to believe, there are not enough sanctuaries in countries like South Africa which could take on more lions, much less thousands of captive-bred ones. The likelihood of giving all of these lions a home where they can peacefully live out their lives free of exploitation is, unfortunately, low. Instead, experts recommend the focus be turned to ensuring captive lion breeding is stopped so as to keep more lions from suffering the same fate. We can blame hunters, predator associations and poor legislation until the cows come home, but much of the responsibility lies on the shoulders of South Africa. It has encouraged the captive breeding, canned hunting and cub petting industries and has allowed them to flourish, something which does not come as a shock to many. The country's government has successfully turned a blind eye to the issue of captive breeding and has, if anything, helped it develop into the thriving industry it has become - most notably when a 2010 ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) found that, because no captive-bred lions have ever been released into the wild, lion farming had no conservation value and has subsequently been poorly regulated.
It's not entirely shocking that saving Africa's lions is more difficult than many first considered it to be. The major feat of bringing down exploitative industries like captive breeding and canned hunting is indeed a success-in-progress meant to be applauded, but the challenge is far from over. As we've been focusing on saving the future of Africa's lions, it is now time to turn to saving their present. Through increased awareness and the support of work being done at a political level, the end to African lion exploitation may indeed be in sight. But first, we must wake up and smell the "roses" and recognize that there are no easy solutions to saving a species which has for decades been exploited and abused for profit. Rather, hard work and campaigning for the abolishment of captive breeding is a fantastic, if not much needed, start.
Are you a lion advocate or tour operator against the exploitation of Africa's lions? Take the pledge to #LetLionsLive by visiting the link below and help save Africa's revered species.