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9 Myths about captive bred lions

Myths about lion farming often create misunderstandings, so it is important to clear up the facts behind the industry.

Here are the nine most widespread and influential myths currently dominating the global discourse about lions.

1. Lions are facing imminent extinction.

Lions play a crucial role in generating income to private and national parks and local communities, ensuring the security of their future. Globally, there are currently between 20,000 and 25,000 lions. In South Africa, thanks to the effort of the game ranching communities, lion populations are on the rise, and with continued conservation efforts, these majestic creatures will continue to thrive.


2. Captive-bred lions are genetically inferior.

“Any captive animal has absolutely no conservation value whatsoever. And that is particularly true of the captive South African lion population which is so inbred and genetically tarnished…” Paul Hart, “Blood Lions”.


Long term scientific studies and analyses of breeding practices by lion ranches accredited by the South African Predator Association, shows that lion breeders go to extraordinary lengths to avoid inbreeding. Most of these breeders have extensive cattle farming experience and are highly committed to keep bloodlines healthy. Standard breeding practices are followed that involves acquiring animals from diverse bloodlines through auctions and keeping detailed records of their breeding activities.


The genetics of the better lion ranch populations are much purer than that of the typical wild lion pride. In the wild, dominant males often mate with their close relatives, like sisters, mothers, or daughters, leading to inbreeding. However, on a well-run lion ranch, male lions are relocated to different groups to prevent incest and maintain genetic diversity.


3. Captive-bred lions can not be released in the wild

There are numerous cases where captive-bred lions have successfully transitioned into the wild, requiring little or no special coaxing. Currently, there are two notable studies underway – one focusing on captive-bred lions in the wild in Zambia and the other in the Zambezi River region.

Lion breeders, who have a deep understanding of these animals can tell you that lions are not easily startled or hesitant; they simply go out and hunt.


In the Free State a few captive-bred lions were set free into the wilderness with other big cats and animals. So, how are they getting on?

“Only too well” a game warden report. “We’ve been monitoring them closely, and they had no problem adapting. Up to this moment they have killed 7 buffalo, a giraffe, an impressive number of other game, warthogs…. they actually chase the warthogs into their den and dig them out. These guys are thriving!”


4. Captive-bred hunting is damaging “brand” South Africa

South Africa has a reputation for being the Rainbow Nation and has a thriving tourism industry. But as people learn about “canned lions”, they get traumatised by the concept and change their travel plans. Loosing tourists will cause an estimated R95 billion loss for the country.


“Blood Lions” increasingly used misinformation, slander and false accusations to tarnish the captive-bred industry. It’s regrettable that there are indeed unethical lion-breeding operations, as can be found in any industry, but the “Blood Lions” deception is to grade the entire industry on the lowest. The show is not completely honest as in reality, the lion-breeding and hunting facilities accredited by the South African Predator Association (SAPA) are world class operations. They adhere to strict rules and standards, and they consistently employ the latest and most reputable scientific breeding practises.


The accusations made against the industry are unjustly tarnishing the reputation of caring and dedicated breeders. Ironically, some of those who have contributed to slandering the industry are the same ones now complaining about the harm it inflicts on the tourism sector.


5. Trophy hunting is the primary cause of declining lion numbers.

According to Bubye Valley Conservancy, they allow and carefully monitor lion trophy hunting and their take on it is, “…lion hunting actually does nothing to control lion populations, as only 3% of the population are hunted, and these are old lone males (older than 6 years of age as per government and scientifically agreed criteria) that have already raised cubs, been kicked out of their prides, and no longer contribute to the gene pool. These lions generally end up getting killed by other lions, die of their wounds from fighting, or die of starvation either from wound or lost canines impeding their ability to hunt effectively.”


That is in Zimbabwe; in South Africa the lion-breeding industry has led to an amazing increase in the size of the lion population. For every lion in the South African wilderness, there are 3-4 healthy lions on a game farm.


6. Wild lions are hunted because of ranch lions.

The creation of a market for canned lion hunts by lion farms put a clear price tag on the head of every wild lion. They create a financial incentive for local people, who killed with poachers or turn a blind eye to illegal lion kills. Trophy-hunters who begin with a captive-bred lion may then graduate to the real, wild thing.” Fiona Miles


People have been hunting wild lions for trophies for a very long time before the existence of ranch lions. Since then, they have switched to lions on game farms.


7. There is no conservation value in captive-bred lions.

Many farmers have used money from captive-lion trophy hunting to turn dusty cattle farms into lush wilderness areas. Many other species have thrived on these farms with several of them subsided by income deriving from ranch lions.


The ranch lion industry has satisfied the demand for lion bones, discouraging poachers from infiltrating our national parks. Hunters have increasingly chosen captive-bred trophies over hunting wild lions, which is beneficial for the preservation of wild lion populations. Moreover, lion ranches have made a substantial investment in research, release studies, genetic enhancement, lion census efforts, and bloodline management, totaling millions of rands.


8. “Ranch lion hunting” is just the same thing as “canned hunting”.

“Canned hunting” definition according to Chris Mercer on “Blood Lions”:

“Canned hunt is where the target animal is unfairly prevented from escaping the hunter, either by physical constraints such as fencing, or by mental constraints such as being habituated by humans”.


Nobody with a sane mind is in favour of “canned hunting”, and certainly not the lion ranch owner who are accredited by SAPA who are against these practises. Getting accredited is tough. The specifications and regulations are numerous and stringent. farm that fits the “canned hunting” as described by Mercer will ever receive accreditation.


How does captive-bred hunting differ from “canned hunting”?


SAPA ranch lions are bred and raised in large camps with plenty of shelter. Conditions must adhere to international animal welfare standards for lions. Cubs may not be removed from their mothers before the age of three months. There is little or no contact between lion and human; certainly not enough for the human presence to be imprinted on the feline mind.


The grown lions are removed to game ranches which must also be SAPA Accredited and released in hunting areas which have been approved by a panel of fastidious conservationists, breeders, animal behaviourists and hunters. Hunting areas vary significantly across different regions. A thousand hectares on the flatlands of the Free State presents a vastly different landscape compared to a Bushveld hunting area of the same size. When in doubt, the preference is given to the benefit of the animal, leading to an increase in the size of the hunting area. Pursuing a lion in an expanse of this magnitude is, to put it aptly, anything but a straightforward endeavour.


Is ”canned hunting” practiced in South Africa? Undoubtedly. And it is certainly a stain on the hunting profession. It is rightfully abhorred, but members of SAPA detest it more than anybody else.


SAPA members do not raise cubs to be petted or adult lions to be exhibited. They will never condone hunting drugged or tame lions. They do not use bait to lure animals to the barrel, and their hunting clients will only harvest a trophy after earning it in accordance with internationally accepted principles of fair chase. Captive-bred lion hunting according to the specifications of SAPA is definitely not canned hunting.


9. The idyllic life of lions in the wild.

They revel in the idea that lions in the wild, compared to ranch lions, live lives of limitless freedom, happiness and family harmony and are unburdened by cares or stress.  The gambolling cub, the adventurous youngster, the proud adult, the mighty leader, the contented old codger – these are the images of wild lions cosseted by the animal welfare activist.


The reality is far different, of course. A wild lion is born into a severe competition which will last its entire life. Right after its first breath it must fight for survival and the struggle only ends when it loses. It has competition from siblings and then other cubs. For most of its life it must skulk around aggressive adults. It has many lethal enemies in other predator species and scavengers. A snake can maim or kill it. For a lion, there is no shelter against rain or hail, and no defence against disease and injury. If it is too weak or too slow to hunt, it starves. To eat, it needs to kill, but in the act of killing, it must survive the defences of formidable animals like buffalo. Life in a pride keeps a lion perpetually on edge in an intricate game of alliances and treachery, where survival is often a matter of life or death.


Lions belong in the wild; it's their rightful place. However, never think it is an easy or idyllic life.


And don't bemoan the life of properly maintained ranch lions. In lion terms they are living the good life. Even if they don't have the scars to show for it.

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