On June 23 security guards at Johannesburg’s international airport stopped a 34-year-old man en route to Vietnam. Suspicious of his luggage, they opened his suitcases and found them filled with bones — some wrapped in yellow tape, others unwrapped and covered in dried blood and traces of flesh. With the help of specialists, officials identified the bones as those of at least five lions. The traveler was arrested and charged with illegally dealing in wildlife, possession of lion bones, and contravening other South African conservation laws.
The bones almost certainly came from lions that were bred in cages or in small enclosures on a private ranch, evidence that South Africa’s large and controversial captive-lion breeding industry is still operating despite a more-than-two-year-old government commitment to shut it down. The top-level decision, taken by the national Cabinet of Ministers, was a much-publicized triumph for animal welfare, ethical tourism, and conservation groups, and it came only after years of public pressure and numerous investigations into lion breeders’ animal welfare abuses and fraud.
But ending captive lion breeding is proving far more easily said than done. South Africa faces a “conundrum,” said Kamalasen Chetty — the leader of a task team mandated by the Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment to shut the industry down — because there’s no clear means of dealing with the 6,000 to 8,000 captive lions that live on private ranches today. Meanwhile, lion owners continue to breed more cubs, saying they’ll fight to keep their businesses alive.
The 1990s saw rapid growth in the South African private wildlife industry, when large numbers of cattle, sheep, and goat ranchers replaced their domestic stock with wild animals, which wealthy hunters would pay to shoot. Many hunters were after lions, and to satisfy rising demand, some ranchers began breeding large numbers of the big cats in cages or small enclosures. Soon, hundreds of ranchers were involved in the business, some with hundreds of lions. Their clients paid between $25,000 and $40,000 to shoot a captive-bred cat — significantly less than a true wild lion hunt and more time-efficient, too, because the animals usually had no fear of humans and were easy to find.
Many ranches also began hosting foreign volunteers, who paid handsomely to hand-raise lion cubs, and charged tourists to hold and be photographed with young animals. Some used adolescent lions for “walking with lions” tours around their properties; when the animals became too large and dangerous, they were sold to be shot by trophy hunters.
Ranchers then learned to profit from dead lions. Previously, the bones and meat of shot animals were dumped, after their skulls and skin had been removed for taxidermy. But in 2008, ranchers began legally exporting bones to Asia, where they were sold as expensive “tiger bone,” to be used in traditional Chinese medicine and for other uses. Before long, ranchers and middlemen were annually exporting hundreds of skeletons, and sometimes more than a thousand.
Conservationists estimated that by 2015, about 200 ranches held at least 8,000 captive-bred lions. Almost all of the 638 lions that were trophy-hunted in South Africa that year came from this population. Most hunters were American, collectively paying $16 million in trophy fees. Although lion breeders said their industry was an important part of the “biodiversity economy,” generating income and jobs from wild species, a powerful backlash was building against it.
Journalists exposed poor conditions on some lion farms, where sick, underfed animals were crowded in tiny enclosures. Animal welfare organizations’ undercover investigations revealed that some lion breeders were telling their “voluntourists” that animals would be released into the wild for conservation purposes. (South Africa’s wild lion population is not endangered.) Leaked videos of captive-bred lion hunts showed tame animals — sometimes apparently drugged — placed in small, fenced areas for unskilled visitors to shoot. Over time, reporters documented increasingly frequent incidents of captive-bred lions injuring or killing ranch workers, lion owners, and visitors. Tourism experts said that breeders were damaging “Brand South Africa,” hurting the far more important ecotourism industry.
Some support large-scale euthanasia, even while recognizing it would generate an international media firestorm.
In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided that captive-bred lions offered no conservation benefit because they didn’t incentivize the protection of natural habitat and it banned the import of those trophies. (The agency continued to allow a small number of wild lion trophy imports from South Africa because a portion of fees did support wild lion conservation.) This prompted some breeders to mass-euthanize their lions and sell their bones, but in 2019 a South African judge effectively shut down such exports on animal welfare grounds.
That same year, environment minister Barbara Creecy set up a panel of experts to develop a management policy for four iconic species, including lions. The panel recommended that South Africa not breed or keep lions in captivity, or use captive lions or their body parts commercially. The National Cabinet, which includes President Cyril Ramaphosa, agreed, and in May of 2021 Creecy announced that her ministry would commence the consultations legally required to close the industry down. She later instituted a task team that includes conservationists and lion experts to devise a “voluntary exit strategy” for captive lion breeders. The lion breeders’ days were numbered, or so it seemed.
But now, more than two years after the minister’s announcement, the task team has begun developing plans to help lion breeders and their vulnerable workers build alternative businesses. Yet it remains unclear what will happen with the lions themselves, or how soon the industry will actually cease operation.
The first stumbling block is money. Lion breeders say their industry was developed legally, has paid taxes, and has provided employment, so they’re entitled to compensation. But the government, struggling with failing infrastructure and a 32 percent unemployment rate, says it cannot contribute significant finances to a shutdown. “They want us to voluntarily exit,” said Hannes Wessels, of the South African Predator Association (SAPA), which represents some of the largest breeders. “But we have one question for the government: What’s in it for us?” Although there are persistent rumors of private donors who have agreed to fund at least some aspects of a shutdown, neither the amounts on offer nor the names of donors could be confirmed.
Some animal welfare activists have proposed that captive-bred lions be moved to well-managed “sanctuaries.” These spacious facilities allow cats to live out their natural lifespans, prevent breeding, and forbid unnecessary handling and commercial exploitation. There are, however, very few accredited lion sanctuaries in South Africa, and these are already full.
A handful of South African hunting outfitters have recently offered discounted lion shoots, apparently to get rid of cats.
Some breeders have suggested converting their facilities to sanctuaries, but it’s unclear how these would be financed. It costs about $10,000 a year to feed and provide care for a sanctuary lion, said Cathrine Cornwall-Nyquist of the Panthera Africa Big Cat Sanctuary, near Cape Town. “Sanctuaries will probably only be an option for a small number of lions,” said Louise De Waal of Blood Lions, an activist group that campaigns against the captive industry.
Another alternative would be large-scale euthanasia of captive lions, an idea that some conservationists and animal welfare activists support. But they recognize such a move would generate an international media firestorm for all parties — including the government, anti-industry campaign groups, and the lion breeders. “No one wants to fund the mass euthanasia of lions,” said De Waal.
Kamalasen Chetty, chairperson of the exit strategy task team, said, “There are clear no-nos, and one of those is mass euthanasia.” His group is not considering that option. It is, however, open to putting down a small number of unwell or very old captive lions after assessment by veterinarians, he said.
Breeders say that their animals could be “rewilded” for conservation, citing a couple of industry-funded studies that show captive-bred lions can learn to hunt for themselves, and that captive lions on the ranches sampled are not inbred. But Paul Funston, executive director of African Lion Conservation, said that all the available lion habitat in national parks and private reserves is already fully occupied; the country has a surfeit of true wild lions. In addition to those on government-owned land, there are about 900 wild lions on some 58 private reserves in the country, he said. These cats breed well, he added, and if more protected land became available, conservationists would stock it from these populations, not with captive-bred cats.
There are signs that a minority of lion owners will sign up to voluntarily exit. A few smaller-scale breeders appear to be selling their animals to larger operators, said Mpho Mokoena, an inspector with the National Council for the Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA), who visits lion ranches regularly. A handful of hunting outfitters have recently offered discounted lion shoots, apparently to get rid of cats, and Blood Lions says that about 200 lions are live-exported every year — mostly to Asia and the Middle East — apparently to get around the bone export ban.
“There’s a big fight coming,” said one breeder, “and I don’t think the lion farmers are going to lose. I will not stop breeding.”
But there’s no evidence that the majority of breeders intends to stop. Mokoena said that some were transporting lions to more loosely regulated provinces or building facilities in neighboring Zimbabwe. Breeders have re-branded their captive-bred cats as “ranch lions” and are welcoming back American shooters. Even though the U.S. still does not allow these trophies to be imported, Pennsylvania-based Kanati Taxidermy Studio has developed a workaround: shooters send the company photos and measurements of their kills, from which it creates ultra-realistic synthetic trophies — Americans no longer need to deliver real skulls, skins, and claws to their taxidermists. Wessels of SAPA said that 2023 has seen unusually large numbers of lion shooters visiting South Africa, leading to a recent shortage of trophy-grade captive-bred lions.
And although the government has not issued permits for bone exports for years, some breeders, anticipating the success of a legal challenge to the cessation of these exports, are now stockpiling bones: Wessels says he knows of at least 2,000 stockpiled skeletons in the country. He and others confirm that some lion breeders continue to sell bones to be smuggled out of South Africa, and Wessels said that he does not intend to stop breeding. “There’s a big fight coming,” he said, “and I don’t think the lion farmers are going to lose. I will not stop breeding. Never!”
Dries van Coller, CEO of the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa, which supports the well-regulated captive breeding of lions, said the government simply doesn’t have the capacity to regulate the industry and is merely “kicking the can down the road.” The government, he said, must either say, “Okay guys, let’s bite the bullet. We are going to euthanize a whole lot of lions and suffer the fallout from that,” or it must work with industry to find a “comprehensive, fair means” of dealing with thousands of captive big cats, which could include hunting them.
“The future of these animals still hangs in the balance,” said Blood Lions’ Louise De Waal. “What to do with them is the big elephant in the room.”