Lion Whisperer

At the tender and very naive age of 22/23 I was working with lions in captivity. The facility where I started working was pretty revolutionary in the 60’s when it opened, as it seemed to be a pretty good compromise between the wild and captivity at a time when only an elite handful could afford to go to the national parks like, The Kruger National Park. It basically afforded people who couldn’t afford to go to Kruger or who simply didn’t have enough time, the opportunity to drive in their own car around a reserve which had different prides of lions in areas of up to 5 hectares. It made for good photo opportunities and was extremely accessible from the Johannesburg area.   

The park also offered the opportunity to pet a cub or let tourists have their photo taken with a cub which obviously enhanced the experience.

Back in the 60’s there weren’t too many parks like this.

However now days there are literally hundreds of parks like this, many of which offer cubs for the public to pet, because if they don’t, they lose their competitive advantage and patrons will simply go somewhere else where it is offered.

At face value this doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. Mostly, the cubs seem to be cared for, get access to veterinary care and tourists enjoy a cuddle and a cool picture that they can later post on all the social media sites known to mankind. Seems like a win, win situation.

However, if one starts to just scratch a bit deeper, things emerge about this sinister industry that will make any animal lovers hair stand on end. It’s known as ‘Canned Hunting’.

In 1998 there were around 2500 lions in captivity. Today there is difficulty in obtaining exact numbers as many operations are very secretive about the number of lions they house, even though its law to let the permit issuing Authorities know. It should be a simple exercise of phoning Nature Conservation and asking. The number is anywhere between 6000 and 8000 in my opinion, most of which are destined for the ‘Canned Hunting’ industry.

Let’s explain a little about it:

In 1998 a television investigative journalism program based in the UK did an exposé on ‘canned hunting’, known as ‘The Cook Report’. The Journalist went undercover posing as a hunter, with the intention to film a ‘canned lion’ hunt. Before pulling the trigger he revealed to the people involved who he was and what he was doing. A scuffle ensued but luckily the tv crew and the team managed to get away unscathed. The piece was later aired and footage emerged that was secretly filmed on another farm of a lioness being shot from a vehicle next to a fence whilst her cubs watched from the other side, isolated from getting to her. This naturally caused an uproar and upset even the most hardened non animal lover. It was dubbed a ‘National Disgrace’ and government was implored to do something about it.

Read the full story here:

They did try and half-heartedly introduced some very bizarre measures to try and make the whole process of ‘Canned Hunting’ seem humane by introducing a ‘wilding’ period before captive lions could be hunted. The Predator Breeders took the Minister to court on the matter and period of ‘rewilding’. The court ruled in favour of the Minister and what seemed like a victory for lions was short lived as the decision was taken on appeal. The Supreme Court of Appeals ruled in the Predator Breeders favour on the basis that hunting captive lions was a closed system and that they contributed zero to lion conservation and that the Minister of Environment didn’t have any jurisdiction over this matter and that this actually fell into the lap of the Minister of Agriculture, responsible for livestock farming and its regulations.

To date the issue remains a ‘hot potato’ and the fate of captive bred lions hangs in the balance, but meanwhile the ‘canned hunting’ continues with vigor.

But what people seem to miss is the link between petting a cub and the ultimate shooting of that same lion in a ‘Canned Hunt’.

If you start scratching around, you begin to see the more sinister side of cub petting, something which on its own doesn’t seem so bad.

The first question one needs to ask is, what ultimately happens to all the hundreds, if not thousands of cubs that are too old and dangerous to be petted by general public? What happens to lions once they are too old to walk safely with? Certainly not all can land up in reputable zoos around the world or game farms in South Africa that most guides will tell you they go to. They also definitely don’t repopulate wilderness areas as others would have you believe. There simply aren’t any areas suitable for captive lions that aren’t already populated by wild lions They land up being sold at a premium to farms that are in some way or another connected to ‘Canned Hunting’.

Today's much loved lion cub that is petted becomes tomorrows trophy and the unsuspecting tourists have blood on their hands. They are literally, unwittingly part of the process of ‘Canned Hunting’,  because they have been hoodwinked into believing that their contribution of funds is going into lion conservation. ‘Canned hunting’ isn’t a single event of a pseudo hunter shooting a lion in a situation whereby the lion has been ear marked and stands no chance of fair escape, it’s a process starting with the petting of a cute cuddly cub.