KILLING THE KING
: Brent Stirton/Getty ll images
Does farming captive lions for a global trade in bones reduce pressure on wild lion populations – or make things far worse?
Though I’ve visited many zoos and believe they are a great way for children, especially, to learn about exotic species they would otherwise only see on a TV or computer screen, I do find something monumentally sad about the sight of large predators behind bars. The listless ennui of animals whose entire purpose in life has been removed – all their savage, highly evolved skills and raw energy reduced to a brief surge of adrenalin around feeding time – is a bleak indictment of how we treat the natural world.
So, I don’t like to imagine how I would react were I to see lions facing a fate far worse than any zoo resident’s – cubs that are literally passed around facilities where tourists pay to cuddle them, and then end up being tracked and killed in enclosures by trophy hunters. And, with some people seemingly partial to bow hunting, they could even end up with arrows through their hearts.
But increasingly, and perhaps most sinisterly, lions are being bred and harvested for their bones to be turned into ‘wine’ and ‘cake’ for consumption in Vietnam, Laos and China. Official estimates indicate 6,000–8,000 lions are kept in captivity in South Africa for almost entirely this purpose, though other assessments estimate it could be as high as 14,000.
But why is this any worse than the dairy industry, where calves are taken from their mothers at just a few days old, or the battery farming of chickens? If farming one animal is acceptable, why not another?
“Doing this to one of the most famous wildlife species on the planet is abhorrent,” says Richard Peirce, author of Cuddle Me, Kill Me: A true account of South Africa’s captive lion breeding and canned hunting industry. “If you carry on farming lions, you are turning them into wild pussy cats. You are taking the wild out of the wild.”
Paul Funston, Southern Africa regional director for Panthera, the global conservation organisation for wild cats, is perhaps even more damning. “Where do we draw the line?” he says. “At ungulates? At carnivores? At the great apes?” Then he adds, perhaps not entirely seriously: “If South African farmers could turn a buck by breeding chimpanzees, I bet they would.”
Richard’s book is an unashamedly critical exposé of the lion breeding industry, highlighting how manipulation of people’s trust is built into the entire way it operates. As a way of raising profits, lion cubs born into captivity are ‘farmed’ out to petting centres, where credulous volunteers and tourists pay to care for and cuddle them, while being assured that they will one day be returned to the wild. Some cubs may progress to being ‘walked’, also by paying customers, but eventually they get too old for that as well.
For the record, the South African Predator Association (SAPA), which represents lion breeders, has said that it “disapproves” of this type of “lion tourism”.
Cathrine Nyquist was one of the thousands who have been duped over the years. “I was in between jobs and I’d always wanted to do some voluntary work,” she says. “Among the projects that came up when I started researching were some about saving abandoned lions. I jumped on that.”
A lion in a breeding cage on a South African farm. While big-
cat farming is growing, the wild lion population in Africa may be about 20,000.
BBC Wildlife 28