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Talking point

As documented in Cuddle Me, Kill Me, Cathrine ended up at Cheetah Experience, which describes itself as a non-profit conservation experience that helps a number of endangered species. Here, she “fell in love – head-over-heels in love – with the lions”. But over the course of the next year or so, the truth of what was going on started to become apparent.

Two young l i ons fo r which Cathrine developed a special affection, Obi and Oliver, played an especially significant role. “In June or July 2012, they were sent away [ from Cheetah Experience], and I was absolutely shocked. I remember saying: 'But I thought you guys owned these lions.' And they said they were looking after them for somebody else, and the lions had gone back to their breeding facility.”

Obi and Oliver would have gone on to the next stage of the industry – either to be hunted, or killed for their bones – had Cathrine, and partner Lizaene Cornwall, not intervened and purchased them for the sanctuary they have set up together. “[The industry] uses the goodness of people's hearts to trick them into giving money and falling in love,” Cathrine says.

Even Cheetah Experience says that it didn’t know what was really going on. Founder and director Riana Van Nieuwenhuizen says that she now realises some of the lion cubs they raised went back to facilities where they would have been hunted. “I would never have done that if I’d known,” she says. “We were good at saving lives – I will never ever save a life and then give it away and let that animal be hunted by an idiot.”

Riana also denies claims made on the ‘Volunteers in Africa Beware’ Facebook page that they are still trading cheetahs with canned hunting breeders. She says the people behind the social media account refuse to listen to what she says, or make the effort to visit Cheetah Experience to find out her side of the story.

At this point, it’s probably worth saying a couple of things about canned hunting. Theoretically, in 2008 the South African Government banned this much-vilified form of trophy hunting with its Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) regulations. Section 26 prohibited a whole catalogue of methods for hunting lions (and many other species) that includes poison, traps, snares and dogs. It specifically states that an ‘animal may not be hunted if it is trapped against a fence or in a small enclosure where the animal does not have a fair chance of evading the hunter.’

But it is worth noting, says Chris Mercer, co-founder of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting, that lions can still be hunted in enclosures. So, the question is: who decides what ‘small’ means and what constitutes a ‘fair chance’? And, as Chris pointed out

An American bow hunter accompanied by a professional guide. 18,000 hunters are thought to travel to Africa every year.

Even if we could accept the idea of breeding lions like livestock, the fear is that the bone trade is fuelling illegal poaching.

when TOPS first came into force: “South African conservation structures are too dysfunctional to monitor compliance with any regulations, so the lion farmers will ignore any inconvenient restrictions anyway.”

There are, however, many people in South Africa who view opposition to canned hunting, as well as the bone trade, as sentimentalism masquerading as wildlife conservation. One is Ron Thomson, co-director of the True Green Alliance, a campaigning organisation set up to promote ‘sustainable utilisation of wildlife’ and to oppose what it calls the ‘animal rights movement’. Ron was previously a game warden in Zimbabwe, where wildlife management frequently involved shooting man-eating lions, and he’s not squeamish about getting wildlife to pay its way.

Ron claims to have thoroughly investigated the captive lion industry and, in a document submitted to a recent parliamentary inquiry, he describes how he visited 40 out of the estimated 200 lion farms in South Africa. Overall, his conclusion was very positive. “This industry has huge potential for South Africa, and it is worth [the] government releasing the industry from its quagmire of unnecessary over-regulation,” he wrote.

What does he feel about the view that there is something abhorrent about breeding lions in this way? “I can understand the sentiment, but it’s illogical,” he says. And there’s something else at work, he believes. “You have got people in the West who are judging people in Africa by their standards. We need to start respecting other people’s cultures – we don’t have to understand them.”

Captive lions are fuelling a burgeoning bone trade, a relatively new business that is replacing, or supplementing, that of tiger bones. Rice wine is said by its proponents

BBC Wildlife 30

January 2019

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