South Africa to Ban Lion Breeding in Captivity

The lions are raised for cub petting, hunting, and traditional medicine.

captive lion cubs at a farm in South Africa
Captive lion cubs at a farm in South Africa.

Humane Society International

Tourists in South Africa often get their photos taken, posing with fluffy lion cubs. But when the lions grow up they’re frequently used as prey for tourists who want to hunt big cats.

South Africa has just announced plans for legislation that will ban breeding lions in captivity for hunting, cub petting, and for the commercial lion-bone trade, where their skeletons are sold as traditional medicine.

The move was made in response to recommendations after a two-year government study. A panel researched the existing policies and practices related to the breeding, handling, hunting, and trade of lions, elephants, leopards, and rhinos.

"What the majority report says, with regards to captive breeding of lions: it says we must halt and reverse the domestication of lions through captive breeding and keeping," environment minister Barbara Creecy said at a press conference. "We don't want captive breeding, captive hunting, captive petting, captive use of lions and their derivative."

South Africa’s government has approved the panel’s recommendations and the next step is to turn it into actual policy by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment.

Legal regulated hunting of animals in the wild will still be permitted. Hunting wildlife is a lucrative source of revenue in South Africa. There is a wide range of estimates about how much hunting contributes to the local economy. Some estimates say $250 million while others are as high as more than $900 million per season.

What Happens to Captive-Raised Lions?

There are an estimated 8,000 to 11,000 captive-bred lions being held in more than 260 lion farms in South Africa, according to Humane Society International (HSI).

“These farms are a mixed bag—some are small scale with others mass-producing lions in enormous scale. Many of these facilities provide pay-for-play interactions and are a) open to the public for the ‘selfie’/cub-petting/walk-with-lion experience or b) offer fake voluntourism or c) both,” Audrey Delsink, wildlife director of HSI-Africa, tells Treehugger.

Some of the larger farms are not open to the public, she says. These are often where lions are released into fenced-in areas for trophy hunters to pursue.

Historically, tiger parts have been used in some traditional medicine practices. But with increased protections for tigers and a crackdown on the illegal trade and export of tiger parts, lion parts are often substituted instead.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITIES) prohibits the trade of bones from wild lions. But it doesn’t ban the export of bones from captive ones in South Africa. Because there’s no way to tell the difference between the bones of captive versus wild lions, the HSI points out that making the export of captive lion parts legal makes it easier to illegally export wild animal parts too.

South Africa exports more lion trophies than anywhere else in the world. According to Humane Society International, 4,176 lion trophies were exported from South Africa between 2014 and 2018.

Lions are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List with their population numbers decreasing. The main threats to lions are indiscriminate killings by humans and loss of prey.

In the wild, lion cubs stay with their mothers until they are about 18-24 months old. Wild lions typically have cubs every two years. Cubs born on breeding farms are often taken from their mothers when they are just a few hours or days old. The cubs are often bottle-fed by tourists who are told the cubs were orphaned. They pay to pose for photos with the babies and to feed them. The mothers are kept in an endless cycle of breeding, typically while held in small enclosures.

“I have visited a few of the 'better' facilities myself, and was deeply saddened by the condition of the cubs, their lack of enrichment and social bonding opportunities and the constant harassment by unknowing and uneducated public,” Delsink says. “After having worked in wild, protected areas for nearly 20 years, seeing these majestic cats imprisoned in tiny enclosures, listless and despondent, and knowing what fate awaited then, was harrowing.” 

View Article Sources
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  4. "FACTSHEET: How much does hunting contribute to African economies?" Africa Check, 2015.

  5. "Counting the contribution of hunting to South Africa’s economy." The Conversation, 2018.

  6. Williams, Vivienne L. "Tiger-Bone Trade Could Threaten Lions." Nature, vol. 523, no. 7560, 2015, pp. 290-290, doi:10.1038/523290a


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