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REWILDING South Africa’s Captive Lions: Solution or False Prophecy Photos supplied by Dr Paul FunstonAuthor: Dr Paul Funston African Lion Conservation (PTY) LTD It’s Friday evening, the end of a long week. Across many wildlife areas in South Africa braai fires have been lit and people in the industry are involved in thoughts of lion conversation. Amongst all of them there is a general recognition that the management of lions is complex and has many challenges. About sixty managers of game reserves look into the embers of their respective campfires and wonder much the same thing. “We’ve got too many lions, what are we going to do with them? What a pity the contraception program didn’t work as well as we had hoped. Is there not somewhere we could translocate them to? The thought of euthanising perfectly healthy lions does not sit well.”
Similarly, about one hundred or more lion farmers sit around their respective campfires, no doubt listening to the roars of many lions in camps nearby, but also wondering. “We’ve got too many lions, what are we going to do with them? They are no longer making us any money and are too expensive to feed. Is there not somewhere we could translocate them to and thus legitimise our businesses? The thought of euthanising my lions does is not something I am prepared to do.”
Two similar sets of thoughts, right? Possibly, but there are some very significant differences. The wildlife managers employed by national or provincial conservation agencies or private landowners have collectively invested in a vision of South Africa. This includes being a world class tourism destination, with each reserve offering abundant wildlife and fantastic accommodation options, while making significant contributions to biodiversity conservation and socio-economic development in rural areas. The lion farmers too have invested a lot of money in developing lion breeding facilities, but the reality is these have no ecological integrity and certainly cannot be referred to as “wildlife sanctuaries”. Here, it’s all about efficiency and exploitation rather than consideration for biodiversity conservation. And rather than being open to the public and scientific scrutiny, most lion breeding facilities are hidden from view on agricultural farms, mainly in the Free State, Limpopo, and North-West provinces.
A stark contrast no matter how similar their issues, thoughts, and conversations around the campfire!
However, for captive lion breeders, the writing may well be on the wall. In 2021, the Minster of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment, Barbara Creecy, on the advice of her High-Level Panel, declared that the captive lion breeding industry will be phased out. That includes breeding lions for canned hunting, lion bone trade, petting, walking and other commercial purposes. This recommendation was in response to (amongst other things): widespread global outcry about the gross welfare violations within the industry, the threat it posed to wild lions, the zoonotic risk of the industry and the fact that captive bred lions have zero conservation value. The Minister is, however, facing significant resistance from the breeders and hunters who are a powerful lobby, financially and otherwise. One of the most recent attempts in their efforts to maintain captive lion breeding as a legitimate and profitable enterprise was commissioning a PhD study to show that captive-bred lions could be rewilded.
This study was done through Free State University on an undisclosed property in the Limpopo Province. The thesis claims that “the study did not aim to justify the captive breeding of lions, but the potential value of such lions was assessed” and concludes that “captive-bred lions may be considered as founders for reintroduction programmes, where wild populations have disappeared or need to be augmented in specific circumstances.”
Considering its clear bias as well as questionable and unsubstantiated claims, this study should not be given much regard.
In addition, the thesis raises the big question: do we want or need the rewilding of captive-bred lions to happen in South Africa? Or in any other unsuspecting African country for that matter? The answer is categorically no! And there are a number of good reasons for this. Firstly, conservationists and NGOs such as Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and Panthera rightly question the genetic issues of captive lion breeding as well as the negative impacts on wild lion populations because of the lion bone trade. Secondly, animal welfare and activist groups such as the Humane Society, the NSPCA, Blood Lions, Four Paws and others have steadfastly raised concerns about the welfare of captive-bred lions and ethical considerations associated with canned hunting and other commercial activities involving captive-bred lions. And thirdly, tourism operators have also argued that captive lion breeding and canned hunting pose major risks to South Africa’s international reputation as a destination offering ethical and responsible tourism activities. These concerns are not insignificant and for these reasons most countries in Africa do not allow captive lion breeding.
Captive lion breeding was legalised in South Africa in the 1970s, but only grew substantially as a business in the 1990s. Without consideration for our excellent conservation reputation, misinformed and complicit authorities allowed captive breeding of lions for canned hunting, cub petting, walking with lions, white lion breeding, and finally the lion bone trade to flourish in the decades that followed. At its peak in 2014, South African lion breeders were legally exporting about 1600 lion skeletons a year. The dark side of the captive lion breeding industry was exposed for the first time in May 1997 by Carte Blanche. Since then, the associated abuse and cruelty of the industry has been documented many times, despite the attempts of lion breeders to conceal it.
By the time Judge Kollapen made his ruling in August 2019, when he set aside the 2017 and 2018 lion bone quotas, captive lions outnumbered wild lions by a staggering four to one. In search of the financial gains, this indicated how the industry had grown, and having 12000 captive lions as opposed to about 3000 wild lions was an indictment on all involved. But, back to the future, which for the predator breeders, is now in the hands of the current Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment. Despite the past growth in operators and the number of captive bred lions, the Minister’s decision to close the industry has been a deterrent of sorts. This follows on from the Minister declaring a zero quota for lion bone exports since 2019 as well as growing opposition worldwide. With fewer opportunities to profit from the captive lions, it leaves the breeders with a hefty financial burden. Thus, it is not surprising that lion farmers hope to legitimise their activities by overturning the long-held notion that their lions have no conservation value and can be rewilded to “restock” areas where lions have disappeared.
However, all currently available areas for lion reintroduction in South Africa are already satiated with wild or managed wild lions. Managed wild lions are wild lions which have been reintroduced into smaller fenced reserves and are managed to limit population growth and maintain genetic diversity. And they were originally sourced from Kruger, Etosha and Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Parks, starting in the early 1990s with introductions to Pilanesberg and then to Phinda.
Today, managed wild lions have been reintroduced to some 58 reserves across South Africa and are maintained as a genetically robust metapopulation comprising about 900 lions. Simply put, a metapopulation is a population of individuals of a species connected with free exchange of genetic material. South Africa’s managed wild lions were officially recognised by the IUCN as a legitimate component of South Africa’s approximately 3000 wild lions in 2015. They thus add substantially (about 5%) to the total wild lion population in Africa, with South Africa supporting the second largest number of wild lions of all countries in Africa (15%). South Africa’s wild lions are genetically diverse and of incredible value on a continent where lion populations are in a steady decline. These successes in the management of wild lions, which come at considerable costs in terms of effort and resources, is something that we should be immensely proud of as South Africans. Conservationists and reserve managers do not want this record of keeping wild lions genetically sound to be diluted by lions with questionable genetic backgrounds and with unknown levels of inbreeding. In essence, there is no need whatsoever for any captive-bred lion to be released into our lion populations, wild or managed wild.
One might ask why I argue so strongly against the genetic background of captive-bred lions? Firstly, captive-bred lions were generally bred from a limited genetic pool, which can result in reduced genetic diversity and increased inbreeding. Originating from a small number of founders results in a genetic bottleneck known as ‘the founder effect’. This can lead to negative genetic effects, such as decreased reproductive success, weakened immune systems, and reduced adaptability to changing environments. Secondly, some captive-bred lions in South Africa may have hybridised ancestry due to crossbreeding with other lion subspecies or even other big cat species. Hybridisation can result in genetic complications and loss of genetic integrity, impacting the conservation value of captive-bred lions. Thirdly, in some cases, captive-bred lions may be mixed with wild-caught lions or with lions of unknown origin, which can result in uncertain genetic backgrounds and potential genetic risks. And lastly, there is no systematic genetic monitoring of captive-bred lions in South Africa, which makes it challenging to accurately assess their genetic status, genetic health, and potential impacts on wild lion populations.
It's important to note that the genetics of captive-bred lions in South Africa may vary greatly depending on the individual breeding operations and practices followed by lion breeders. Extensive, unnecessary, and costly research and monitoring would be needed to better understand the genetic status and the implications of captive-bred lions for conservation purposes. However, given the available supply of genetically healthy managed wild lions, the argument to do so becomes redundant. In South Africa, lions generally cannot move safely from one reserve to another. Because of the risks they and other wildlife pose to people and livestock, the majority of ‘big game’ reserves in our country are securely fenced. In the lion metapopulation, mangers therefore simulate natural dispersal through translocation. This approach was approved of by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment in a published government gazette. The process is executed by dedicated veterinarians, conservationists and reserve managers coordinated by the Lion Management Forum (LiMF). Furthermore, guidelines for their management are available in the national Biodiversity Management Plan for lions published by DEA in 2013, in which reintroduced lions are described as ‘managed wild lions’.
It is worth noting that no such forums, gazettes or guidance structures exist for captive-bred lions. They are simply not on the radar or deemed to be of any conservation value and thus the notion of them being a part of our conservation stock should be disregarded.
Being victims of their own success, managers of the various reserves in the metapopulation often have too many lions. Up until recently, managers used translocation and contraception extensively to manage their lion populations. However, the reserves that wanted lions are already at capacity, or often exceed it, and contraception has not worked well to regulate the growth rates of managed wild lion populations. There are many behavioural and physiological problems associated with this method. Unfortunately, therefore, euthanasia and very occasionally trophy hunting, are now used by managers to keep their ever-expanding managed wild lion populations in check. It is a harsh reality that without effective contraception and having nowhere to translocate them to, that the rate at which managed wild lions breed is so high that around 100 or more ‘excess lions’ are culled each year in South Africa. Managers and veterinarians take no pleasure in doing this, and I have no doubt, wish there were other options.
The above puts into context the experience of restoring lion populations in wild lands in South Africa, and clearly explains why captive-bred lions must not be introduced into our wild lion populations. The point is, they are not desirable genetically and there is no need to do so. They hold zero conservation value. Doing so would put a huge and successful conservation effort at risk. There are excess genetically sound wild lions available to meet any conservation or reintroduction program needs.
The same argument applies to countries outside South Africa. If they require wild lions, we have more than sufficient numbers of healthy wild lions and lots of collective experience and wisdom in managing wild lions to share. As a word of warning, we need to help protect impressionable governments and reserve owners being duped into allowing captive-bred lions as an easy fix to enter protected areas in their countries. It's important to note that successful lion reintroduction programs require thorough planning, monitoring, and long-term management, including taking into account factors such as habitat suitability, prey availability, social dynamics, and human-wildlife conflict mitigation. Each reintroduction program is unique, and success may depend on various factors such as the location, habitat, and management practices. Conservation managers in South Africa have largely perfected doing this with wild lions. It has even been recognised by the highest international conservation agency, the IUCN, who would quickly withdraw their support if captive-bred lions entered the metapopulation. South Africa must not risk losing that credibility and the associated conservation value by allowing captive-bred lions into the mix. We have too much at stake and too much to offer our partners throughout Africa to lose it.
The next question, and it’s a very tough one, is what do we do with all the thousands of captive-bred lions in South Africa? The question should rather be framed as ‘what are the lion breeders going to do with all their lions’? In several instances they have already shown their colours by neglecting to feed and care for them, resulting in their lions becoming the problem of organisations such as the NSPCA. The NSPCA inspectors see the worst of the abuse and cruelty, and they know that euthanising excess lions is far more humane than starving them and not giving them adequate care. Moreover, we have already seen an increase in the number of lion skeletons arriving in the ports of Vietnam from South Africa, suggesting that culling by lion breeders is already underway. Talk of rewilding captive-bred lions is a distraction from the reality that the government now seeks to end the exploitation. It’s a poor attempt to maintain the status quo, to find any reason, however implausible, to continue the captive breeding of lions for profit. In an effort to shift public discourse surrounding the issue, the PhD study has wrongly claimed that Minister Creecy’s intention is to “kill” the remaining 8,000 captive lions. This is simply sensationalism and misinformation. The Government has never issued a statement or declared its intention to kill 8,000 captive lions, and there is absolutely no factual evidence to suggest this.
On the contrary, the Minister has set up a Ministerial Task Team to assess voluntary exit options and pathways for captive lion breeders. This includes ensuring the wellbeing of remaining captive lions is prioritised. Through my observations, a sterilisation process is urgent, and then where feasible, healthy lions should be relocated to genuine sanctuaries, although these are few and far between, with most already nearing capacity. In cases where the lions have been kept and bred in repulsive conditions, euthanasia will be the most humane option. Thus, this industry narrative that there are 8,000 perfect captive-bred lions ready to be rewilded instead of being “killed” by the Minister should be dismissed with the contempt it deserves as nothing more than an attempt to spread fear and ignorance. This PhD study was not intended as part of an exit strategy by the lion breeders, but rather to legitimise lion breeding, and to make false claims that it contributes to conservation. For almost as long as the captive lion breeding industry has existed, conservation organizations and experts have repeatedly expressed that the conservation value of captive-bred lions is zero. If this study were to face up to genuine science, I would argue that it wouldn’t see publication.
In this opinion piece, I have laid out the substantive reasons why captive breeding lions does not contribute to conservation. Over and above these, I have not entered discussions associated about the genuine risks to people and livestock from rewilded captive-bred lions nor the devastating rise in the poaching of wild lions for body parts that this industry precipitated. Instead, I have contrasted the study’s claims with the well-managed direct alternative of free living managed wild lions, which are of genuine conservation value in South Africa and could be of conservation value to several African countries within the range of the southern and eastern species of the African lion. It is true that wild populations of Panthera leo melanochaita need our urgent attention. This should be what we ponder around the campfire – how best to focus with all our efforts on reducing human animal conflicts and the loss of fully functioning ecosystems and habitats for lions. And who knows, in time, reserve managers and lion breeders might sit comfortably around the campfire and have these critical discussions. In the meantime, captive-bred lions are not a part of the discussion. They are unnecessary, the breeding practices archaic, and the entire industry a distraction and threat to genuine conservation in South Africa. And besides, hearing lions roar in the distance in a wild setting is surely more rewarding than hearing them roar from prison-like enclosures close to a homestead. Dr Paul Funston is an internationally recognised and passionate lion biologist and conservationist with over thirty years of working on lions in South Africa and most lion range states that still have lions. He has studied lion biology, investigated many of the challenges wild lions face and found solutions, and taught many students in pursuit of his promise to help save lions and the wild places they live. He finds it immensely challenging that South Africa has an abundance, even and excess, of wild lions, yet lions are generally doing poorly in all but a few southern African countries. Unfortunately, in most cases, that means addressing the challenges they face there, with lion reintroductions only being suitable for their recovery in a small number of locations.
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