South Africa snared in “abhorrent and repulsive” lion hunting schemes

By Leon Marshall

Johannesburg–Thousands of visitors from many parts of the world have been converging on South Africa to see which of the teams will be taking home the coveted 2010 Football World Cup. At least some of them will be taking home trophies of their own, in the form of lions and other predators shot on any of the large number of hunting farms around the country.


The hunting trade has been taking advantage of the international event being staged in South Africa during June and July by offering football fans the opportunity to bag wild animals on many of the game ranches that have sprung up as part of the country’s burgeoning tourist trade since its transition to an all-race democracy nearly two decades ago.

Trophy hunting, especially of lion, is pocketing ranch owners and hunting operators thousands in foreign currency, especially U.S. dollars, British pounds, and Euros brought mostly by German, Spanish and French clients.

The upsurge in lion hunting especially has become a major concern to animal-welfare organisations and environmentalists. Even the South African government is worried about the bad image being created of the country.

This story is published in support of National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative, a program to conserve and restore the world’s remaining wild cats in their native ranges.

Making lion hunting more abhorrent to environmentalists is the fact that in some cases it comes down to “canned hunting,” the practice whereby animals bred in captivity get released into enclosed areas of a limited size where their trust of humans makes them easy targets.

Some hunters use bows and arrows to kill their prey.

In some cases the animals are drugged, making them sitting targets to the naïve hunters who are urged to “shoot, shoot!” as if the helpless creatures are about to escape. In this way the hunters are assured of satisfaction and the operators of their money.

The South African Predator Breeders Association, which represents the lion breeders, has vowed to rid the industry of what its chairman, Carel van Heerden, calls “these bad apples.”

About promoting lion hunting during the Football World Cup, he suggests the industry has actually suffered because of the event, and as a result of the economic recession. Football fans, Van Heerden points out, are not necessarily hunters, and because of the World Cup the ranchers could not market hunting in the usual way.

Hunting and football

They had to try putting together packages for people who were interested in both hunting and football, he said.

Rynette Coetzee, project executant of law and policy at the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), an organization dedicated to conserving threatened species and ecosystems in southern Africa, believes the timing of the World Cup would have suited the industry, as the hunting season is open in most of the country’s nine provinces during the period from April to August.

Football fans would have been told that they could use the opportunity also to hunt, she says. “It would have formed part of the country’s advertising for the event. It would certainly have been on offer at places like the big United States hunting fair.”

The use which some operators have made of South Africa’s hosting of the prestigious international sporting event to promote their brutal trade has served to focus attention once more on the enormous headache that the industry presents to the country.

The government for many years allowed lion breeding and hunting a free hand, and by the time it introduced regulatory measures a few years ago, it had already grown to a big and lucrative business.


Young white lions in a pen where they are bred in captivity to promote the rare strain which is a major visitor attraction in reserves and on game ranches.

Photo by Leon Marshall

A good trophy lion can fetch more than U.S.$20,000, and the ranch owners mostly earn a good deal more by providing the hunters with board and lodging.

Worst of all is that there are now about 4,500 lions in captivity. It is what to do with them if their hunting is curbed that presents the country with one of its biggest environmental dilemmas.

The regulations determined that lions bred in captivity could only be hunted two years after being released on a game estate to allow them time to become more wild and less trusting of people. The ranchers objected on the grounds that the costs of feeding and keeping released lions for such a long time would bankrupt them.

The hunting of lions bred and raised in captivity was “abhorrent and repulsive.”

The industry took the government to court on the basis that it did not consult with it properly and that the minister in charge of environmental affairs did not apply his mind sufficiently before imposing the restrictions. However, the high court judge decided in favor of the government, remarking that the hunting of lions bred and raised in captivity was “abhorrent and repulsive.”

The industry has appealed against the ruling. While waiting for the case to be heard by the country’s highest court of appeal, lion breeding is continuing and captive-bred lions keep getting hunted, after no more than 72 hours of their release in big-hunting Northwest Province and after three months in neighbouring Free State Province.

Meanwhile the conundrum keeps growing over what to do with the lions if the appeal court upholds the government’s regulations and the ranchers shut down their lion-hunting operations, as they say would have to happen because of the costs.

Carel van Heerden believes the only hope is for the industry and the government to work together to put lion-hunting on an acceptable footing, or otherwise to phase it out over a practical period. “The government over the years issued breeding and hunting permits, and it can’t now just shut down the industry it has allowed to develop. People have invested heavily in genetically advanced breeding programs and in facilities.

“As an organization we, too, are against canned hunting and believe in the principle of fair chase. We want an honouable industry,” he says.

Rietvlei-lions-photo 2.jpg

Lions confiscated by authorities from a breeder in South Africa, behind an electrified fence in a nature reserve near Johannesburg.

Photo by David Braun

Like environmentalists generally, EWT’s Rynette Coetzee can see no happy resolution. She says a group of non-governmental organizations have together drawn up proposals which they have presented to the government.

“Whichever way we looked at it, I am afraid to say we came to the conclusion that mass euthanasia was the only practical solution. It will be a terrible choice, but there really seems no other way,” Coetzee says.

If it were decided to keep the lions, the immediate question would be where, she adds.

The owners won’t be able to keep them without getting an income from selling them for hunting. Neither could zoos and sanctuaries take them because of the heavy costs of keeping lions, including feeding them, putting up and maintaining electrified game fences, and providing veterinary services.

“In the end euthanasia might be the more humane answer, rather than keeping the animals in sub-standard conditions,” she says.

Leon Marshall.jpg

Nat Geo News Watch contributing editor Leon Marshall is an environmental writer in South Africa. A leading political journalist and executive editor for Africa’s largest newspaper group for years, he has won numerous awards, including a 2004 Reuters-IUCN Media Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. Leon has covered climate change from a global and African perspective, having attended conferences on the issue in many parts of the world. He has written extensively on the ambitious transfrontier-parks program of the sub-continent and is now writing a book on the subject.

Leon Marshall’s blog posts >>

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • Drew

    The practice of Canned Hunting in this Country makes me sick to my stomach…when are the Government going to wake up & realise that this is a barbaric practice. We need to all stand up & start defending our wildlife, especially our Big Cats or our children are not going to have the pleasure of seeing these magnificent creatures in the wild. That would be a very sad day indeed. Hunting of Big Cats should be completely banned – why is it that Botswana can do this & not South Africa? It is shameful.

  • Wenda

    I don’t have the chance to live in South Africa, where you guys should be proud to have such beautiful animals..Please stop those awful practices

  • Cortney

    He gives a good argument. Where would all the lions go?? would it be better to release them into a country that has sufficient room or would there be laws against it? It’s a very troubling problem and if they went as far as Euthanasia they must really be out of options.

  • Rhiannon

    This makes me sick to my stomach. Who are we as humans, to breed animals just to kill them? These lions are declining in population and people are breeding them to kill them? I don’t understand how these people could sleep at night. I wish there was more I could do to help them, these animals can’t speak for themselves, they need our voice.

  • Melissa

    What They Do To Animalss Are Crazy Smhh

  • Petr

    I agree Canned Hunting is something abhorrent. The foolish “clients” generating the demand are the real villain here. There should be more people willing to pay for other forms of contact with farmed lions (petting them? watching them perform?), not just for killing them. Perhaps then the farms would base their prosperity on better (more morally acceptable) grounds. But the environmentalists’ actions lead to nothing else but confiscations and mass killings. How symptomatic this is of all leftist policies! Fortunately, in this case, only lives of animals are involved! Do not be fooled, the goal of all leftist groups is the restriction and ultimate elimination of all human freedoms, not only the freedom to own and reproduce animals.

  • Aprille Palmer

    I really cannot believe that these practices are going on. These creatures are beautiful and do not deserve to be bred for hunting. Even though they feel that euthanasia is the only solution…….there has to be a better way. No wonder many animals are rebelling and hunting humans now. Humans have desecrated the lives of many animals. Elephants and Lions both have shown that they have aggression towards humans for a very good reason.

  • ted

    mass euthanasia? suggested by an Environmental group? that’s a new one.

    and how about the hundreds of millions of odd farm animals living in industrial farms fattening up for the the chop? what makes lions more special?

    i thought south africans stopped being prejudiced in ’94….

  • Donna W.

    This makes me embarrassed to be a human. How in the world can people do such things? Animals deserve to live on this earth FREE just the same as we do. Is there a petition we can sign to stop this? Can we write the government, get more media involved? Raise more awareness? I feel so helpless.

  • jim engwall

    if euthinasia is really the only answer suggested by environmentalists, thats kinda like cutting off your nose to spite your face. I think if you could ask the lions, they’d rather take their chances out on the range. Who knows maybe they could snag themselves a human.

  • Frederik albertyn

    Canned hunting should be prevented, if not controlled and taxed heavily.
    But what is the difference , when you buy a piece of meat at market its done in the same way.
    Animals in captivity live far easier lives than those in the wild and many would never have survived.
    Would you have some canned hunting well controlled or no lions in the world.

  • icetrout

    Sound’s like to me that Tigers could benefit from being farmed for hunting.Way better than going extinct .Stop being such pin-heads. 4,500 lions is more than the #’s of tigers left on the planet.When something has worth it’s protected,really protected.

  • D

    blood demands blood



  • Oddysea R. Lawrence

    You know, it might help if people stopped hunting lions all together. Now I now its hard over there in Africa but this just isnt right. Its down right sick. Anyone who thinks they can get away with it should be fined a thousand dollers for every Lion he kills. I have a soft spot for animals so dont think you can talk me out of my opinion.

  • Lydia

    I believe with all my heart, that Ishca would be a wuednrfol ambassador cat after her cubs are grown. If she is not going to continue in the breeding program for a while, Kevin should try to acclimatize her to meeting new people in limited numbers. She has such a soft’ disposition, it should not take her very long to adjust. Having her at his side while travelling would be a huge boost to the interest and funding of the project. True, the logistics of her upkeep on-the-road’ would be somewhat daunting, but I for one, would contribute a $1000 just to meet and touch her in person here in Canada )

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