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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...

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.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max 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. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed 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. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn