Lions have always been a symbol of courage and strength, but unfortunately, the King of the jungle is often mistreated and subjected to cruel and barbaric practices.
Lord Michael Ashcroft, a UK businessman and philanthropist, decided to expose lion farming, which has become a massive industry in South Africa, where over 12,000 of them, or four times the wild population, are farmed in captivity.
He published a book and an accompanying film, Unfair Game: An Exposé Of South Africa’s Captive-Bred Lion Industry, which provide an in-depth look at this industry, and reveals the sad truth behind the practice known as “canned hunts”.
Ashcroft claims that it has to be stopped as soon as possible, as it is “ conscious, intentional cruelty, sometimes carried out with or for pleasure”.
“It is no exaggeration to say that the abuse of lions in South Africa has become an industry. Thousands are bred on farms every year; they are torn away from their mothers when they are just days old, used as pawns in the tourist sector and then either killed in a ‘hunt’ or simply slaughtered for their bones and other body parts, which are very valuable in Asia’s so-called medicine market.
In between, they are poorly fed, kept in cramped and unhygienic conditions, beaten if they do not perform for paying customers, and drugged.
This sinister system has sprouted up in plain sight in South Africa, inflicting misery on this most noble of beasts on an unimaginable scale.”
Namely, “canned hunting” is the most extreme form of trophy hunting, in which lions are bred in captivity, drugged, and then released in a small enclosure, so that tourists, who pay thousands of dollars, can pick an animal and shoot it.
Afterward, the body and bones of the dead lions are often exported for use in the Asian medicine market. In countries like China, the lion remains are used to make pills and potions for unsubstantiated ‘medicines’.
The lions are tortured from the time they are cubs, forced to play with tourists all day long, even though they need to sleep for 16-20 hours to grow and develop properly.
Since they are being raised by hand, lions are not shy and do not fear humans, so they become an easy target to shoot.
When they reach the age of 4-7, which is their desired trophy age, they are offered elsewhere to hunters for shooting or simply killed for their bones.
Plus, anyone can hunt lions in South Africa, as Ana hunting license or proven hunting experience isn’t usually necessary.
In the film, Ashcroft shows many devastating scenes, like a lioness being shot 9 times while up in a tree, a drugged lion attached by a pack of wolves, and a sedated one shot in the back of a truck.
In the book, he explains that he and his undercover team, which included former members of the UK’s special forces, commissioned two undercover operations within two years. One was dubbed Operation Chastise, and the other, Operation Simba, when they managed to save a lion from being shot.
The team remained in South Africa for several months to gather info and evidence to build the case.
Ashcroft explained that the industry had close ties with global organized crime, so to infiltrate the business, they had to recruit a South African Lion dealer as an undercover agent, under the codename Lister.
Lister was able to provide much of the video footage that showed the cruel treatment the lions were subjected to.
Even though the mission was successful, Ashcroft knows that much more needs to be done, as “it was obvious that those who profit by abusing lions are able to operate with great ease in South Africa.”
Ashcroft says that often, lion remains are falsely passed off as tiger bones, as the latter can be worth up to twenty thousand dollars, while an adult lion skeleton can be sold for only four thousand dollars.
Yet, apart from being a threat to lions, this bone trade is potentially dangerous for humans as well. As lions can carry zoonotic diseases. He explained that experts believe that “a major public health incident will occur in South Africa and Asia as a result of the lion bone trade.”
In a press release for the new book, from which he is donating all royalties to wildlife charities in South Africa, Ashcroft said that “lion farming shames South Africa”, and “it’s time to recognize that it is a cruel and barbaric industry which has no place in the 21st century.”
Furthermore, as these breeding centers rely on tourism as the main income source, they will either euthanize or leave the lions to starve to death, due to the travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Michele Pickover, director of advocacy group the EMS Foundation, says that “ thousands of captive lions are going to be left to starve”, which is “ a catastrophe that could have been avoided.”
An alliance of groups called the Lion Coalition wrote to the World Health Organization (WHO), asking them to advise all governments to shut down wildlife markets. The letter said:
“Bovine tuberculosis has been documented among wild and captive-bred lions, posing a substantial risk of zoonosis to consumers and people involved in the lion bone trade, particularly those who work in breeding farms, slaughter and processing facilities in South Africa.”
The government has suspended the annual quotas for captive lion breeders in the international bone trade, while at the end of the year, the recommendations of a high-level panel will determine the long-term future of the industry.