In South Africa, Tigers and Other Captive Predators Are Still Exploited for Profit. Legislation Offers Pitiful Protection
Stephanie Klarmann - The Revelator

The captive predator industry threatens the welfare of thousands of big cats kept for entertainment, hunting, and commercial trade of live animals and their body parts.


In South Africa, an insatiable desire for lions — whether to view the big cats in captivity, interact with cubs, hunt them for sport, or trade in their body parts — has created an explosion in their captive populations. Approximately 8,000-10,000 lions are now kept in captivity across the country, compared to the estimated 3,490 wild lions across our reserves and national parks. Activists and the media have given extensive attention to this cruel, inhumane industry, but significantly less is known about the other exotic cat species bred, kept, traded, and even hunted for this burgeoning industry built on greed and cruelty.

For instance, in 2022 the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment confirmed that at least 70 captive facilities kept 463 tigers across South Africa. Yes, tigers — the same endangered Asian big cats subject to intense conservation efforts, with a wild population estimated at just 5,500 animals.

Those of us working against this captive trade suspect the actual number of tigers in the country is much higher, as the department does not require captive facilities to register the big cats. The data provided by provincial authorities is only as accurate as the information provided by willing facilities.

And tigers are just one element of this industry. Across the country approximately 400 captive facilities keep indigenous and exotic cats of multiple species for tourism activities, breeding, trading in live animals and their body parts, and hunting.

A male lion sits behind a wire fence
Captive African lion. Stephanie Klarmann, Blood Lions

The Blood Lions documentary and subsequent campaign — I’m part of the team and the campaign coordinator — has been instrumental in exposing the cruel realities of the captive predator industry. Our work focuses on conducting research and lobbying in both public and government spheres to influence policy. An important and necessary challenge we now face is not only pushing against the captive lion industry and all its associated activities, but also addressing the proliferation of other big cat species in captivity for commercial gain.


South Africa’s Contribution to the Legal and Illegal Trade in Body Parts

Tigers bred in South Africa don’t always stay here. From 2012 to 2022[1], South Africa exported a minimum of 397 live tigers and 101 tiger body parts and hunting trophies, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species trade database.[2] And that’s just the so-called legal trade.

I recently spoke with Karl Ammann, an environmental photographer and investigative filmmaker who has spent years uncovering the ties between South Africa and the international wildlife trade.

Through his work in Vietnam, he’s interviewed dealers who sell tiger “cake” (boiled-down tiger bone) for use in traditional medicine. They’ve revealed that their stock is primarily imported from South Africa. Some were even able to provide shipment dates when they expected stock to arrive, all without legitimate documentation.

The demand for wildlife products like this threatens multiple species. With tiger bone supplies dwindling and an ever-increasing demand for bones for medicinal purposes, traffickers have turned to lion bones sourced from captive-bred lions in South Africa as substitutes.

Meanwhile the trade in live tigers bred in South Africa and destined for Southeast Asia is thriving, according to Ammann. His investigations show that Southeast Asian breeding farms lose a significant number of cubs to inbreeding, making the live trade from South Africa necessary to supplement the captive gene pool.

This shouldn’t be allowed, as tigers are protected under CITES Appendix I, which restricts virtually all trade in the species. But exporters game the system by using the CITES Z code, which declares the animals they’re shipping are destined for zoos and public display. “The fact is, they are all for primarily commercial purposes, which should not be possible,” says Ammann.


Concurrent Legislation Hampers Regulation of the Captive Industry

South African authorities have announced their intent to close the commercial captive lion industry. But conservationists and welfare advocacy groups remain concerned. We worry that this will turn increased attention to the breeding, keeping, and trading of exotic big cats like tigers, jaguars, black leopards and pumas.

South African law currently considers these big cats “alien species” due to their natural occurrence outside of South Africa; but possessing, breeding, trading, and controlling these species is still considered a restricted activity under Chapter 7 of our Threatened or Protected Species Regulations (TOPS).

Dr. Louise de Waal, campaign manager of Blood Lions, highlights that this is a gray area, as South Africa’s provinces have the autonomy to implement national legislation differently regarding exotic species. Provinces may or may not implement national legislation concurrently with their own local laws; it’s up to them.

For example, provincial authorities in Gauteng, Limpopo and Eastern Cape do not require permits to possess exotic animals in captivity. However, owners in these provinces must still hold permits for other restricted activities, such as transport, for exotic species to move within and between provinces, although violations have been reported.

This issue has become prevalent in Gauteng, where several instances of inappropriate, negligent, and cruel tiger ownership have been exposed by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and in the media. In January 2023 a privately owned tiger escaped its cage before attacking one person and killing two dogs in Walkerville. Later that same month, second tiger escaped in a residential area in Edenvale. In 2021 two tigers were found kept in a residential back garden constrained by nothing more than a fence, despite the obvious safety hazards this posed to neighbors and the children.

A tiger stands behind a wire fence
An inbred white tiger. Stephanie Klarmann, Blood Lions

As for hunting exotic species, that’s considered a restricted activity under the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act and requires a TOPS permit. But communication with the provincial authority in the North West revealed that the province does not issue hunting permits. For exotic big cat species, a hunt can occur if written permission is provided by the landowner. Hunting clientele coming to South Africa for a big game trophy hunt can bag an exotic big cat bred and raised in captivity with nothing more than the landowner’s consent.

Even on the national level, the registration and subsequent permitting for exotic species does not provide regulations for the welfare, well-being, and husbandry needs of the animals, according to Karen Trendler, an animal welfare expert from Working Wild and an NSPCA board member. Overall the regulations are completely inadequate, especially for exotic species being kept, bred, traded and hunted in South Africa.


False Justifications for the Captive Industry

One commonly touted justification for keeping exotic big cats in captivity is that they provide educational and conservation value. Despite these claims, breeding and keeping wild cat species for commercial purposes does nothing to aid their conservation in wild habitats. In fact, many exotic species kept in captivity in South Africa are endangered in their home ranges.

Realistically, how can tigers kept in captivity in South Africa contribute to conservation in India or other countries? Due to inbreeding and hybridization (or the breeding of two different species), captive tigers could never be used for wild conservation projects. Given that tigers occupy less than 6% of their historical range, it’s more urgent than ever that genuine conservation be prioritized.

As for education, Trendler asserts that “there are better ways of educating than keeping animals in sub-standard welfare conditions.” Although the conditions in public-facing facilities are better than those away from the public eye, Trendler warns that the public are often unaware of an animal’s complex needs and the many ways in which facilities fail to provide for them.

All of which makes South Africa’s continued embrace of the trade more perplexing and discouraging. South Africa is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which declares that captive facilities holding tigers need to support conservation of wild Asian big cats. But the minister has stated the opinion that we do not need to comply with that, since South Africa is not a range state for Asian cats such as tigers.

A jaguar in a cage
Captive jaguar. Stephanie Klarmann, Blood Lions

Her choice to ignore the CITES decision indicates the industry’s lack of commitment to genuine conservation and prioritizing commercial interests instead. Captive-industry claims regarding educational and conservation value continue to fail and undermine genuine conservation efforts by misdirecting attention and funds away from those working to protect species and habitats on the ground in their native habitats, according to Dr. Ullas Karanth, conservation zoologist and tiger expert.


What Does the Future Hold for These Big Cats?

The same attention lions have received now needs to be given to all predator species, both indigenous and exotic, that are being exploited in captivity.

According to South African law (Section 56 of NEMBA), the minister may declare “any species” — native or not — as “critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable.” That means it lies firmly within the minister’s power to grant other big cat species increased protection under South Africa’s legislation.

According to Trendler, exotic wildlife needs to be recognized as deserving of a high standard of well-being, regardless of their country of origin and conservation status.

A dirty tiger cub stands with one paw against a wire fence
White tiger cub kept separated from their mother. Stephanie Klarmann, Blood Lions

The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment is in a position to effect change, for once, in the animals’ favor. The minister has the power to prohibit activities that affect “the holistic circumstances and conditions of an animal, which are conducive to its physical, physiological, and mental health and quality of life, including the ability to cope with its environment.” Any animal in South Africa, regardless of its indigenous or exotic status, needs to receive consideration for its well-being in terms of its management, conservation, and sustainable use.

The commercial captive predator industry won’t do this on its own. These breeders, owners and traders have continuously demonstrated that commercial gain trumps all welfare and ethical considerations. To them, big cats exist for nothing more than a trophy, bones, or trivial entertainment.

It’s past time for that to change.

[1] 2022 CITES Trade Data may be incomplete.

[2] The CITES Trade Database is subject to the accuracy of submitted forms. Some exported animals and derivatives were not properly declared, so exact numbers were not recorded.


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