The captive lion breeding industry puts conservation and public health at risk
Jared Kukura
2nd April 2020

South Africa is replicating China’s policies that resulted in the Covid-19 outbreak, including mandates promoting domesticating and breeding wild species.

South Africa’s captive lion breeding industry will go down as one of the worst chapters in the sustainable use book of conservation. Horror stories of disease-ridden lions living in squalor made international headlines and forced the country to take a hard look at how the industry is impacting its national brand.

Looking to distance themselves from the negative media attention, many pro-sustainable use organisations publicly condemned the captive lion breeding industry on conservation grounds. Safari Club International stated its opposition to hunting captive-bred lions while the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) called for an end to breeding lions for commercial purposes as far back as 2016, though it should have made this call at the turn of the century.

Contrary to the South African Predator Association’s belief, lions bred on game farms serve no direct benefit to conservation efforts since they cannot be successfully reintroduced to the wild. Reintroduction success is severely hindered because captive-bred carnivores lack essential survival skills. Captive-bred carnivores often succumb to starvation, disease, and unsuccessful avoidance of other predators when released into the wild.

Game breeders claim their industry can indirectly benefit conservation by providing a buffer for poaching due to the lion bone trade. However, research shows lion poaching increased along with the number of legal lion skeleton exports destined to fulfil lion bone trade demand. This mirrors the results in China where poaching continues to deplete wild bear populations despite the wildlife breeding industry’s claim that farmed bear bile can help reduce poaching.

The captive lion breeding industry also brings another major risk affecting conservation efforts and public health, bovine tuberculosis. Both captive and wild lion populations suffer from bovine tuberculosis, with high levels of infection in Kruger posing a conservation risk. Lions were previously thought to be a dead-end host for the disease, but recent research suggests infected individuals can transmit the disease to other lions.

Captive populations of infected lions can theoretically serve as sources of transmission to previously uninfected wild populations. The spread of chronic wasting disease exemplifies this risk. Anthropogenic movement of farmed deer and elk is spreading the disease across the globe and infecting wild populations.

In terms of public health, humans can contract bovine tuberculosis directly from infected livestock during the slaughter process. South Africans should be particularly cautious of any industry with a potential of transmitting TB to humans. Research shows bovine tuberculosis is “a concern for vulnerable communities” in the country. Additionally, the WHO lists bovine tuberculosis as one of the seven neglected zoonoses perceived to pose severe threats to public health.

South Africa is also replicating China’s policies that resulted in the Covid-19 outbreak, including mandates promoting domesticating and breeding wild species. In a world at risk of future SARS Cov-type viruses spilling over from animals to humans, South Africa should not be contributing significantly to that risk through exporting diseased carcasses from lions slaughtered in the country with zero regulation.

To South Africa’s credit, it looked like the country was finally ready to close the horrific chapter of captive lion breeding in 2018. A Portfolio Committee of Environmental Affairs (PCEA) report called for the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) to review the captive lion breeding industry with the express intention of “putting an end” to it.

Unfortunately, the DEA ignored the resolution to shut down the industry and, instead, adopted the stance of reviewing the industry with the intent of properly regulating it. Should Hanlon’s razor be applied here? Is the DEA (now DEFF) ignoring Parliament’s call to end the industry a form of ignorance or is it malice?

In this case, it is clear the actions taken by government officials, particularly Barbara Creecy, Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, demonstrate malice in the form of prioritising the welfare of a few industry leaders over the welfare of South Africa’s lions and the health and safety of the general public. The appointment of a biased expert panel and reclassification of lions as farm animals are deliberate tactics intended to combat the negative view of the industry.

Creecy appointed a high-level panel of experts to review and properly regulate the industry. On the surface, this seems perfectly reasonable and can enable informed decision making. However, the panel of experts is heavily weighted towards industry proponents that have long benefited from poor regulation. The panel is full of CEOs, directors, and presidents of game farming and hunting organisations.

Industry leaders are not on the panel to give their expert opinions and help solve problems. Their opinions were already heard back in the 2018 colloquium that resulted in the PCEA report asking to eliminate the industry. Industry leaders are on the panel simply to legitimise their poor excuses for continuing the practice.

Creecy attempted to reassure detractors by stating the panel was developed with everyone’s best interests in mind. She stated experts were selected based on a range of skills through a robust process by a selection evaluation panel personally appointed by herself. The necessary skills of the experts and the details of the process are yet to be made public.

Interestingly, the welfare of wild animals was noted by Creecy as an important consideration in the appointment process. How leaders of an industry built on exploiting wildlife for maximum profit were appointed to a panel based on animal welfare is beyond understanding.

The silent amendment of lions to the list of species on the Animal Improvement Act (AIA) in 2019 reclassifying the species as farm animals makes sense now that animal welfare is, supposedly, a criterion for the regulation of the captive lion breeding industry. The reclassification eliminates any ethical obligations for raising wild species in captivity.

The ambiguity surrounding the DEA’s decision to ignore the PCEA recommendation to shut down the industry and Creecy’s appointments to the panel of experts makes one thing clear. South Africa’s government officials have chosen to put the welfare of a few industry leaders ahead of the country’s wildlife and general public.