The cat’s out of the bag – understanding South Africa’s captive lion sector

Christina Hiller, EWT Wildlife in Trade Programme Consultant, tinah@ewt.org.za

South Africa is currently the only country with an extensive captive lion sector where lions in captivity significantly outnumber wild and free-roaming animals. There is an ongoing debate around the practices of keeping lions for commercial use, and captive lion hunting, the lion part trade, and human interaction such as cub-petting have been heavily criticised. However, there was a need to establish a detailed understanding of South Africa’s captive lion sector and evaluate its environmental and socio-economic impacts.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust initiated a study to close this information gap by developing an improved understanding of the sector and the trade of captive lion products and services. The research aimed to supply the South African government and the local CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) authority with sound information to inform future policy decisions and measures to adequately address the sector’s influences on environmental, economic, and social outcomes and developments.

We conducted 51 semi-structured interviews and verified and supplemented the findings through five focus-group sessions with experts from related fields and desk review activities. Interview parties consisted of 31 captive lion facilities in four provinces, i.e., the Free State, North West, Limpopo and Gauteng and 20 key players in the sector. These actors included professional hunters of captive lions, taxidermists, lion part traders, live lion traders, veterinarians, scientists, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and provincial environmental management inspectors (EMIs). In addition, we collected quantitative data on captive lion facilities from the South African provinces where the interviews took place to further augment the research findings.

The research report describes how the sector is structured and functioning amidst influencing factors such as mainstream and social media pressure, regulatory conditions, and conflicting ideas about the meaning of sustainability and sustainable use regarding an iconic species like the lion.

We found that captive lion owners’ underlying motives and deep-seated attitudes are behind the uniqueness of every captive lion facility’s (business) model. A combination of eleven different motives underpinned the decision to establish a captive lion facility. Only four of those were income-related. It was found that facilities were seldom established primarily for financial gain, suggesting the importance of personal drivers other than income generation and profit. Furthermore, our research revealed five distinctly different sector clusters with corresponding supply chain models and typical breeding systems. Findings suggested that facilities do not specifically breed lions for their bones, so this was not considered a separate cluster. The lion bone trade rather forms part of the hunting tourism cluster.

Cluster 1: No lion revenue cluster
Cluster 2: Sanctuary cluster
Cluster 3: Guest attraction cluster
Cluster 4: Live export cluster
Cluster 5: Hunting tourism cluster (incorporating the lion part trade)

Legal trade in each cluster was organised along a distinct supply chain (except for cluster 1 without lion-related trade activities). All supply chains in the sector are separate, and research did not show an organised supply chain wherein captive lions were hunted after being used for human-lion interactions. However, a shared supply chain segment for selling lions to other South African facilities combined with a lack of traceability makes it feasible to move captive lions between clusters, especially between the guest attraction, live export, and hunting tourism clusters. It was clear that there was little transparency in the sector because of the non-existent, inefficient, or inconsistent collection, storage, and sharing of information about facilities and their trade activities.

The research data suggest that reasonable and tolerable management practices fall into five domains: financial health, legality, conservation, animal welfare, and social responsibility. Moreover, two specific areas emerged as seemingly insurmountable obstacles for managing captive lion facilities. On the one hand, the data suggest that managing a captive lion facility and animal rights are mutually exclusive. On the other hand, the interviews revealed that transformation is not happening, which is why the facilities are deemed not acceptable.

The insights of this research will support more robust decisions about the sector. We conclude that it will be critical to follow a nuanced approach to shape the sector’s future, mindful of the five clusters. Simultaneously, immediate measures ought to be taken to prevent undesired loss or harm until a clear future scenario for the sector materialises.

The report will be released soon – keep an eye on our socials and check back here in a few days for the link.