“9 Myths About Captive-bred Lions”

Stephen Wiggins Article, Event, Petition 18 Comments

Banner: courtesy of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting

Petition – Stop Cruel and Cowardly “Canned” Hunts

Next Saturday, 2nd April there will be the Global March for Lions across many cities.

In the build up to next Saturday (and then a follow up March to Stop Lion Trophy Hunting  on the 30th April in London), let’s see where the association in South Africa that represents the predator breeder industry currently stands.

In a 7 March 2016 article entitled “9 Myths About Captive-bred Lions,” written by Professor Pieter JJS Potgieter (“The Professor“), President of the South African Predators Association (SAPA), the claim is made that the captive-bred “ranch lions” industry is all about the industry’s ‘love of lions and conservation.’ The Professor is keen to point out, that there is big difference between a “ranch lion” and a “’canned’ lion” (see Myth 8 below).

Chris Mercer of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting has felt obliged to respond (“Loving Lions to Death,” 26 March 2016) to The Professor, so please also read Chris’s response to counter The Professor’s ‘myth busting’ efforts.

Myth 1: Lions are facing imminent extinction

According to The Professor, the African lion’s imminent extinction is clearly nonsense  – “The lion population is stable at between 20,000 and 30,000 cats world-wide” – Prof Pieter JJS Potgieter, 7 March 2016.

Just to reassure us further, The Professor states that “as long as communities profit from the lion’s presence, the feline’s future is secure” – which of course in SAPA’s world means hunting income, including income derived by lion breeding entrepreneurs.

Of course, anyone that thinks differently is an ‘over-emotional’ “alarmist.”

Exuding all the charm he can muster, The Professor singles out Virginia McKenna (of ‘Born Free’ fame) for a patronising put-down based on The Professor’s superior wisdom – “Relax, love, your alarm is misplaced………The lion will continue to roar long after Virginia McKenna’s final screech of alarm.”

Well, no one but The Professor appears to be so blatantly misguided over the notion of “stability” regarding the Africa lion’s plight as a wild species:

According to IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, African lions are “Vulnerable” but borderline “Endangered” where the IUCN concludes:

With this in mind, we have greater confidence in the estimate of fewer than 20,000 lions in Africa than in a number over 30,000.

“This qualifies the lion as Vulnerable, but it is of great concern that the vast majority of the population is inferred to have declined at a rate that meets the criteria for Endangered. Since our sample populations were all monitored, we suspect an even greater average rate of decline for unmonitored unfenced populations across much of Africa, since lack of monitoring could suggest lack of conservation effort.”

Wild CRU has stated:

“[African] lions are in crisis. Because lions are uniquely visible to tourists there is a false impression that they are not endangered. The opposite is true: they are disappearing in plain sight. From an estimated population of 200,000 across Africa a century ago, and 30,000 a decade ago, as few as 20,000 lions may now roam free in the entire continent. Their numbers have been devastated by loss of habitat and wild prey, poaching, conflict with farming communities, unsustainable legal hunting, and emerging threats including the use of lion bones in traditional Asian medicine. Lions are being killed daily in Africa.

The United States Fish and Wildlfie Service  (21 December 2015) that:

In response to the dramatic decline of lion populations in the wild, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) today announced it will list two lion subspecies under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Panthera leo leo, located in India and western and central Africa, will be listed as endangered, and Panthera leo melanochaita, located in eastern and southern Africa, will be listed as threatened.”

“What Does the Endangered Species Listing Mean for Lions?” Deirdre Leowinata (African People and Wildlife Fund), National Geographic, 27 March 2016

Seems like The Professor’s “stability” theory is not widely held.

Myth 2: Captive-bred lions are genetically inferior

Well, here The Professor immediately enlightens the reader to the film ‘Blood Lions’ being a “sham documentary.” Well that’s a real eye-opener……but the main point raised here by The Professor is that the assertion made that ‘canned’ lions have been bred from a limited gene pool and genetically mutated, is countered by the Professor’s reassurance that “Long-term scientific studies and analyses of breeding practices by lion ranches accredited by the South African Predator Association, show that lion breeders go to extraordinary lengths to avoid inbreeding.” Indeed, the accusation is that “lion breeders” have in the past gone to great lengths to steal cubs from wild prides to supplement the breeder’s lion gene pool – that’s how dedicated to conservation these breeders are.

Well, let’s see some independent, verifiable scientific data that proves the lion breeders’ claims (not SAPA claims).

Myth 3: Captive-bred lions cannot be released in the wild

To prove that any captive raised lion (no matter its background) can indeed be rehabilitated into the wild, the Professor cites Elsa the lioness as the key example of successful rehabilitation (one example from the 1960s duly noted).

Elsa’s rehabilitation was of course the theme of the 1966 ‘Born Free’ film and the Professor states “Elsa the lioness made the transition from pet lion to wild lion mama pretty easily.

According to the Professor “There are numerous cases where captive-bred lions have successfully made the transition to become wild lions. And they did it with little fuss and with little if any coaxing. Currently there are two studies of note, one on captive-bred lions in the wild in Zambia and another in the Zambezi River region.” The exact citations to this noble work are sadly lacking, but that should be conclusive enough for anyone, shouldn’t it? Any hand reared, or “ranch lion” can “easily” be rehabilitated back into the wild, so what’s the fuss all about?

There has definitely been more of a scientific approach to the lion breeding at the Bubye valley Conservancy (B.V.C) in Zimbabwe which has been in the news for having an excess of “ranch lions” to rehome. One would hope (the B.V.C lions are free to roam in prides and hunt too), but many ‘canned’ animals are hand reared and fed, often poorly bred from a limited gene pool (ie. genetically mutated) and not in strong enough health to survive in the wild. Lions exist in strong pride structures. Any disruption to a given pride, or territory disputes between an established pride and a ‘new’ pride can be devastating. So, the chances of any successful, or risk free reintroduction of any ‘canned’ or indeed ‘ranch’ stock into the wild is pure fantasy.

Myth 4: Captive-bred hunting is damaging “brand SA”

South Africa, which has such a sunny reputation being the Rainbow Nation and all, has a huge and thriving tourism industry. But sombre clouds are drifting in. People are going to learn about “canned lions” and become so traumatized by the whole concept that they are going to change their travel plans for somewhere cheerier, like say, North Korea.”  The Professor than makes a charming analogy, which we will not repeat here.

But there are plenty of other options for the tourists that are ‘put-off’ by South Africa’s reputation for animal exploitation – Botswana for example, where trophy hunting was discontinued at the end of 2013 in favour of concentrating on non-invasive, photographic tourism:

In Botswana, “photographic tourism delivered considerable benefits to Botswana than those same areas did under hunting” – Botswana Tourism Executive.

The “transition from hunting concession to photographic concessions is being assisted by a Government Community Development Fund and is highly successful. Wildlife is being carefully protected and numbers are growing. Alarmist projections are nothing more than hunter’s propaganda and Botswana is on a careful, well thought out, and positive course to conserve wildlife resources” –   Rt. Hon. Tshekedi Khama, Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, Botswana.

Source: LionAid, 22 February 2016

I know where I would rather go for a photographic Safari and it’s not South Africa (though I would happily visit wildlife sanctuaries such as Karoo Wildlife, or an ethical reserve as recommended by Captured in Africa).

But The Professor is right, that South Africa currently enjoys a massive turnover from general tourism, with Trophy Hunting income representing around just 1.2% in comparison. So why does South Africa risk its reputation as a tourist destination with its obsession with animal exploitation for a mere fraction?

Table 1 – Trophy Hunting, Tourism Income and Population



Trophy Hunting Revenue(2) (b)

($m USD)



($m USD)

Trophy Hunting Revenue as % of Tourism Revenue
South Africa 51.4 112 9,547 1.2%

(a) Based on US Census numbers (2009)

(b) All figures converted to 2011 $ USD

(c) UNWETO (2012)

Note 1   – It is not clear in the context used if ‘Trophy Hunting’ includes, or excludes ‘Canned Hunting.’

Note 2 – It is not clear how Governments set their permitted hunt quotas – It is not often scientific and is suspected to be corruption (reference “Trophy Hunting in Sub Saharan Africa : Economic Scale and Conservation Significance”- Peter A Lindsey, 2008, para4.2, iii) many cases, Government revenue appears the  main driver.

Myth 5: Trophy hunting is the primary cause of declining lion numbers

Well the Professor backs his claims here mainly with reference to Bubye Valley Conservancy (B.V.C) in Zimbabwe (not in South Africa duly noted). Is the B.V.C. a success story?

The Bubye Valley Conservancy (B.V.C.), Zimbabwe opened in 1999 and is a privately owned reserve of some 850,000 acres (3,440 km2). From IUCN sub-population numbers, the estimated lion sub-population in Bubye, Zimbabwe was 9 lions in 1993, but by 2014 it was 330 lions. Was this recovery due to B.V.C.? The B.V.C now claims to have some 500 lions in its conservancy.   The B.V.C. lion population is also monitored for research purposes by Wild Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), Oxford University.  So, could this be given as an example of a lion conservation success story which includes lion Trophy Hunting?

But B.V.C. is certainly not a success story of late, with an advertised surplus of some 200 lions announced in January 2016.

Of course, anyone that understands lion dynamics (such a lion breeders for example), knows that B.V.C. willingly bred the lions to the population currently in its care and that willingness long preceded Cecil the lion’s demise in July 2015 and any fall-out since. So, with a stated hunting quota of 3% (or some 15 lions a year), how did a well-run ‘conservancy’ (“lion ranch“) such as B.V.C. get it so wrong?

Naturally, the hunters and breeders have tried to blame the ‘antis’ for causing this disruption to B.V.C.’s model, though there is clearly no rational correlation with any ‘emotional’ public out-pouring post-Cecil’s demise, July 2015 – no matter how “ignorant” we ‘antis’ might be, we know lion dynamics say B.V.C. should only breed lions to sustainable levels at all times and to breed 200 extra lions since July 2015 B.V.C. would have needed a lion population in July 2015 in excess of 4,000 (so not possible from B.V.C.’s current claimed stock of 500 lions).

In terms of Trophy Hunting being one of the primary causes of wild population depletion, here are two examples of just that:

Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe – “69 out of 100 males were estimated to have died from age-independent causes in Hwange, and will continue to do so if estimated death rates remain unchanged. This means these males do not die of old age. The most likely cause of death is to be killed by trophy hunters or local farmers protecting their herds” – Wild CRU, “David Macdonald explains that Cecil’s death was part of a much wider story,” Dr Andrew Loveridge, Professor David Macdonald and Dr Julia Barthold, 23 February 2016. So, does the above statement sound like trophy hunters are helping lion conservation in Hwange, Zimbabwe? – Source: Wild CRU

In Katavi, Tanzania the estimated lion numbers were recorded as zero in 2014, from a population of 1,118 in 1993. It should be noted, that from 2010, 41 adult males (less than five years old) had been “harvested” for trophies in Katavi. Could this excessive Trophy Hunting of young male lions have been the end of the Katavi sub-population? – Source: “Review of Panthera Leo from the United Republic of Tanzania and from Zambia,” UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), Technical Report, August 2015

Trophy Hunting was reported to have contributed to population declines outside of (and within some) protected areas of Tanzania (Lindset et al., 2013) and was considered by Packer et al., 2011 to pose the greatest threat to the populations in Trophy Hunting areas.”

When it comes to South Africa’s wild lion population numbers, well no one really knows – any ‘current numbers’ are based on extrapolated data and estimates between 1993 and 2014 (IUCN, Panthera Leo, Table 3 Supplementary Materials).

The last lion survey was done in Kruger National Park in 2005 – nearly 11 years ago. According to Dr. Pieter Kat of LionAid, “you cannot use [that data] in any management plan as it is well beyond the ‘sell by’ date.” And the South African Biodiversity Management Plan for the African Lion (2015) itself admits that truly “wild” lions (those outside of protected reserves) have not been studied at all.

Myth 6: Wild lions are hunted because of, you know, ranch lions

The lion farms’ creation of a market for canned lion hunts puts a clear price-tag on the head of every wild lion. They create a financial incentive for local people, who collude with poachers or turn a blind eye to illegal lion kills. Trophy-hunters who begin with a captive-bred lion may then graduate to the real, wild thing” – Fiona Miles, director of Lion’s Rock Big Cat Sanctuary

The Professor of course finds Fiona’s thoughts to be unbelievable “gibberish” – How could captive-bred lion hunting have encouraged poaching?   How could captive-bred lion hunters develop into wild lion hunters?

The Professor appears to have conveniently over-looked in his argument here that the hunting of captive-bred lions supplies the victim’s body parts (bones etc.) to the Asian market for such parts in their nonsensical, hypothetical medicines.

This ‘legal’ demand/supply route is infiltrated by poached animal body parts (from other African regions) by those also seeking to profit from this ‘trade.’

If the ‘trade’ was stopped (ie. the killing of captive-bred lions) and all such routes ended, would this then reduce poaching to also try to cash-in? Perhaps, but this argument seems to have been blindly over-looked by The Professor.

Captive-bred lion hunts tend to be cheaper and easier to organise and provision than wild lion hunts. The former are within a known area and the target is clearly released or targeted for the purpose. The latter, wild hunt is just that, typically over a much larger range and the target has to be sought typically over many more days in comparison. The argument could be made, that the cheaper captive-bred lion hunts encourages hunters to take up the ‘sport’ and theoretically, that ‘taste’ could develop to encompass a wild lion hunt at some point in the hunter’s planning.

Fiona’s thoughts appear to be anything but “gibberish,” but comment based on theoretical possibilities that any open minded professor should be able to easily entertain.

Myth 7: There is no conservation value in captive-bred lions

The Professor commences “Oh, it has become an oft-muttered mantra, a line repeated so often one suspects the animal justice warriors are trying to convince themselves. It is quite understandable. If captive-bred lions do have “conservation value,” the animal activists’ entire crusade will stall.”

Well, our “entire crusade” can cite a 2010 South African legal ruling (“The Supreme Court of Appeal of South Africa Judgement,” Case No. 72/10, 29 November 2010) that declared captive lion breeding as ‘farming’ and of no conservation value.

When the South African Environment Minister tried to enforce a 24 month wilding rule (under Threatened or Protected Species Regulations) to ensure no previously captive (’canned’) lion or big cat could be ‘hunted’ unless it had be freed from captivity for 24 months, or more, the Predator Breeders Association (PBA) (the PBA supplies the ‘canned’ industry) sued the Environment Minister for this attempted regulation of their activities, but the PBA lost in the South African High Court.

However, after the PBA applied to the South African Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), the SCA ruled in November 2010 (of its own volition, “mero motu”), that ‘since no captive bred lions have ever been released back into the wild, then lion farming had nothing to do with conservation.’ Therefore, in the SCA’s view, the Environment Minster had no jurisdiction to impose restrictions on what was essentially being declared animal ‘farming.’ Who are we to argue with the SCA?

So, I am not sure how The Professor could have missed this important ruling in his analysis, are you?

Myth 8: “Ranch lion hunting” is just the same thing as “canned hunting”

Captive-bred “ranch lion hunting” is not “canned hunting” depending on one’s definition of the terms, semantics and meaning implied in context. According to The Professor, the SAPA are against any poorly run farm, where lions are produced in poor condition using dubious methods – good, with The Professor on that 100% then. We are assured that no such place will ever receive the SAPA’s Accreditation.

This should be contrasted with “ranch lions” as defined by The Professor:

SAPA ranch lions are bred and raised in large camps with plenty of shelter. Conditions must adhere to international animal welfare standards for lions. Cubs may not be removed from their mothers before the age of three months. There is little or no contact between lion and human; certainly not enough for the human presence to be imprinted on the feline mind.”

SAPA members don’t raise cubs to be petted or adult lions to be exhibited. They will never condone hunting drugged or tame lions. They don’t use bait to lure animals to the barrel and their hunting clients will only bag a trophy after working for it according to the internationally accepted principles of fair chase.

Well, “ranch lions” sounds much better, doesn’t it? But of course, the true test will be if any trophy from a “ranch lion” can be independently proven to be from a sustainable source and/or directly contributing to the conservation of the target species. How is this latter part going to be proven in South Africa when the South African Supreme Court of Appeal ruled in November 2010 that ‘since no captive-bred lions have ever been released back into the wild, then lion farming had nothing to do with conservation?’

It seem that the South African predator breeder industry is lost within a legal/regulatory dilemma of its own making in seeking to be unregulated on one hand (to be free to exploit animals), but wants to be declared ‘conservation’ to suit the financial needs of its model based on Trophy Hunting income (and the export of that all-important trophy and animal body parts).

Of course, this ‘dilemma’ will become further compounded if/when the African lion (Panthera Leo) is ‘uplisted’ to CITES Appendix I. South Africa has already sought to exempt its own wild (and captive) lion populations from any such restrictions, with its Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP) for the African lion, 7 April 2015 (Gazette No. 38706):

Myth 9: The idyllic life of lions in the wild

Well, it’s subjective what “quality of life” any animal ‘enjoys’ in the wild, with all the competitive and fitness pressures that entails (there is no disputing that ‘survival of the fittest’ dictates in the wild), when compared to a captive life under human management and control.

The Professor makes the point, that “ranch lions” are “living the good life” in comparison to their wild brethren, with the “ranch lions” having ready access to veterinary care, shelter and ‘protection.’ Sure, but this makes the assumption that everything must be better under human management than nature’s own (sometimes lacking of course) provision.

One thing The Professor cannot be faulted on though is his acknowledgment that “lions belong in the wild. It’s their proper place. But never think it is an easy, idyllic life.”

Agreed, but a wild life (however the fates may play their part) is the ideal, free from invasive human intrusion whenever possible. No matter how much one cares to dress up the ‘captive’ alternatives, the latter will always be a very poor substitute and cannot be accepted as the future norm no matter how well its ‘virtues’ are ‘marketed’ and thrust down non-believers’ throats in a bullying and patronising manner.


The predator breeders and captive-bred hunting industry are obsessed with income from animal exploitation and maintaining that income. So, The Professor’s assertion throughout his ‘myth busting’ article that any organisation that seeks to call the predator breeders, captive-bred and ‘canned’ hunting industry to account for its actions, “is just doing it for the donations” is clearly absurd, deluded, defamatory and potentially libellous.

Do we believe that the SAPA Accredited “lion ranches” are acting out of a purely altruistic purpose and should be warmly embraced as the lion conservation model we should/could all sign up to, sustained by hunting $$$? I leave you, the reader to answer that one based upon your own thoughts and conscience.

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