Lions Are Raised So People Can Shoot Them In Cages
The world's in mourning over the death of Cecil, a beloved lion who was killed and beheaded this month after being lured out of his protected home in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park.
Part of what makes Cecil's death stand out is the cheapness of it - his killers tied a dead animal to their truck and used it to lead Cecil across park lines. But thousands of lions just like Cecil are being killed with even cheaper tactics each year.
Canned lion hunting is a big business in Africa, where wealthy tourists can pay tens of thousands of dollars to claim they "hunted" a lion - which consists of placing a hand-reared lion in an enclosed space and shooting him. Hundreds of lions die this way each year, many of them killed by Americans. And their lives are short and sad, with cubs pawned off as tourist attractions until they're big enough to slaughter.
There are more than 160 lion farms in South Africa alone, and they're hurting wild populations as well as those on the farms. Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, told The Guardian that he hopes Cecil's story can lead to a moratorium on lion hunting.
"Otherwise they are going to be extinct by 2050," he said. "What concerns us is that the areas have been turned into lion breeding farms. There are 15 lion breeders who actually breed lions for hunting."
The life of a farmed lion is hard from birth, when workers snatch the cubs away from their mothers. The farms encourage females to breed as frequently as possible - the captive mothers produce five litters every two years or so, instead of the one litter they'd produce in the wild - and the farms sometimes even capture wild lions to use as breeding stock.
"Unfortunately they're not exclusively breeding lions in captivity but are actually supplementing with lions from the wild, which clearly has a negative impact on conservation," Adam M. Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA, told The Dodo.
The cubs are then turned over to "volunteers," who often pay to participate, so that the stolen babies can be hand-raised by humans. From their earliest days, the animals are bottle-fed, cuddled and comforted by people, so they quickly come to view them as a source of safety and food.
Susan Bass, director of public relations for the Florida-based Big Cat Rescue, said that many of these so-called volunteers are international students on gap years, lured to the farms by the promise that they'll be able to interact with lion cubs and will be helping to support the wild population.
"They tell volunteers they need people to socialize cubs," she said. "They think they're helping conservation ... but what they don't realize is that they're actually prepping these lions for their eventual death, and if they knew that they'd be horrified."
Roberts said that many lions spend their lives in "close confinement," packed into cages until they're old enough to sell to hunters, but Bass said that many of them are rented out to hotels and other tourist hot spots to be used for photo ops and other interactive experiences.
The tourists who pay for these experiences, like the volunteers, are led to believe that the cubs will be released into the wild when they're older, or that their money will go toward conservation. Instead, they're funding canned hunts.
According to the Campaign Against Canned Hunting, being paraded in front of tourists all day is severely stressful for the young cubs. "They can lose their fur and get diarrhea," the group says on its website. "Lion cubs are naturally boisterous so they are often beaten into submission by staff members if they do not behave themselves."
Once the lions outgrow their cute youthful stages, they're returned to the lion farms where they're packed into small enclosures until they reach adulthood. Then the hunters enter.
Big-game hunters, often tourists from the U.S. or other countries, who visit these lion farms can select what type of animal they'd like to kill from a menu of different species; lions can cost up to $50,000, Bass said. And 64 percent of the 600 lions killed in canned hunts each year are taken by Americans.
Once the hunters select their animal - in this case a lion - they enter an enclosed space that's secure so the animals can't escape. "There's no sense of fair chase, obviously, because these lions are in an enclosed space and can't get out," Roberts said.
And the Campaign Against Canned Hunting reports that lions are sometimes even drugged or baited with food to make them an easier shot.
The canned hunts are unsportsmanlike enough that they've even been condemned by some pro-hunting groups: South African Outfitters, a leader retailer of hunting gear, says in a statement that they "unanimously and unequivocally" condemn the practice. "We believe the practice is degrading to the African Lion, which is an iconic and regal symbol of all African wildlife," they write.
But as long as there are tourists to pay, the practice will continue. And it affects more than just the individual lion.
After the hunt, the farms send the finished "trophy" to the hunters in the U.S. But Bass said that sometimes suppliers send a different lion who was killed and prepared in the U.S. to save on shipping costs - it's unclear where these lions are coming from, however.
Of course, farms usually do have the lions stuffed - but since they have no need for the bones, they will export the excess parts to certain Asian countries, supporting consumption and demand for African wildlife. "Their bones are being exported separately to Southeast Asia to support the market for lion bones, which in some places has supplanted the market for tiger bones, and that puts both lions and tigers at risk," Roberts explained.
The biggest argument in favor of canned hunting is that it reduces demand for wild-caught lions - but both Bass and Roberts said that was incorrect. "That statement is made under the assumption that killing a lion is somehow acceptable and there's no cruelty or harm involved," Roberts said.
Bass noted that the recent death of Cecil is the perfect example of why canned hunting doesn't save the wild lions. "He wanted to get the wild lion," she said of Walter Palmer, the hunter who killed Cecil. "It actually doesn't stop the decimation of the wild population to have farms breeding captive lions."
But until there's a moratorium on lion hunting, the canned hunts will continue. And despite the public outcry over Cecil's recent death, there continues to be demand for hunts - canned or wild - particularly from American tourists.
"It doesn't take much of a brave hunter to kill a lion that's basically tame and walking up to them thinking they have food or they're not dangerous," Bass said.
Click here to sign a petition asking South Africa, where many of the canned hunts take place, to ban the practice.
If you'd like to help lions directly, you can click here to donate to National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative, which sponsors several programs to help big cat populations around the world.