South Africa has rather a problem. They have given over a large amount of their country to wildlife conservation, and many of the tourists who visit, come to see the wildlife.
However, South Africa also has an important hunting history. Now, if you go back 50 years the number of buffalo and similar was so high that they could sustain a certain amount of hunting (this cannot be claimed to be sustainable as it reduced populations to their current depressed state, and indeed there are species that it eradicated – for instance the Quagga a type of zebra). However, nowadays there are not these huge populations.
Most hunting reserves are relatively small, and therefore the number of animals that can be naturally hunted each year is also small. It is true that many of these places can sell hunts of antelope and similar, but the majority of big game hunters want to shoot one of the big five (lion leopard elephant buffalo rhino).
The result of this is the hideous industry of canned lion hunts.
None of these reserves are large enough to support viable lion populations. Indeed the only reserve where I condone any lion hunting is the Selous in Tanzania – with a population of 5000, and with local sickness putting off all but the most determined wildlife watcher, they kill just a couple % of the lions each year, and in return the reserve remains in place.
So what they have, is a whole load of breeding farms, where they try to have as many lion babies as possible. When they are considered to look old enough, they are released into the hunting reserve, and then they are hunted – usually having only lived wild for a few weeks or month.
What is more, the Lion breeding centres allows tourists to come and have their picture taken with the lions as cubs. As a result, the lion which is finally released into the wild, is not wild at all. In fact, the lion is often so tame that it would wander up to visitors and behave more like a domestic cat – if it was not for the fact that when it approaches it is shot “by the brave hunter” and even if the lion does attack, there are usually a couple of experienced hunters standing by in case the hunter misses. If there is no danger when you get it wrong, in what way is lion hunting something to boast about?
I have been approached by a wild lioness, which was an incredibly exciting moment for myself and my wife. This would not have been improved by me bringing home her carcass.
So what is the new move that the government has made?
Following a review by a 26 person strong committee carried out in 2019, the recommendation was to end canned lion hunts. They concluded that as these animals were either destined for tourist petting, canned lion hunts or for slaughter, so that their bones and other body parts can be sold in Asia, this industry in no way assists South Africa. Indeed, all this industry does is destroy South Africas credentials as an important body in the fight against extinction as well as increasingly makes potential photographic safari holidayers to look on other African destination as more preferable. It is certainly true, that this canned lion hunt does not help the wild population in any way at all (there have been arguments that canned lion hunts stop poaching of South African lions, however quite apart from the fact that there is no evidence of this what-so-ever, there is a significant evidence that it encourages poorer countries across Africa to allow their small elephant population to be hunted.
The announcement came from the environment secretary, so is clearly being taken seriously. Current numbers of lion in South Africa are as follows:
8000-12000 in 250 farms
3500 wild lions
So does this review mark the beginning of the end of the canned lion industry. I would say that it perhaps marks the beginning of the beginning. The facts are not widely known, and the hunting industry greatly exaggerates their positive benefits for the natural world, and canned lion hunts do not generally have a big wildlife benefits anyway.