Are lion hunters shooting tame animals?


The guide whistles as the large, dark-maned lion walks just a few metres from the car. It looks around to face the American hunter and a single shot rings out in the South African bush. The lion cartwheels from the force of the bullet — shocked and confused it roars, turns and quickly limps off into the bush. “Shoot him again, shoot him again, shoot him again,” the professional hunter frantically urges, as the hunter reloads, firing into the trees. The video cuts to see the lion lying dead.

The video was shot by Derek Gobbett, a safari cameraman brought in to make a souvenir for the 10 American hunters, who had paid thousands of dollars each to shoot a lion. But he says the way they went about was neither fair nor legal — that it was something known as ‘canned lion’ hunting — more of a duck shoot than a lion hunt. Hunting is big business for South Africa - it was worth $70m in 2013, but this is generally understood to be for wild animals, not those bred in captivity just to be shot.

Every year hundreds of lions are bred in captivity across South Africa for the purpose of being placed onto private game reserves for hunting. “Eight lionesses were released (from captivity) literally the day before the clients arrived. In fact, four were released as the plane was landing just down the road,” Derek said. He explained how the lions appeared to be used to humans — how one was shot while hiding in a hole, another up against a fence.

A new report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) says, in the decade between 2004 and 2014, 1.7 million animals were killed for their ‘trophy’. At least 2,00,000 of them were threatened species such as elephants, rhinos or lions. IFAW found that the US was the biggest importer of stuffed animal heads, while South Africa was the biggest exporter — and lions were by far the most traded.

Arguments in support
The IFAW report says there are between 6,000 to 8,000 lions kept in captivity in South Africa, in up to 200 ranches. ‘Canned’ lion hunting is illegal in South Africa, but captive-bred lion hunting is allowed. Amid a raft of regulations there is a fine line between the two and something which differs by province.

“All the lion hunting in South Africa is supposed to be with permits, and those are regulated hunts that have to be done to a certain criteria,” said Carla van der Vyver, chief executive of the South African Predator Association (SAPA). “If such an activity has happened and it was not done to permit regulations, it is definitely not a thing that SAPA will support,” she said in reference to the video footage.

SAPA does support captive-bred hunting, unlike the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa, which voted to ban the practice last year. “Mostly the benefits are extending the lion’s habitat, because it needs to be released in an ecological area — a large area,” said Carla. “It also requires for other animals to be re-introduced into the land — to be prey species.”

Other arguments in support of this form of hunting are that it protects the dwindling numbers of wild lions, and also managed breeding can strengthen the gene pool. A certain number of wild lions can be killed each year and some of the money raised used for helping with conservation efforts. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has backed calls to push South Africa to ban the hunting of lions bred in captivity. It passed a motion by a large majority at the World Conservation Congress and is calling on South Africa to stop the captive breeding of lions for anything other than conservation. But supporters of captive breeding argue it does contribute to conservation.

We were taken on a drive around a huge area of hunting land owned by Tienie Bamberger. There were five lions in an area between 500 and 1,000 hectares, which he said it would take days to track and shoot. He has expanded his initial plot of 200 hectares to 6,000 with the increased business over the last 13 years. His lions come from breeding farms. He says conservation would be the first thing to suffer if hunting was banned.

“The immediate effect would be the loss of habitat. We have more than 16 different antelope species we keep on this land which are also benefitting,” he said. “There is a lot of controversy when it comes to the so-called canned lion industry, and it’s given a bad name to hunting in general, so we totally condemn any illegal hunting.”

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