Research Article: Born captive: A survey of the lion breeding, keeping and hunting industries in South Africa

Date Published: May 28, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Vivienne L. Williams, Michael J. ‘t Sas-Rolfes, Marco Festa-Bianchet.


Commercial captive breeding and trade in body parts of threatened wild carnivores is an issue of significant concern to conservation scientists and policy-makers. Following a 2016 decision by Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, South Africa must establish an annual export quota for lion skeletons from captive sources, such that threats to wild lions are mitigated. As input to the quota-setting process, South Africa’s Scientific Authority initiated interdisciplinary collaborative research on the captive lion industry and its potential links to wild lion conservation. A National Captive Lion Survey was conducted as one of the inputs to this research; the survey was launched in August 2017 and completed in May 2018. The structured semi-quantitative questionnaire elicited 117 usable responses, representing a substantial proportion of the industry. The survey results clearly illustrate the impact of a USA suspension on trophy imports from captive-bred South African lions, which affected 82% of respondents and economically destabilised the industry. Respondents are adapting in various ways, with many euthanizing lions and becoming increasingly reliant on income from skeleton export sales. With rising consumer demand for lion body parts, notably skulls, the export quota presents a further challenge to the industry, regulators and conservationists alike, with 52% of respondents indicating they would adapt by seeking ‘alternative markets’ for lion bones if the export quota allocation restricted their business. Recognizing that trade policy toward large carnivores represents a ‘wicked problem’, we anticipate that these results will inform future deliberations, which must nonetheless also be informed by challenging inclusive engagements with all relevant stakeholders.

Partial Text

The African lion is currently the only big cat of the genus Panthera for which international commercial trade is legal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) [1]. In response to emerging market demands for lion products, including viewing tourism, cub petting, trophy hunts and body parts, entrepreneurs in South Africa have developed a substantial commercial captive lion breeding industry, reaching a scale similar to that of captive tiger breeding operations in China [2,3]. As with China’s so-called ‘tiger farms’, the role of such commercial breeding operations is debated, with critics arguing that their presence has no conservation value [4] and, at least in the case of tigers, may even constitute a threat to wild populations [5]. However, the exact relationship between captive and wild lion populations remains evidentially unclear, and it is also plausible that the former may provide a buffer effect against over-exploitation of the latter [6]. This relationship warrants further investigation, especially given increasingly vocal public opposition to commercial captive lion breeding and some recent consequential trade policy shifts.

This section (and accompanying supplementary files) provides a comprehensive account of the survey results, which include both quantitative and qualitative data across the different subsectors of the captive lion industry (i.e. breeding, keeping, hunting, and body part sales). Readers are invited to focus on categories of specific interest, skip those of lesser interest, and proceed to the Discussion section.

The survey provided useful baseline information on South Africa’s captive lion industry. The sample limitations of the first round (in 2017) were overcome after the follow-up round (in 2018), although receiving responses in two separate years created some challenges for collation and interpretation of the data. Mindful of these, we attempted to account for any resultant discrepancies in our analyses. Given that this industry is currently subject to significant activist pressure, we had to overcome the reluctance of participants to divulge data and therefore potentially sacrifice some elements of rigour. Furthermore, much of the data and analysis thereof falls within the realm of social science, in which certain trade-offs of this nature are inevitable. Nonetheless, the final sample was sufficiently large and with enough consistency of data and trends for us to feel confident in the integrity of the findings.




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