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An estimated US$180-million is generated annually from the breeding of captive lions for hunting, cub petting, the lion bone trade and other commercial uses.

DANIEL GARCIA/AFP/Getty Images

The lion has no chance of escape. Hand-raised in captivity with little fear of humans, it is released into a fenced enclosure and sometimes drugged or lured by bait to make it an even easier target.

Within days, or even hours, the lion is shot dead by a foreign sports hunter who pays thousands of dollars for the trophy. Americans and Canadians are among the biggest customers.

Video of botched elephant hunt by U.S. NRA leader sparks fury

Critics call it “canned hunting” – but it has become a booming industry in South Africa. An estimated US$180-million is generated annually from the breeding of captive lions for hunting, cub petting, the lion bone trade and other commercial uses at about 300 farms, where as many as 12,000 lions are held.

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Now, the industry is finally facing an end. South Africa, home of the world’s largest population of captive-bred lions, says it will shut down the industry after a two-year study concluded that it is damaging ecotourism, hurting the country’s image, failing to help wildlife conservation, possibly contributing to illegal poaching and potentially breeding diseases that could spread to humans.

“The captive industry threatens South Africa’s reputation as a leader in conservation of wildlife and as a country containing iconic wild animals,” a 26-member high-level panel said in its report.

“There is a direct reputational risk from captive breeding, keeping, hunting and trade, for the broader photo-tourism and wild hunting market, and tourism to South Africa in general,” it said.

The intensive breeding and keeping of lions “poses a real risk of an epidemic of existing or new zoonotic diseases emerging in South Africa and moving abroad,” the report said.

It noted that COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred in lions and other felines in the past, “with potential for mutation and back-infection to humans.”

Barbara Creecy, the South African Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, said she has accepted the panel’s recommendation and asked her department “to action this accordingly and to ensure that the necessary consultation in implementation is conducted.”

The 582-page report also made other recommendations on the hunting, trade and management of lions, leopards, elephants and rhinos. It recommended an acceptance of international restrictions on the trade of rhino horn and elephant ivory, which South Africa has sometimes challenged in the past.

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Conservation groups welcomed the plan to prohibit the captive-bred lion sector.

“This is a win for wildlife,” read a tweet by World Animal Protection, a global animal charity.

Lion Aid, a British-based group, said the announcement was “wonderful news.”

Blood Lions, an international campaign that grew out of a documentary film on the captive lion industry in 2015, said the government’s announcement was a “crucial and long-awaited step” and a “courageous decision.” It signals that “the end is in sight for the captive lion breeding industry,” the group said in a statement.

South Africa’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said it was particularly important that the government is halting “the universally abhorrent export of lion bones” to Asian markets. But it cautioned that the captive lion industry could simply be replaced by the breeding of “ranched lions” – usually defined as semi-wild lions in larger enclosed areas.

Activists have been campaigning against the captive-bred industry for years. A report this year by Four Paws, an international animal-welfare organization, said lions face “tremendous suffering” when they are shot by inexperienced hunters, often at close range from a vehicle.

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The industry forces lionesses into an intensive breeding cycle to produce two to three litters of cubs every year, and the cubs are removed from their mothers within days of birth, the report said.

Foreign tourists are often unwitting participants in the industry by paying for cub-petting opportunities with lion cubs that have been removed from their mothers. Foreign volunteers, who are told that the cubs are orphaned or rescued, are sometimes recruited by breeding farms to help raise them.

After the age of 2, the young lions lose their tourism value and are then often killed by trophy hunters or slaughtered for the lion bone trade, the Four Paws report said.

In the decade leading up to 2017, South Africa exported 8,855 lion trophies, of which 88 per cent were from captive-bred lions and 53 per cent went to the United States, the report said. In the same period, it exported 5,725 lion skeletons to Asian countries for use in traditional medicine, of which 97 per cent were from captive-bred lions, it said.

Michael Ashcroft, a British politician who has investigated the South African lion industry, estimates that the country has 12,000 captive-bred lions, compared with just 3,000 in the wild.

“They are poorly fed, kept in cramped and unhygienic conditions, beaten if they do not ‘perform’ for paying customers, and drugged,” he wrote in a book published last year, Unfair Game.

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Hunters pay anywhere from US$3,000 to US$40,000 to kill a captive-bred lion in South Africa, the book says.

“In canned hunting, the balance of power is tilted so heavily away from the quarry and in favour of the stalker that it is absurd for it to be considered in any way an honest contest. Indeed, it seems most appropriate to use the phrase ‘shooting fish in a barrel.’”

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