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True stories of captive bred lions

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Richard Peirce publishes the first book examining the widely condemned captive lion breeding industry in South Africa

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Starting off as the fourth book in a Struik Nature (Penguin Random House) published series telling the true stories of actual animals, Cuddle Me, Kill Me did not finish as it began. Instead it started me on a journey of discovery which would last two years.

Obi and Oliver are lions born into the captive predator breeding sector; they were rescued from early deaths by two of their carers, who now run a big cat sanctuary in the Western Cape called Panthera Africa.

In 2016, I watched the documentary film Blood Lions, which prompted my wife to remind me of a promise I had made to her to write a book probing canned hunting.

Three things came together: Blood Lions ignited my interest, Obi and Oliver gave me a story to tell, and I always try to keep promises to my wife.

The canned hunting issue had been on my radar for many years, but until I saw Blood Lions I had not been aware of the many other uses to which captive bred lions are put.

Cub petting, paying “voluntourism”, films and adverts, walking with lions, the lion bone trade, teeth and claws for jewellery and even the sale of lion meat are all money-making opportunities which have made lion farming highly profitable.

It saddens me to have written the two words “lion” and “farming” together, but my early research showed this word coupling to be wholly appropriate; the king of the animal world is being factory farmed like domestic livestock.

Part one of the book tells the story of the two rescued lions, part two is called “Journey of Discovery” and describes my research driving thousands of kilometres, visiting several facilities involved in lion breeding and related activities and conducting interviews across the sector.

Lion farming ends with a bullet and this aspect is covered in part three, where I explore canned hunting and take readers on a lion hunt.

“Past, Present & Future” is the final section, which examines the place of lions in history, the present plight of wild lions and the future for the species.

The attraction of being close to an apex predator is undeniable; it is the reason why cage diving with great white sharks is popular and it is also the reason walking with lions and cuddling cubs are now firmly established eco-tourism opportunities in South Africa.

There is of course a huge difference; the sharks are wild, whereas the lions are captive bred. It may be that eventually the lion breeding industry will shoot itself in the foot – once the public, however mistakenly, start to regard them as large half tame pussy cats, their allure could diminish.

“Hunters” from the US made up the largest part of those taking part in canned hunts. Restrictions on importing trophies into the US has greatly reduced the number of canned “hunters” coming to South Africa.

However, “hunting” is now only one of the reasons for breeding lions. I would like to think that the reduction in canned hunters and the possible eventual erosion of the “dangerous predator” label will combine to reduce the profitability of lion farming.

However, the steady increase in value of lion carcasses alone will be reason enough for the breeding sector to continue and probably continue to grow.

Without effective action at the consumer end in China and the Far East to stop increase in demand, lion breeding will expand to keep pace with market forces.

The captive bred and wild lion populations are separate and utilisation of captive bred animals is not widely seen, yet, as impacting negatively on wild populations.

This is why the government has been able to get a dispensation from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) to export 800 lion skeletons a year from its captive breeders.

In the immediate future, I can see no reason why this 800 skeleton figure will be reduced, or abandoned; indeed many believe it will increase.

The 800 legal skeletons being exported for the bone trade will not be the whole story. On top of this figure there will be smuggled skeletons and bones and skeletons finding their way to the Far East from other African countries.

So what is the bone trade and why are lion bones in such increasing demand? The answer is that it is a confidence trick.

Lion bones and whole skeletons are almost impossible to tell apart from tiger bones and skeletons and so are being passed off as tiger and used to produce tiger wine, tiger cake and other products.

The huge financial scale of this business is illustrated by the following example from Cuddle Me, Kill Me which is already out of date as the figures are too low.

“A 15-18kg lion or tiger skeleton is initially sold for $1500-$1800 (R18 900-R22 680). At an average of $1650, the 800 carcasses in the 2017 South Africa quota are collectively worth $1320000 before processing. When boiled, a skeleton delivers about 60 portions (bars) of tiger or lion ‘cake’.

“Of course, there are middlemen between the first seller and the final consumer; the processor, wholesaler and retailer all have profit margins and, in many cases, smugglers and others will have taken their cuts too.

“Each bar sells for $1000, so each skeleton is worth $60000 by the time it has been processed and sold to the end consumer as ‘tiger’ cake. By now the 800 skeletons will collectively be worth a mind blowing $48000000.”

When researching the book, I came across estimates of the size of the captive bred lion population which varied from 4000 to 18000 animals.

In Cuddle Me, Kill Me I tried to be fair and examine all the issues arising from captive breeding in as neutral a way as possible so that readers could make their own minds up

I failed, and must own up to bias, because early on in our journey of discovery the awfulness of the whole captive predator breeding sector became apparent, and our open minds slammed tight shut.

Peirce has been a wildlife campaigner for the past 30 years. He is a renowned shark conservationist and has campaigned for other threatened species