In the collective imagination, the king of the beasts rules over the South African wild.  However, in reality 60% of the nation’s lions live in cages either to be sold to zoos or trophy hunters who come from the world over.

There are close to 200 lion breeders in South Africa and the breeding of lions for trophy hunting is a lucrative business. In 2009, the economic value of trophy hunting was estimated to be between R153-million and R832-million.

The most extreme form of trophy hunting is called ‘Canned Hunting’ where lions are served up on a platter to hunters. The lions are shut up in an enclosure where they are quite simply slaughtered by clients.  Drawn by bait (sometimes their own cubs), they can even be drugged into an immobile torpor, making them no more than sitting ducks.

Big game hunting is the preserve of a minority of wealthy people from the world’s rich industrial nations who are willing to shell out as much as €50,000 to hunt a wild lion in a legal hunt.  Canned lion hunting, on the other hand, can cost as little as €18,000 and double that for a white lion. Annually only about 5 – 8 truly wild lions are legally hunted, whereas hundreds of captive lions are hunted in ‘hunts’ where they are released into closed systems, sometimes only hours before they are shot down.

The difference between wild lion hunting and canned lion hunting within the framework of South African law is also somewhat controversial and provides a major loophole for unethical practices.  Legally, canned lion hunting refers only to lions that are hunted in enclosures.  This effectively means that lions can be captive bred, released onto a moderately sized farm and legally hunted.

Animal rights groups oppose the hunting of captive bred lions because it ignores the Fair Chase principal where a wild animal, familiar with its surroundings would have a fair chance of escape.  Captive bred lions cannot fend for themselves in the wild and by the same token do not have the same survival skills as wild lions.


In 2009, the economic value of trophy hunting was estimated to be between R153-million and R832-million.

The captive breeding of lions is an established and legal industry in South Africa.  Cubs are bred to attract tourists who pay to play with them, to feed them from bottles or even just to enjoy the thrill of walking across the veld with them.  Once the lions reach maturity, they are sold to the highest trophy-hunting bidders.

The truth is that young cubs are systematically taken from their mothers at birth so that they can be used as toys and at the same time increase the lionesses’ reproductive cycle.

Despite what tourists are told, the hand-reared cubs will never be released into the wild. They are raised like cattle and are held in cages until they are old enough to be sold off or hunted.


In addition to poaching and a constantly shrinking habitat, the demand for lion products increases the pressure on dwindling wild lion populations.   In recent years, and with the tightening of legislation and protection of Asian tiger populations, the increase in demand for lion bones has rocketed.  They are the primary ingredient in the manufacture of lion bone wine, a substitute for the traditional, much sought-after Asian panacea, tiger bone wine.

While breeders argue that the captive breeding of lions can legally satisfy the demand for bones and alleviate the pressure on wild lion populations, conservationist and director of the Campaign Against Canned Lion Hunting, Chris Mercer, says that the hunting of captive-bred lions was in fact damaging to conservation. He argues that the breeders are in fact harming wild populations by creating and amplifying an illegal industry and allowing it to prosper.

There is also growing concern in some circles that, because of the dwindling gene pool amongst captive lion breeders, unscrupulous breeders may eventually resort to capturing wild lions to outbreed with their captive lions to renew and strengthen genetic diversity. 

The number of wild lions is in steady decline. Experts estimate that there are less than 25,000 wild lions left on the African continent, a reduction of 80% in the past century.

Wild lion populations are already extinct in 26 African countries.