Skip to main content

In 2019 a horrific discovery was made when inspectors attended at a captive lion breeding farm in the North West of South Africa to find more than a hundred lions, among other big cats, suffering from neglect, parasites, mange and various other health ailments. Irrespective of the various ailments, the lions were intended for use in captive hunts and/or to be slaughtered and their various parts sold.

Fast-forward to 2021, amidst the COVID-19 chaos and after a two year study into the captive lion breeding industry, the South African government has announced its plan to ban captive lion breeding (and necessarily their facilities) and to halt and reverse the domestication of lions through captive breeding and keeping”effectively bringing an end to the captive lion industry in South Africa.

Captive lion breeding is allowed in terms of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Wild Fauna and Flora (“CITES”), and whilst captive lion breeding is for the most part unregulated in South Africa, it is currently legal, together with the commercial use of lions born of captivity and their “derivatives” (body parts, bones, skin and the like).

There are currently in excess of 8000 lions bred and held in captivity in South Africa which lions are and/or will be used for various “tourist attractions”, such as:

  1. Lion cubs used for petting;
  2. adolescent lions are used for people to walk with as a tourist attraction;
  3. once the lions get older, they are usually sold to hunting facilities wherein the lions are confined to an enclosure and people can pay to shoot and kill them. Whilst “canned” lion hunting is illegal in South Africa, captive-bred lion hunting is allowed in terms of which lions are bred in captivity and held in small enclosures until they are shot and killed by “hunters”;
  4. the deceased lion’s head and/or skin is usually kept by the “hunter” (ie “trophy hunting”);
  5. older lions may sometimes also be kept for breeding more cubs for petting and then slaughtered when no longer viable for breeding; and/or
  6. lion bones are sold and even exported to other countries for use by people (whilst CITES prohibits the trade of bones from wild lions, it does not ban the export of bones from captive lions in South Africa).

Notwithstanding that many of the practices engaged in by captive lion breeding facilities amount to cruelty against animals, in direct contravention of the Animals Protection Act 71 of 1962, overall, the highly unregulated captive lion industry in South Africa lacks mandatory regulations and the necessary enforcement controls.

Additionally, the Industry’s Norms and Standards are voluntary and as such captive lion breeding facilities are not bound to follow them – essentially facilitating the horrific treatment of these lions bred and held in captivity and enabling the terrible living conditions they are forced to endure until they are eventually “hunted” or die as a result of health-related issues resulting from the conditions in which they are forced to live.

As such, the decision taken by government to ban captive lion breeding has been hailed as a win for wildlife as the ban will not only make the captive lion breeding industry illegal, it will also ensure that the resultant cruelty that is endured by lions bred in captivity, as highlighted above, will also be rendered illegal and “tourist attractions” such as captive lion hunting will no longer be tolerated by South African law.

Whilst the decision was announced by the Minister of Environmental, Forestry and Fisheries the ban on captive lion breeding has not yet been formulated into legislation. However, the decision can be seen as a step towards aligning South Africa with the values that underpin its Constitution, specifically with regard to the environmental rights enshrined therein.

In this regard, as encapsulated by the Constitutional Court in the case of the National  Society  for  the  Prevention  of  Cruelty  to  Animals  v Minister  of  Justice  and  Constitutional  Development  and  Another [2016] ZACC  46, “the human right to environmental protection is connected to animal welfare” and it is cleat that the “rationale behind  protecting  animal  welfare  has  shifted  from  merely  safeguarding  the  moral status  of  humans  to  recognising  the  intrinsic  value  of  animals as individuals.”