In South Africa, the big cats are raised to be killed by hunters. Opponents are outraged, but advocates point to conservation benefits
The lion charges the electric fence, and I leap backward. Grassland Fence
“These lions are not accustomed to humans,” Casper van der Merwe says in his distinctive Afrikaner accent.
I am standing less than five feet from five very large, healthy, well-fed lions, nothing but strands of wire separating us. The wire is supposed to be electrified, but I catch a lion licking it to no ill effect. Another young female charges me but is stopped by an older lioness, who bats her on the nose with a huge paw.
“We only feed them twice a week, and we throw the meat over the fence,” van der Merwe says. He’s a fit, handsome cowboy in his 30s. Along with his wife, Anneke, he runs Jenobli Safaris in North West province, South Africa, not far from the border with Botswana.
Lions are big business in South Africa. Ecotourism generates some $2.4 billion in annual revenue. Tourists typically visit to go on safari—Kruger National Park, home to some 2,000 wild lions, is the continent’s most popular wildlife park—and the number one animal on the checklist is the iconic, majestic, wild lion.
This article is a selection from the January/February 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine
The van der Merwes organize safaris on two separate game reserves. Clients sleep in luxury African lodges, spending their evenings outside around a hearth and having a braai, the classic South African barbecue. They rise before dawn to roll through the bush in a four-wheel drive, spotting everything from crocs to hyenas. But this is not Jenobli’s main gig. Most people who book trips with the van der Merwes are big-game hunters who come to shoot animals on their private land farther north, including impala, kudu, sable antelope, Cape buffalo, warthogs—and lions.
Hunting lions is legal in South Africa. So is farming lions. The South African government sells only five or so wild-lion-hunting permits each year, but there is no stated limit to the number of captive-bred lions that can be hunted, so long as lion breeders abide by various government permitting requirements. “You need one for transport, one for release, one for hunting, one for relocating, one for selling the bones, one for the taxidermist,” van der Merwe says.
The van der Merwes’ 80-acre lion-breeding facility is one of an estimated 260 lion farms in the country, where between 8,000 and 12,000 lions are bred, raised and kept in captivity. Many are then released onto private game ranches and hunted. Trophy hunters fly in from all over the world to shoot a lion, a majority from the United States.
We drive around the perimeter of the facility in a pickup truck, traversing a narrow corridor: To our right is an eight-foot-high electric fence, holding back the lions, and to our left is another eight-foot-high wire fence, a legally required backup to make doubly sure lions cannot escape. The landscape is flat bushland, red dirt and thorn trees. The lions are separated by sex into multi-acre enclosures.
“The female cubs stay with their mothers until they are weaned, but once the males are around 2 we have to put them into separate pens to keep them from killing each other,” van der Merwe explains. The full-grown males, with their huge heads, heavy, muscular bodies, and thick, dark manes, are ready to be hunted.
Van der Merwe invites me into his modest home, a single-story house across the road from the lion enclosure, and introduces me to his wife, Anneke. I am the first journalist the van der Merwes, who understandably worry about bad press, have allowed onto their lion-breeding farm, perhaps because I explained to them that I grew up hunting. They remind me of the ranch families I know back in my home state of Wyoming, hard-working farmers who live and labor on a dry patch of land handed down through the generations, even as conglomerates buy up many small ranches nearby.
Hunting is an ancient, atavistic undertaking and an emotional subject for hunters and nonhunters alike. Humans have always killed to survive. Back in Wyoming, my family hunted elk, antelope and deer for the meat. Some hunters believe that killing animals for any purpose but food is gratuitous, even cruel, but a sizable portion would argue that if you eat any kind of meat—beef, chicken, turkey, lamb—it is hypocritical to oppose hunting, whether or not you’ve ever killed an animal yourself.
Both Casper and Anneke grew up in the farming, ranching and hunting community. They currently raise cattle and lions. They started raising lions in 2012, after spending more than $100,000 to install the tall electric fences. They currently have 53 big cats.
“We were already in the hunting business, and we were in the farming business,” Anneke says. “So, it just made sense to do the lions as well, because it makes our hunting business more profitable.”
It costs the van der Merwes between $2,000 and $3,000 a month to feed and house the lions. The chicken farm next door serves as a primary source of food for them. “In the hunting season, they get a lot of game meat,” says Anneke, referring primarily to meat left over from trophy hunts by paying customers. “But they get beef as well whenever our cattle die.” Local ranchers call the van der Merwes when one of their cows dies, and it’s picked up and fed to the lions. A vet comes periodically to ensure the animals are healthy. Fences have to be constantly maintained.
On our drive around the lion farm, Casper, like a pig farmer or a cattle rancher, pointed out animals that he would breed in the future because of certain physical attributes. The van der Merwes breed for size and mane color, important characteristics for trophy hunters. Clients often specify the kind of lion they want to kill—its sex, size, coat color and mane style.
With their muscled magnificence, their majestic insouciance and their courage in battle, lions have always been among our most salient symbols of ferocity and power. When I wonder aloud if raising them like cattle might strike some people as offensive, Anneke displays a farmer’s frankness.
“All animals are equal,” she says. “You can’t say the lion is more important than a rabbit, because the rabbit is also part of the cycle. In nature, that’s how the system works.” Killing is killing, in other words, regardless of the animal.
But doesn’t the reason for killing an animal also matter? A trophy hunter, who typically pays between $10,000 and $25,000 to kill a lion, is in it for sport, not sustenance. The head, hide and claws are then shipped to a taxidermist and reanimated into a lifelike “trophy” to be hung on a wall or spread out before a great hearth.
Neither Casper nor Anneke accepts the distinction. For the van der Merwes, raising lions and leading lion hunts is about economics. Sounds simple. But as I would soon learn, in South Africa nothing about lion hunting is uncomplicated. The industry touches on ethics and economics, environmentalism and sentimentalism, science and sensationalism, often in surprising ways.
I ask Casper what happens to the meat when a trophy hunter kills a lion.
“Where we hunt, [local] people use some of the meat, and some of the meat we throw on the dung pile with all the bones,” he says. “The vultures eat it. Then we keep the bones for selling.”
People have probably hunted lions since we first fashioned spears. The lion-hunting prowess of Pharaoh Amenhotep III is detailed in more than 100 hieroglyphic texts from the second millennium B.C. Sculpted reliefs dating to around 640 B.C. show Assyrian kings killing lions to prove their courage and competence to rule. In the Roman era, gladiatorial spectacles throughout the Mediterranean nearly wiped out the North African Barbary lion. Skilled hunters from around the world have been paying extravagantly to hunt lions in Africa for centuries, from the Scottish sportsman Roualeyn George “The Lion Hunter” Gordon-Cumming (1820-1866) to the American businessman Paul Rainey (1877-1923), who claimed to have killed more than 200 lions using a pack of foxhounds, which one fellow hunter described as “just like rat hunting and about as dangerous.” For the Maasai tribe in Kenya, killing a lion with a spear was a rite of passage into manhood until the past decade or so.
Even as recently as a century ago, it has been reliably estimated that hundreds of thousands of lions roamed Africa, the Middle East and India. Today, because of habitat loss and rapid human population growth, only about 20,000 African lions are thought to remain in the wild, according to Panthera, an organization devoted to the conservation of the world’s 40 species of wild cats. The lion is already extinct in 26 African countries.
As the number of lions dramatically declined, the desire among tourists from affluent Western countries to interact with lions only increased. Many hoped to view lions on safari or handle cubs at “petting zoos,” and a significant number wanted to hunt them. In the 1990s, this market disparity gave a few South African entrepreneurs an idea: Why not breed lions to meet the increasing demand for lion “experiences,” especially hunting? The concept is not new, to be sure. Ninety-five percent of pheasants in Europe are farm-bred for hunting. The North American Elk Breeders Association was founded in 1990, and there are now an estimated 70,000 farmed elk or more across the continent, raised for hunting and for their antlers and meat. In Texas alone there are more than 500 private hunting reserves where you can shoot a zebra or a Cape buffalo or a kangaroo, all of which were bred for the bullet.
The first captive-bred lion facilities in South Africa began operation in the 1990s. By 2007, enough captive lions were being killed that the South African government passed a law requiring all captive-bred lions to be released onto private reserves at least two years before they could be hunted in order for them to develop survival skills. Lion breeders challenged this law in court and won, and the number of breeders and captive-bred lion hunts surged. Eventually, according to Humane Society International, an average of nearly 800 captive-bred lions were killed by trophy hunters every year.
In 2015, three things happened that radically changed the public perception of lion hunting. In early July, a 13-year-old lion in Zimbabwe, nicknamed Cecil, was shot by an American dentist after he was reportedly lured out of Hwange National Park with an elephant carcass. The lion was wounded by an arrow and tracked for 11 hours before finally being shot and killed with a rifle. The event passed largely unnoticed in Zimbabwe, but internationally it was seized as a sensational symbol of animal cruelty. Late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel got choked up talking about Cecil on TV. Some 1.3 million people signed one of several online petitions titled “Justice for Cecil.” Opponents called for a ban on the importation of lion trophies to the United States. The advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals put out an inflammatory statement: “Hunting is a coward’s pastime … [the hunter] needs to be extradited, charged and, preferably, hanged.”
Also in July, the documentary Blood Lions: Bred for the Bullet was released. In the film, which swiftly found a worldwide audience, the South African journalist Ian Michler visited South African petting zoos where lion cubs are taken from their mothers days after birth and bottle-fed cow’s milk by high-paying tourists. When the lionesses lose their cubs, they go into estrus and can quickly breed again—a practice sometimes known as “speed breeding”—producing more cuddly cubs, which are again taken from their mothers. The cubs become habituated to humans. But what happens once they are full-grown? Unbeknownst to well-meaning ecotourists, some are sold to zoos; some to research universities; many to private game ranches, where they are killed by trophy hunters; and some are killed just for their bones. Blood Lions fueled the growing global antipathy toward lion hunting.
In December of that year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified Panthera leo leo, the lion subspecies found in Asia and western and central Africa, as endangered, and Panthera leo melanochaita, the subspecies found in eastern and southern Africa, as threatened. The listing gave the agency the authority to regulate lion trophy imports, and in October 2016 the Obama administration announced a ban on “lion trophies taken from captive lion populations in South Africa.” (Australia and France had banned lion imports the previous year.)
But the Trump administration subsequently softened the ban, granting the wildlife agency the authority to consider permits for lion trophies on a case-by-case basis.
By 2019, the lion hunting debate was boiling over in South Africa. The Southern African Tourism Services Association, a leading trade organization, denounced captive-bred lion hunting, following an earlier disavowal by the Association of British Travel Agents. Growing discontent with the practice culminated in a May 2021 report from the South African government, which had commissioned a group of experts to assess policies concerning the management, breeding, hunting and trade of lions and three other iconic African species—rhinoceroses, leopards and elephants.
The group’s conclusion was unequivocal: “The captive lion industry threatens South Africa’s reputation as a leader in the conservation of wildlife,” and the practice “presents a threat to South Africa’s reputation with associated political and economic risks.” Barbara Creecy, minister of forestry, fisheries and the environment, said at the time, “The captive lion industry poses risks to the sustainability of wild lion conservation resulting from the negative impact on ecotourism, which funds lion conservation and conservation more broadly.”
The experts recommended a number of measures to end captive-lion hunts and other controversial practices: a moratorium on hunting permits; a plan to close lion-breeding programs; a ban on the sale of lion parts, including bones; and better living conditions for lions already in captivity.
Creecy announced her intention to enact the recommendations. “I have requested the department to action this accordingly and ensure that the necessary consultation for implementation is conducted.”
That was nearly two years ago. Not one of those recommendations has been implemented.
it isn’t just wildlife officials, tourism interests and animal-rights advocates who oppose captive-bred lion hunting—“canned hunting,” as it’s called by critics such as the Campaign Against Canned Hunting, a South African organization. Many hunters are also against canned hunting because it violates the principle of “fair chase,” defined by North America’s oldest hunting group, the Boone and Crockett Club, as the “ethical, sportsmanlike and lawful pursuit and taking of free-ranging wild game animals in a manner that doesn’t give the hunter an improper or unfair advantage.” Perhaps the most notable condemnation of killing raised lions came in 2018, when the world’s largest hunting organization, the Washington, D.C.-based Safari Club International, adopted a policy that “opposes the hunting of African lions bred in captivity” because “these types of hunt do not meet the fair chase requirements proudly upheld by the sporting community.”
Paul Stones, a professional hunter, couldn’t agree more. “It’s a completely barbaric exploitation of wildlife!” he says. “A captive-bred lion hunt is like the Walmart of lion hunting. It’s cheap. You can pick up a lion for 15 to 20 grand. It’s like reading off a menu. With captive hunting you can guarantee a lion. This has done more damage to our hunting industry than any other practice. It is disgusting.”
Stones is the owner of Paul Stones Safaris Africa, which conducts hunts in the wild in five countries: South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Zambia. On his website you will find a plethora of images of proud trophy hunters standing by their kills—kudu, Cape buffalo, zebra, sable antelope, leopard. “A lion hunt in the wild is a long safari—21 days minimum,” says Stones. “There is no certainty you will get a lion, because it is an age-based policy. Unless you have a lion that is over a certain age, you can’t hunt it.”
Stones hunts wild lions by hanging an animal carcass from a tree to bait them, then taking photographs of the lions that approach from a nearby blind. From the photographs, he says, “I can see how old the lion is, age it through its mane, teeth, body color.” Without such baiting, he says, there is the possibility of killing a lion that is too young to be legally hunted. (He did not clarify whether hunters also shoot the animal from a blind.) In South Africa, where wild lion hunts are the exception and permits are few, operators like Stones can reportedly charge a trophy hunter upwards of $100,000.
The ethics of hunting are highly variable, of course. Take the practice of baiting. Stones supports it as necessary, at least in the case of wild lions. The Boone and Crockett Club equivocates, saying there’s “no simple answer to the question about baiting being right or wrong.” But it is firmly opposed by other hunters as unfair, and not far removed from canned hunting.
Though Stones opposes canned hunting, there is a scenario that he says could justify the killing of lions raised in captivity, as I learned when I asked him what should be done with the roughly 10,000 captive-bred lions now alive in South Africa.
“Euthanize the lot,” Stones says. “They are worthless.”
Riding in a Jeep through the Warthog Safaris private game reserve, I see kudu, impala, giraffe, hippos, sable antelope, wildebeests, crocodiles, rhinos and lions—all in less than an hour. I have come to see for myself what canned hunting is all about.
Tienie and Ananja Bamberger are the owners of this trophy game ranch 160 miles north of Johannesburg, in Limpopo province. Clients come to Warthog to hunt (and photograph) all manner of game, from the giant eland to the tiny duiker. Tienie has been a professional hunting guide since 1998. Over the years, the couple has rewilded 15,000 acres—once low-performing, low-profit cattle ranchland—removing the cattle and replacing them with native animal species. “It’s marginal agricultural land,” Tienie says as we bounce along in his Land Cruiser. “It’s too dry. You can’t sustain lots of cattle in an area like this.”
To create his game ranch, Tienie purchased the original breeding stock of giraffes, hippos and kudu from other private or state-run game reserves in the early 2000s and erected miles of extra-tall fences. The Bambergers also have a lion-breeding farm, but in another location.
Tienie stops the vehicle. His scout has spotted lion tracks. We get out and examine the enormous, distinctive paw prints in the sand. “Here we hunt lions on foot,” says Tienie—notably not from a blind. Turning his sunburned face toward where the tracks disappear into the bush, he asks his tracker how old the prints are. The answer: two or three hours. If we were on a lion hunt, he says, “You would follow the tracks on foot and try to find it. If you don’t find it today, you come tomorrow.”
Has Tienie ever seen a lion charge a hunter?
Yes, of course. “When you track them, they get tired, and then they turn on you and will charge.”
The next day, I am again with Tienie driving across his ranch. Many of his clients shoot four or five different ungulates, but because U.S. Customs frequently prohibits hunters from bringing meat into the United States, he sells some of the game meat and gives the rest to his camp staff and villagers. “A lot of my meat goes to a local village here. Once a month, we feed up to 350 kids and 50 to 100 elderly people.”
This a common argument for advocates of canned hunting, who say the practice benefits local communities. Although scoffed at by anti-trophy-hunting organizations, a 2015 report in the scientific journal PLOS One that analyzed data from Zambia found that trophy-hunted game meat is a meaningful source of protein for local villagers, and that without it hunting for bushmeat—usually protected wildlife—would increase.
Private game reserves like Warthog, of which there are some 10,000 in South Africa, make up as much as 17 percent of the total land area of the country—more than double the territory of state-owned wildlife sanctuaries such as Kruger National Park and Pilanesberg National Park. This proliferation of game ranches is due in large part to a unique 1991 conservation law known as the Game Theft Act, which gave landholders ownership of the wildlife on their property (as long as they fenced their land). In most other countries, wildlife is generally owned by the state. The South African private-property approach to wildlife encourages farmers, ranchers and other landowners to preserve biodiversity and especially habitat, which in turn makes trophy hunting more lucrative than cattle ranching. In the last 30 years, as cattle ranches were converted to private game reserves, the nation’s large mammal numbers have grown significantly, to an estimated 19 million. Millions of hectares of land have been rewilded with native plants and diverse animal life, including prey animals that help sustain populations of trophy animals. Thus, by some metrics, trophy hunters have helped conservation, if only by default.
In contrast to South Africa, which encourages hunting, Kenya, which outlawed all hunting in 1977, has seen an almost 70 percent reduction in wildlife in that time. Its cattle population, meanwhile, increased from 18 million to 22 million between 2010 and 2020, and is expected to grow 94 percent by 2050. Farmers and ranchers in Kenya have a strong incentive to deforest land for grazing and crops, and to eliminate livestock predators and other pests, including animals that destroy crops or eat the forage intended for domesticated animals.
On the drive back to the hunting lodge, Tienie says lion hunting represents a quarter of his revenues, and if he could not guide trophy-hunting trips, “100 percent” of his land would go back to cattle ranching.
“Cattle don’t eat trees and leaves,” Tienie says. “So I would have to poison all the trees on this land so that I could have a little bit more grass so that I could have cattle. And that’s all legal and okay.”
There is a saying in South Africa: If it pays, it stays. This perspective ignores any intrinsic value one might assign to wild animals, but it is economically pragmatic. It is a farmer’s motto. Yet the stark pragmatism of captive-bred lion hunting, as Tienie sees it, plays a role in the restoration and preservation of the natural landscape.
Perhaps the most controversial dimension of the captive-lion industry is the bone trade. In traditional Chinese medicinal practices, tiger bones are thought to bestow health benefits, and they are often consumed today in the form of luxury tinctures such as tiger bone wine, made from bones soaked in alcohol. Because of a global clampdown on the tiger bone trade, however, lion bones have become a common substitute. In Southeast Asia, a single lion skeleton is worth upwards of $3,000. Between 2008 and 2016, more than 6,000 lion skeletons were exported from South Africa to Asia.
Originally, lion skeletons were largely a byproduct of the captive-bred lion-hunting industry, but once the ban on importing lion parts was implemented in the United States, many breeders turned to the bone trade to dispose of their lions. A 2021 investigative documentary movie, Lions, Bones and Bullets, revealed that there are now breeders in South Africa raising lions exclusively for their bones.
In 2016, a treaty signed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned all international trade in wild lion parts, but under intense pressure from South African lion farmers, CITES allowed South Africa an annual quota to export captive-bred lion skeletons. In 2017 and 2018 the quota was set at 800. But in 2019, South Africa’s High Court ruled that exporting lion bones was illegal, on animal-welfare grounds, in a case brought against the government by a South African animal-rights organization. As a result, the South African government has not set an export quota for four years, thus rendering any shipment illegal. But according to a recent report by OCCRP, an international investigative-reporting consortium, the country’s customs agency claims it never received guidance that exporting lion skeletons was illegal, and it said it has not been monitoring shipments except to check for an export permit and cleanliness.
Even presuming, however, that the South African government ultimately outlaws captive-bred lion hunting and the lion-bone trade, the government will face a quandary that is already vexing everybody from lion farmers to conservationists and animal-rights activists: What to do with the country’s 10,000 or so captive-bred lions? Rather than slaughtering them—a PR nightmare that would almost certainly harm tourism—could the cats be relocated to regions in Africa where the lion is now extinct?
“The science says we can’t do any kind of rewilding with these lions,” says Paul Funston, senior director of the lion program at the nonprofit Panthera. Funston has been working with lions his entire adult life and is considered one of the world’s leading experts on the species. “They are such a genetic hodgepodge,” he says. “The last thing we would ever want to do is move a southern African lion into West Africa, for instance. That would erode the genetic makeup and the genetic quality of the West African lion.”
But what about moving the lions to countries closer to South Africa—Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana? Unlike elsewhere on the continent, southern Africa’s lion populations are relatively stable, and in certain places are even increasing. In South Africa, Funston says, these lions are carefully managed, because lions are prolific breeders and can eat their way through other wildlife populations if left unchecked. Already, in some game preserves, wild lions are sterilized or put on contraceptives to control the population. There are even rumors that wild lions are sometimes quietly culled to protect biodiversity.
Funston identifies two other thorny issues that would complicate any effort to relocate captive-bred lions: first, the dearth of prey species necessary for their survival. “Dumping lions into a depleted system is not a solution,” he says. Second, the potential for conflict between lions and people is enormous, especially given Africa’s exploding human population. “If you look at any documented example of rewilding, there’s always tragedy associated with it. Human tragedy, or tragedy to the lions themselves, or tragedy to livestock.”
Shirtless and shoeless and wearing khaki shorts, Craig Spencer drives me out to one of his research stations in a beat-up Land Rover. He’s the senior warden of Olifants West, a private reserve on the western border of Kruger National Park, and also the managing director of Transfrontier Africa, a wildlife research organization, and also the manager of the Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit, a novel South African organization that employs local village women to track and report poachers.
Spencer has spent his life in the bush and devoted his career to conservation. He once refused a suitcase full of $1 million in cash to hunt one elephant on his reserve. “You want to claim you’re doing something philanthropic by shooting a lion, that your money is going back into the community?” he says. “That’s all smoke and mirrors, man. That’s not your motive.”
He does not support canned hunting, but he recognizes the challenge of putting an end to the practice. “There should be a phased approach, five years, say, to shutting down the captive-lion industry,” he says, as we drop into a steep, rubbly ravine. “Give the lion breeders a window of opportunity to shift their business model. The lions that are deformed, defanged or malnourished need to be euthanized. This is the humane thing to do. The ones that look fit and healthy should be sterilized, because you cannot account for their genetic history. Then we’re going to have to create a kind of old-age home or sanctuary for them.”
Given the economic situation in South Africa, with almost 35 percent unemployment and poverty crushing the country, it seems unlikely that a massive, expensive old folks’ home for captive-bred lions is a plausible option.
And yet recent polling suggests that pressure to change current practices isn’t abating. A 2022 World Animal Protection survey of more than 10,000 international tourists found that 84 percent agree that South Africa should prioritize wildlife-friendly tourism over trophy hunting, and, if this is not done, 72 percent say they would be put off from visiting the country altogether. Another survey, commissioned by Humane Society International/Africa in 2022, found that of a nationally representative sample of 3,599 South Africans age 15 or older, 68 percent oppose trophy hunting, and 65 percent oppose the practice of canned lion hunting. One researcher warns that the reputational damage to South Africa caused by captive-bred lion hunting could cost the country nearly $3 billion in tourist revenue over the next decade.
“We’re talking about global consciousness,” Spencer says as we crash through the creek. “Hemingway came and shot animals in Africa and was considered a hero. That’s all gone. Slavery, sweatshops, child labor—humans have rejected all of these. We have moved on.”
Mark Jenkins is an explorer and journalist. His writing has appeared in National Geographic and Outside Magazine, among others.
South African photojournalist Gulshan Khan has published in the Guardian, the New York Times and elsewhere.