Four winters ago my family and I were in the Kruger National Park, mesmerized by the sighting of five black maned male lions lying in wait on a sandy bank overlooking the Crocodile River.

There they were – Africa’s Apex predator in all their glory, and nothing could compare with coming so close to such majestic beasts. That day in the Kruger store we found a CD called Blood Lions, which piqued my curiosity, only to be horrified by the story it told.

The renowned conservationist and Director of Blood Lions Ian Michler narrated the award winning documentary film which exposed the horrors that captive bred lions endure on farms across South Africa – lions just like the ones we had just seen, which are bred for the bullet.

At the time, wealthy foreigners were paying up to US$50,000 to shoot a lion on a farm, in circumstances that resembled more target practice than an actual hunt.

There has been significant concern from numerous animal welfare and conservation organisations around the conditions under which the lions are bred, reared, hunted and slaughtered, with many conservationists and hunters finding the industry to be immoral and unethical in its behaviour and practice.

Watching those creatures being set up for the kill was heartbreaking, and soon after watching Blood Lions I had contacted Ian Michler and asked for a meeting.

Michler and I sat at OR Tambo International Airport as he was en route to a conservation conference in the US, and I was bowled over by the tales of horror he related to me about what so many lions in our country go through in these captive lion breeding farms.

According to Michler, two to three lions were being killed daily, when the total lion population left in the wild in South Africa totalled 3,000. It was a devastating situation.

There was rising public concern over lion hunting, and the stakeholder consultations with the Department of Environment in 2015 had resulted in conservation groups saying that the department had largely ignored the concerns they articulated, and rather sided with the breeders.

The breeders had seemingly convinced the department of the myth that the breeding of captive lions somehow helped the lion population – of which there was no evidence.

Instead, Michler contended that the lion breeding industry may well increase poaching as the breeders needed a constant supply of wild lions in order to prevent inbreeding.

Michler debunked the myths of the breeders that the captive lion breeding industry was a source of job creation, and helped local communities.

He put forward a strong case that working conditions for locals on the farms were poor, that foreign volunteers may well be taking jobs away from South Africans, that the industry only created at most 300 direct jobs, and the lions were often poorly maintained and not given adequate vet care.

The moves internationally against captive bred lion hunting were already afoot when I met Michler, with Australia, France, and the Netherlands having banned imports of lion trophies from South Africa.

In 2016, the US Fish and Wildlife also issued a directive against importing captive bred lion trophies, and put lions on their endangered species list.

Two years later in 2018, the largest hunting organisation in the world – Safari Club International – met in Las Vegas and rejected captive lion exports from South Africa, saying “We oppose the hunting of African lions bred in captivity.”

Safari Club International also refused to register South African lion trophies.

It took Minister Barbara Creecy to enter the scene as the new Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries for the situation to be turned on its head.

On 10 October 2019, Creecy gazetted the appointment of an Advisory Committee (a High Level Panel) to review policies, legislation, and practices on matters related to the management, breeding, hunting, trade and handling of elephant, lion, leopard, and rhino.

The High Level Panel received 70 submissions and after extensive consultations, identified that the captive lion breeding industry poses a risk to the sustainability of wild lion conservation, resulting from the negative impact on ecotourism which funds lion conservation.

The High Level Panel also highlighted the risk that the trade in lion parts poses to stimulating poaching and illegal trade.

This week was a watershed moment when on Monday, Creecy announced that South Africa will no longer breed captive lions, keep lions in captivity, or use captive lions or their derivatives commercially.

Creecy has instructed her department to put processes in place to halt the sale of captive lion derivatives, the hunting of captive bred lions, and tourist interactions with captive lions.

This is a monumental victory for wildlife in South Africa, and Dr Louise de Waal, the Director and Campaign Manager of Blood Lions has commended the Minister for her decisive leadership, and applauds the decision to bring an end to the commercial captive lion breeding industry.

The decision has gone a long way in preserving Brand South Africa, and now we must work to ensure that breeding lions for the bullet belongs in the ash heap of history.

Independent Foreign Service