In South Africa, Lions Are Bred for Slaughter - and Volunteers Are Duped Into Helping

At safaris for affluent tourists, lions are hunted in enclosed areas with nowhere to run; a documentary, 'Blood Lions,' exposes the disturbing scope of 'canned hunting' in South Africa

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From 'Blood Lions.'
From 'Blood Lions.'Credit: Pippa Hankinson
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Images of magnificent lions appear on the computer screen. Their tremendous manes seem to be windblown. This is the menu, or shopping list, of a site that sells short hunting vacations in South Africa to hunters from around the world. The surfers are invited to choose the lion they find most impressive, mark it with the mouse and make a reservation. The company promises to provide the lion for a kill within a fenced-in, confined area. You can’t miss. The payoff comes fast. Who has time to waste these days, especially if you have money?

Hunting excursions in enclosed or confined areas, known as “canned hunting,” are organized down to the last detail and operate like a Swiss clock. The owners of the game farms who organize these safaris breed the lions especially for this purpose. The trophy hunters arrive two days before the day of the hunt, from Houston or Los Angeles. The company sees to their lodging, traveling, weapons and instructors. After the hunt, as part of the deal, the lion is skinned and the skin and head are carefully packed and sent to the address listed on the reservation form. Ernest Hemingway is turning over in his grave.

This form of hunting in confined areas is the contemporary version of the lengthy safaris that once drew the rich – and Hemingway – to Africa. But it’s a particularly cruel version, a decidedly unfair game. Many will say that hunting as such, in any way, shape or form, is vicious and unfair. But traditional hunting has one simple rule: The animal can get away and save its hide. It’s not doomed to die. There’s no chance of that in canned hunting. Here, the organizers release the hunted lion that same morning into a fenced-in compound. There’s nowhere to run. The fix is in.

Trophy hunters pay between $15,000 and $45,000 for the privilege of shooting a male lion with a large mane – the darker the mane, the higher the price.

Ernest Hemingway on safari, Africa. January, 1934. Credit: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection/ John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

This form of hunting has been going on for about 20 years. In South Africa, it’s a perfectly legal business; several attempts to ban it through the courts failed. But in the past decade, it’s gained momentum, and in the past five years has doubled in volume. It’s estimated that three lions are shot every day in South Africa in this way. Canned hunting is now one of the most shocking and disturbing environmental issues on the agenda of guardians of nature and animal lovers.

Crimes against nature

“Blood Lions,” a documentary film that will be screened on July 8 at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, depicts a journey to game farms where lions are bred for killing in canned hunts. As part of their research, the filmmakers spoke to ranchers, government officials, academics, hunters, environmentalists and tourists, and tried to follow the sequence of events on the ranches. However, they were not permitted to photograph what they saw there, and after trying to do so secretly were found out and forced to leave.

Pippa Hankinson.Credit: Ian Michler

“The farm owners breed the cubs for the bullet,” says the film’s producer, Pippa Hankinson, who has been involved in a campaign to stop canned hunting for five years following a 20-year career in high-end eco-tourism. “The cubs are taken from their mothers when they’re a week old and are bred in captivity for three years, until they’re sold to hunters. A huge tourism industry has been developed around this.”

Watching the film is not easy. Forget “The Lion King” and Simba’s sweet charm, the feline wisdom and charisma. The eyes of a lion locked up in a small cage are a piteous sight to behold. The thought that there are thousands of others in the same situation is appalling. The sight of the little cubs is particularly shocking. In nature, a lioness raises her cubs for almost two years, until they are able to forage for food on their own. But in the breeding farms, they are taken away just days after being born, in order to allow the lioness give birth again quickly. The cubs grow up in confined, crowded compounds. In some cases they are kept in cages or enclosures.

In some of the farms, the cubs are seen in a fenced-in area during the day and shut up in small cages at night. The less fortunate among them are loaned to scientists for research before being returned to the farms. Within three years, their body and mane will be impressive enough to attract the attention of the hunter-tourists in a closed-in area. These trophy hunters pay between $15,000 and $45,000 for the privilege of shooting a male lion with a large mane – the darker the mane, the higher the price. Those who sign up for a lion hunt also get two females to shoot as part of the deal. A friendly gesture by the organizers.

It’s impossible to spend too much time in such places, says environmental photojournalist and safari operator Ian Michler in “Blood Lion,” who also helped to make the movie. He’s referring to the feeling the farms stir up in him, of course, but also to the sight of the lions themselves, who are shut in metal cages.

Ian Michler.Credit: From 'Blood Lions'

According to Hankinson, Michler and the others involved in creating the film, there are currently about 200 farms of this kind. To avoid lawsuits, the filmmakers do not mention any ranch by name, but raise serious suspicions about many of the sites. They estimate that between 6,000 and 8,000 lions are imprisoned on the farms, in a rapidly growing industry. In 1999, only 1,000 lions were being bred for hunting; if the present rate of growth continues, they say many predict that by 2020 the number of lions will have risen to between 15,000 and 20,000.

It’s true that in contrast to the rest of Africa, where the lion population has shrunk by half in the past 20 years – to about 30,000 overall, according to experts – the number of lions in South Africa is stable. And it’s precisely canned hunting that is responsible for this, say its proponents. One of the hunters in the movie claims that he and the others are preserving the natural environment, and that commercial breeding on game farms is saving the lions in their natural habitat. Pressure to breed is decreased; the lions in nature can multiply undisturbed, he says. Another interviewee in the film, asked whether he didn’t feel pity for the hunted lion, replies that if it were not for the thriving industry of fenced-in hunting, the lion would not have been born, and this way the animal had a purpose in life.

But even if the hunters come up with supposed rationales, the whole business has horrific aspects. One of them, as the film shows, is the exploitation of the cubs as a secondary – but still quite substantial – source of income, by deceiving young people who want to help save wild animals from extinction.

Between 6,000 and 8,000 lions are imprisoned on the farms, in a rapidly growing industry.

Duping volunteers

The cubs on the breeding farms need to be looked after as they grow. A great many farms in South Africa invite volunteers to tend to them and do maintenance work in the areas where they’re held. Every year thousands of people arrive at these locales for a few weeks, for this purpose. The farms that take the volunteers are an integral part of South Africa’s tourism industry. According to the organizers of the volunteer service, the idea is to help preserve the environment and protect animals. But “Blood Lions” shows that in many cases this is a fraud and that most tourists, even if they know something about the subject, find it very difficult to distinguish between a sincere aim and one that has ulterior motives.

Lion cubs on a farm.Credit: Ian Michler

“The farm owners tell the volunteers that the lion cubs are orphans, meaning that their mother was hunted in the savannah, or that they were abandoned by the lioness that gave birth to them, but in many cases these are not true,” Hankinson told me by phone from her home in Durban, South Africa. “The tourists are completely unaware that they are supporting canned hunting. They think they’re assisting with preservation, education or research. They are foreigners who easily believe the farmers who tell them tales.”

The volunteers are often told that when the cubs are a little older, they will be released back into the wild, but that, she says, is misleading. It’s impossible to restore cubs to nature that have been handled by humans. They can’t survive alone. They have faith in people and so approach dangerously close to them, and they don’t know how to hunt for food. They stand no chance in the open: Other animals or people will hunt them down immediately.

In practice, the volunteers, who think they are helping to raise an orphan cub, plying it with warmth and love before it’s released back into the wild, are in many cases looking after an animal that will one day be a hunter’s target. Just as the witch in “Hansel and Gretel” feeds the two children so that they will gain weight and be fit for eating, the volunteers feed the lion cubs so they will grow up and become hefty targets.

As such, these individuals themselves become an easy target for others to profit from. The idea to bring volunteers was a stroke of commercial brilliance. For a fee of $2,800 for a month, the volunteers work a few hours a day and get room and board. They pay their own airfare. Simple arithmetic shows that a farm that has 35 volunteers takes in about $100,000 a month. The lodgings don’t cost the owners a thing, and the food is basic. And that’s just the beginning.

She draws my attention to the huge number of profile photos on Facebook pages of people hugging lion cubs.

“In their eyes, this is proof that they are nature lovers, animal lovers, bold adventurers,” she says. “But none of that is true. Farms that breed lions as hunting targets rake in additional profits. They take money from visitors who want their photograph taken petting a cub and as much as $60 from people who want to go for a walk with tame lions. The lions walk alongside the tourists, or stretch out next to them to be petted, like photographic models. For me that is shocking, because that’s exactly what supports the farms and allows them to cross the boundary between legitimate tourism and what I see as serious crimes against nature.”

From 'Blood Lions.'Credit: Pippa Hankinson

Hankinson draws a clear distinction between farms and nature reserves. “Animals are not bred in captivity in nature reserves,” she asserts. “On the contrary, in a genuine and professionally run nature reserve, an effort is made to intervene as little as possible in natural processes. Certainly animals are not fed. The idea is to let nature run its course. On the farms, you see the opposite process: They intervene constantly, fence in areas, feed the animals, touch and pet them and rake in profits.”

She adds that many projects in the country also offer tourists an opportunity to adopt a lion – by paying for its food and treatment until it’s supposedly set free – are also flagrantly fraudulent: They are attempts by game farm owners to make more money until the lions are old enough to be sold for hunting purposes (and the emphasis is on lions, not other animals).

The death of Cecil the lion, who was hunted by an American dentist, Walter Palmer, in Zimbabwe in 2015, caused global outrage. Credit: REX / Shutterstock

But not all the lions hunted this way are raised solely on farms. Some are sent temporarily to universities around the world for research purposes. The scientists turn a blind eye to the condition in which the cubs reached the farms and to the fact that they were wrenched from their mother at the age of one week. They also ignore what will happen to the cubs when the research project ends and they are returned to the farms. It’s convenient for them not to see the facts, Hankinson says, adding, “The farm owners have a clear-cut interest: They receive money from the volunteers for the use of the cubs. It’s another way for them to get them to the age of 3 cheaply.”

Volunteers, who think they are helping to raise an orphan cub, plying it with warmth and love before it’s released back into the wild, are in many cases looking after an animal that will one day be a hunter’s target.

There’s another cheap way to do that, too, which involves commerce in lion bones, she explains: “In the vast Chinese market there’s a constantly rising demand for traditional medications made from lion bones. The result is that commerce in lion bones is a by-product of the breeding farms. Farm owners who raise a lion to be hunted want the animal to look good, so they make sure it has smooth fur and feed it reasonably well. But when a lion is to be sold to the pharmaceutical industry, no one cares what it looks like, which means that its conditions of habitation and its food quality plummet. It’s many times more shocking.”

Hankinson, who grew up in Durban, learned by chance about the growing phenomenon of lions being bred for the bullet, in a visit to one such game ranch. “Ever since I can remember I had a love for nature and for animals,” she recalls. “My father took me to game researves to see lions, leopards, elephants, and afterward I went into tourism. I organized photo safaris and I was active in environmental groups.” But five years ago she happened to visit a lion breeding farm.

“It was a shocking experience for me,” she recalls. “I was appalled at the sight of these great predators imprisoned in cages. I then started to learn about the ‘industry’ and was even more shocked. I realized that there is a vast commercial industry that exists only in South Africa and is conducted under the radar. Not one of my friends knew about it.”

Hankinson decided that the best way to expose the phenomenon was to make a film about it and distribute it worldwide. Admittedly knowing little about documentary filmmaking, she started to round up professionals. Most of them were as devoted to the cause as she was and worked long periods for minimal pay. They traveled from farm to farm, filming what they could, for a year.

Caged lion cubs.Credit: Pippa Hankinson

“In most places, we were thrown out. The farmers have experience with people who try to break their wall of secrecy. We conducted more than 60 interviews during the making of the film, we spoke to everyone we could. It wasn’t until after a year of work that we brought in a director, a writer and an editor. We ran out of money at each stage, but we always managed to raise more funds and continue.”

Hankinson and her colleagues were partnered by Wildlands with the international campaign that they conducted with the aim of fomenting real change: to bring about an end to canned hunting, to prohibit lion breeding for hunting purposes, to prevent lion cubs being taken from their mothers and to bar other countries from importing the skins of animals killed by canned hunting. Australia, for one, banned the import of skins from hunted lions the moment its officials saw an incomplete version of the film, she explains, “and that gave us a direction and a goal: to bring about a social change. We want something very simple: namely, to reduce to a minimum the demand for canned hunting. If there’s no demand, the farms, which make vast profits, will shut down.”

Next week Hankinson will pay a first visit to Israel, as part of an event to encourage responsible tourism being organized by Ronit Hershkowitz, the CEO of Safari Company and honorary consul of Zambia (and formerly of Tanzania) in Israel, who has long been involved in Israeli tourism to Africa. There are hardly any canned-hunting tourists who come from Israel, says Hershkowitz, but there are other issues involved here, too. It’s important to draw attention to the by-products that every tourist in Africa encounters, such as places for petting lion cubs.

Ronit Hershkowitz.Credit: Shiran Carmel

“There are marvelous places in South Africa and of course Kruger National Park is a wonderful example of conservation, but there are also private reservations, and that concept itself is problematic. They put up fences and feed the animals," she explains, and thus the animals lose the ability to survive in the wild. "Our message to the tourist is sharp and simple: Choose to be responsible and ask questions. The response we frequently get is, ‘Oh, I didn’t know it was like that.’”

Would you organize a hunting trip for a rich client?

After thinking for a moment, Hershkowitz says she would not. “Even if a production like that could bring in a lot of money for the company, I wouldn’t take part in it. Happily, we hardly ever encounter that problem.”

Hankinson would like the following message to sink in: “We don’t respect the most marvelous creatures in the world. The lions are a symbol, and their horrendous exploitation, and the exploitation of other animals, too, shocks me. We humiliate elephants and tigers consistently and treat them disrespectfully. I cry whenever I remember the eyes of animals that are shut up in cages. There was a time when we didn’t want to be the owners of animals, only to see them. Today the feeling is that everyone wants to be the owner of something. It’s our responsibility to safeguard them for the next generation.”

Lions in Jerusalem

While I was working on this article, the moment arrived when I wanted to look into the eyes of a lion. I wanted to offset in part the horrific impression I came away with from the film. It turned out that the two simplest options were the Ramat Gan Safari Park (five lionesses, two males, all African) or the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens (aka Biblical Zoo) in Jerusalem. I opted for the latter. After all, the city’s symbol is the lion.

Lions at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo.Credit: AP

On a recent hot afternoon, Dr. Nili Avni-Magen, the chief veterinarian of the zoo, introduced me to the three Jerusalem lions – Ziv, a male, who arrived from a zoo in Sweden, and two lionesses: the elderly Aisha, 15, who came from Prague, and Yasha, a young beauty, who’s from a zoo in Germany. All three are Asiatic lions, a fact that Avni-Magen takes pride in. A moat separates them from the visitors. They have shade, water and food. No one pets them. The chances are they will lead a long life here (Asiatic lions have a lifespan of 16 to 18 years).

They live in captivity, but they were born in captivity. They were all brought here to serve as a reproductive core from other zoos. A group of ultra-Orthodox girls who were standing next to me, across from the lions, couldn’t stop gaping and smiling in astonishment. For them alone it was worth bringing a lion from Sweden. I truly and sincerely believe that professionally run, modern zoos, like the one in Jerusalem, are important, essential institutions.

A thousand years ago, lions roamed the Judean Hills. The Crusaders wrote about them. They were Asiatic lions, Avni-Magen says. That’s one reason the zoo chose to raise that breed, rather than the more common African lions. The second, and critical, reason is that the Asiatic lion, which in the past could be found living within a huge region, now remains only in India, and even there is on the verge of extinction. With glittering eyes, the veterinarian tells me that even though Yasha and Ziv reached sexual maturity only recently, they have already mated. She’s optimistic about their chances of producing offspring – Asiatic-Jerusalemite lion cubs.

Benjamin Pineside, who handles the zoo’s predators, invites me into a small room adjacent to the lions’ compound. There’s one window, covered by metal grating. Pineside sticks a piece of red meat through the grating, and Yasha and Ziv come immediately to the other side. “This is an excellent way to examine their behavior,” he says, “to see, for example, if the wound on Ziv’s shoulder has healed, to check teeth, eyes and general behavior. It’s not easy to handle lions without anesthetizing them, and the small room with the bars allows us to do that.”

For about a quarter of an hour, the lion and the lioness are positioned 30 centimeters from me, on the other side of the grating. Occasionally they roar at us. It’s a deep, guttural roar. I feel the odor of their mouths on my face.

The world has turned inside out: Three people are squeezed into a cage-like room, riveted at the sight of the lions prowling about in the compound on the other side of the grating. It’s a powerful experience.

Avni-Magen is pleased with the condition of Ziv’s teeth and at the fact that the wound on his left front shoulder has almost completely healed. I try to remember the look in those big green eyes.

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