There is a major scientific gap of animal welfare studies focusing on captive lions housed in commercial farms in South Africa. This has been revealed in a joint scientific study published earlier this month by World Animal Protection and Blood Lions.
“With a substantial captive lion industry of more than 350 commercial facilities holding between 8,000-10,000 lions and the complete absence of scientific welfare studies in that industry, we are in the dark in terms of the extent and nature of the welfare issues we are dealing with. The many atrocities found by the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) on commercial lion farms during welfare inspections show that we are not dealing with theoretical challenges, but rather a very real and highly problematic situation”, says Dr. Louise de Waal (Director, Blood Lions).
The aim of the study was to identify the welfare challenges lions in the commercial captive predator industry in South Africa face on a day-to-day basis.
Some welfare challenges identified included a wide range of diseases, injuries, malnutrition and obesity, lack of (clean) water, and abnormal behaviours like excessive pacing and self-mutilation, which were all associated with the keeping of captive lions in facilities such as zoos, wildlife parks and sanctuaries across the globe. However, not one study focussed specifically on the welfare of lions exploited by commercial facilities in South Africa.
“It is under such commercial conditions that lions are most likely to face the biggest welfare atrocities compared to any other captive environment, as the emphasis is on intensive breeding practices that are consumer-driven and income-generation focused and generally don’t adequately address animal welfare and well-being. The lack of welfare studies from commercial lion farms is a major research gap that needs to be addressed urgently”, de Waal said.
The lack of income for captive wildlife facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the absence of national welfare norms and standards for the captive breeding, keeping and trade of lions and other big cats in South Africa, has put the existing big cats in captivity at even more risk of serious welfare issues.
Subsequent to the publication of a High-Level Panel report recommending the closure of South Africa’s commercial captive lion industry, Minister Barbara Creecy of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) announced on 2nd May 2021 that South Africa would no longer breed and keep captive lions or use captive lions or their derivatives commercially. A draft Policy Position on the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of elephant, lion, leopard and rhinoceros was gazetted for public comment in June that same year.
A full year on from this announcement and the status of the commercial lion industry remains the same, however the uncertainty of its future is most likely exacerbating the welfare concerns for the captive lions involved. Although the Minister did once again decide to set a zero CITES export quota for trade in lion parts and derivatives including lion bones, as has been the case for the past three years, the breeding, canned hunting, and live trade of captive-bred lions is still legal as are all interactive tourism encounters with cubs and sub-adult big cats.
“We urge the Minister to keep the pressure on the progress of the upcoming legislative changes, as in the meantime the welfare of thousands of lions and other big cats hangs in the balance. We appeal to the Minister to urgently carry out a comprehensive national audit of the current commercial captive lion industry, including the welfare conditions of the big cats involved, in order to minimise unintended negative welfare impacts during the planned phase out of the industry in South Africa,” says Edith Kabesiime, Wildlife Campaigns Manager at World Animal Protection.