By Peter Borchert
“Until such time as the voice of the lion is heard, history will be written to glorify the hunter.” This powerful African proverb reversed out of a plain black screen grips the audience’s attention from the first frames of a riveting documentary. To be premiered on 22 July at the Durban International Film Festival, Blood Lions uncovers the ugly story behind South Africa’s predator breeding and canned lion hunting industry, and a team of filmmakers and conservationists who, with single-minded determination, are campaigning to have it banned.
In South Africa there are some 10,000 lions and the numbers are increasing all the time. A conservation success some might aver. But the lie behind this statistic is revealed in the fact that South Africa is the only lion range state that has three separate classifications for these great cats: captive, managed and wild. And so we find that only 3,000 – less than a third – are truly wild and living in designated conservation areas.
The rest, 7,000 or so, live on private farms, mostly in small crowded camps where their social structure is destroyed, not to mention their genetic integrity. The only purpose, despite rather weak attempts to justify the activity as conservation-based or ‘scientific,’ is to breed them.
Young cubs are great drawcards for visitors especially if they can pet them. Slightly older, they provide a rush for visitors who pay to walk with them in the veld. And finally as they grow into the magnificence of adulthood, with flowing manes and faces unblemished, they become handsome targets for trophy hunters. Hundreds more are slaughtered and shipped to the East for the burgeoning lion bone trade.
This, in essence, is the captive lion breeding industry and its inseparable consequence: canned lion hunting. It is a cynical and highly profitable niche industry in South Africa and enjoys a powerful lobby in high places. It is also supported by a seemingly insatiable demand for these guaranteed hunts, particularly from Europe and North America.
Captive breeding conditions
Wildlife campaigner Ian Michler has been exposing the brutality of the industry and calling for its demise for more than 15 years. Blood Lions follows his story, but also draws on the observations of some of Africa’s most respected ecotourism and conservation personalities.
I asked him what first triggered his response to canned hunting and what keeps him lobbying for it to be shut down.
“During the 1990s, I lived in the Okavango Delta and my research there into trophy hunting took me to the canned hunting farms of South Africa. For anyone who has an ecological understanding of the natural world, to witness territorial and apex predators being kept under intensive agricultural conditions is horrifying. And then to find out that they are being bred to be killed by hunters in confined areas defies all sense of integrity.
“I got to see and understand very quickly that there is no basis or justification for this type of behaviour, other than human greed and complete ignorance, that is. And there is also a degree of deception by many of the operators involved so it became obvious why I should stay involved.”
Progress – a long and bumpy road
It has been a long and often bumpy road that Michler and his colleagues have followed, a road that never seems to end. “Do you think that there has been progress towards shutting the industry down?” I ask him.
“There has most certainly been progress,” he responds forcefully. “For example, the recent undertaking by several global airlines never to carry lion trophies or lion parts out of the country, and the Australian government’s decision to ban imports of trophies and body parts demonstrate the growing opposition.
“The release of Blood Lions is another example,” says Michler. “Pippa Hankinson, the inspirational director of Regulus Vision, has been the force behind the film. And this, together with dedicated assistance from a core team of filmmakers and campaigners including Wildlands Conservation Trust, has given us a real opportunity to raise greater awareness at various levels across the world.
“We know there is no conservation value to the breeding practices and it’s an extremely poor, even irresponsible, way to try to educate people about lions and their ecology. There are very few true sanctuaries, and they only exist because of the breeding.
“In addition, my experience is that the vast majority of the world finds breeding lions to be killed by thrill seekers in canned hunts completely inappropriate behaviour. Under these circumstances, there is no logical reason as to why we cannot make further progress with the decision-makers here in South Africa.”
Professional hunters frequently talk about the huge financial contribution they make to the national tourism coffers, but when you compare the actual figures against the total revenue from tourism, trophy hunting is a very small portion. And then canned hunting is again a very small fraction of total hunting revenues.
“This seems to make a lie of the breeders and canned hunting lobby’s claim?” I ask Michler.
He agrees. “When one contextualises the amount generated by the predator breeders and canned hunters, the financial contribution is miniscule. The canned lion hunting contribution is a tiny fraction of 1% of the almost R100-billion South African tourism generates.
“In addition, visitor numbers also tell the story: of the over nine million international foreign arrivals that come into South Africa annually, a mere 9 000 or so are trophy hunters and of these, about only 1 000 or so will be to kill ions in canned hunts.”
Damaging Brand South Africa
“While on the subject of tourism,” I remark, “in the film you have quite a long discussion with the South Africa minister of tourism, Derek Hanekom. He seems distinctly uneasy with canned hunting and sees it as potentially damaging to Brand South Africa. In fact he seemed to suggest that it had already damaged our international reputation as a nation with a proud conservation history. Would you go so far as to call him an ally in your quest?”
“Yes,” Michler responds confidently. “We, the filmmakers and the campaign team that is, view the government in general as an ally as they would not want to damage South Africa’s global reputation on any level. The good thing is that Minister Hanekom and many others understand that by allowing these practices, Brand South Africa is being increasingly damaged around the world.
“My sense is that once the decision-makers understand the full picture and grasp the degree of growing opposition, this will be reflected in the way they respond going forward.”
It’s all about the trophy
At a point in the film Michler says, “You can’t look at predator breeding and canned hunting without addressing the greater trophy hunting issue. At the end of the day people who want to hunt a lion are driven by the same thing: the trophy.” I ask him to elaborate. More....