Game for anything: A lion at a captive breeding centre in South Africa’s Free State Province

Bred to be killed

The Captive-bred lion industry has been under fire for some time and Unfair Game will only add weight to calls for its cessation

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Lions are special. The king of beasts, they are at the top of the list of must-see animals for many visiting Africa. But, as Michael Ashcroft relates in Unfair Game, some lions in South Africa are treated in a way that has little regard for nobility.

First, some context. The trophy hunting debate continues and, as readers of The Critic may know, I am an advocate of the “it’s complicated” argument. I, and many others in conservation, fear the harm we believe will come from blanket bans. Trophy hunting features in Unfair Game but this book isn’t an excoriation of the practice. Ashcroft does have the occasional swipe at hunting and hunters in general, but mostly he has his sights fixed firmly on a different target: the captive-bred lion (CBL) industry in South Africa.

Unfair Game, by Michael Ashcroft

CBL operations breed lions in captive facilities to use in economically-rewarding ways. The best known is the practice often, but rarely correctly, termed “canned hunting”, whereby people pay to shoot a captive-bred lion. The first part of this book focuses on CBL hunting and Ashcroft pulls no punches exploring some of the practices involved. Hunting in small fenced areas, hunting lions recovering from tranquillisation and botched shots are described in detail but, shocking though some may find them, such revelations are far from new. It has long been clear that some practitioners of CBL hunting go well-beyond any notion of “fair chase” and operate in ways that are contrary to lion welfare.

But targeting the dodgiest side of an industry, yet again, doesn’t really move the argument on. It would be a mistake to think all lion hunts and hunting operations in South Africa are as portrayed here, and in many areas lion hunting makes other wildlife habitat financially viable. Ashcroft, though, is by no means an unbiased observer in all this, as he makes clear from the start, and this book was never going to be the place to find a balanced account of a difficult, and frankly hard to justify, industry. The reality is that the CBL industry has been under fire for some time and Unfair Game will only add weight to calls for its cessation.

An aspect of CBL that Ashcroft’s book is particularly effective at highlighting, one that has not received the attention that it should, is “encounter tourism”. I have no doubt that many tourists to South Africa who would be appalled at CBL hunting have nonetheless facilitated the widespread abuse of lions through visits to “predator parks” with lion cub petting or walking with lions.

Ashcroft carefully details the range of activities, the husbandry issues and the exploitation of overseas volunteers involved in this form of tourism as well as the risks to those involved. The “cuddle me/kill me” narrative is not a general feature of the industry, which has tended to diverge and specialise in recent times. Nonetheless, anyone tempted into “animal encounter experiences” anywhere, whether as a tourist or a paying volunteer, would do well to read this compelling section and start joining up the dots.

Currently there is no good evidence that CBL is causing an increase in wild lion poaching

It is in the second part of the book that the stakes get raised. To investigate CBL hunting and the lion bone trade, Ashcroft sets up undercover investigations using former special forces “operatives” working from a “safe house”. Throughout this section, Ashcroft provides militaristic and technological details that could come straight from the pages of a Frederick Forsyth novel. Ashcroft writes well, and the narrative here is undeniably gripping.

The first operation focused on CBL hunting. This operation was successful in that a lion (Simba) was saved, and the story was widely covered in the UK media. As an ecologist and conservation scientist I find it difficult to get excited about the saving of a single captive-bred animal, especially when the money spent could be used to conserve wild habitat. Consequently, it was the second investigation, Operation Chastise, about the lion bone trade, that was of more interest.

Lion bones have become valuable in Vietnam and Laos where they are used as substitutes for tiger bones in traditional medicines and “tiger bone wine”, which are also popular in China. This aspect of lion economics is generally overshadowed by trophy hunting but it is potentially more important in terms of lion conservation. Despite widespread claims to the contrary, trophy hunting is not a threat to wild lions.

On the other hand, the sale of lion bones from CBL operations has the potential to become a conservation issue if markets are stimulated beyond the legal supply and if this causes increased poaching of wild lions to meet demand. The important word in all this is “if”.

This section is a great read and Ashcroft’s operatives were undoubtedly at some risk during the operation, but as a conservation investigation it falls somewhat short. One of Ashcroft’s aims was to show that lions in neighbouring Botswana are being poached for their bones, or cubs being taken for breeding, but in this the investigation runs out of steam. I spent some time speaking to leading academics in lion conservation and illegal wildlife trade and currently there is no good evidence that CBL is causing an increase in wild lion poaching.

Ashcroft, unlike many commentators, faces up to the reality that a ban on CBL mean euthanising lions

It is plausible that the industry actually acts as a buffer, taking the pressure off wild populations, although this effect is likely to be far from straightforward. Sadly, a review of the current literature and evidence, and input from independent experts and academics, doesn’t make for the gripping read that a covert operation does. The experts Ashcroft cites are mostly involved in anti-hunting and animal rights organisations, and are far from being independent or unbiased, but most readers cannot be expected to know that.

Ashcroft’s investigations were illegal, as he acknowledges, and the South African Police Service was less than accommodating when his operatives presented their evidence. I am surprised they were allowed to leave the country. They were foreign nationals running an unlicensed undercover operation on South African soil, with the backing of a member of the House of Lords. Such operations don’t necessarily stop illegal activities and may actually hinder ongoing investigations.

Ashcroft, unlike many commentators, faces up to the reality of what a ban on CBL would mean: the euthanising of thousands of lions and other big cats including tigers and tiger-lion hybrids (a particularly unpleasant, albeit minor, aspect of the CBL industry that I was only dimly aware of before reading this book). I applaud him for this; the consequences of bans will be severe and anyone who suggests these animals can be adopted or introduced to the wild is naive in the extreme. There would be other unintended consequences too, as land currently being used for wildlife and hunting becomes financially inviable. Conversion from wildlife to other land-uses is the likely result.

South Africa is a wildlife success story, with private ownership of wildlife boosting numbers to a point where privately-owned reserves have three times the number of large animals found in national and provincial parks. These gains, though, are tarnished internationally through conflation with the CBL industry.

Furthermore, the importance of hunting as a conservation tool is constantly tainted by entirely justified objections arising from the South African CBL industry. I would not mourn the passing of that industry, but I am very wary of simple solutions to complex problems, especially in conservation. Things need to change, and Unfair Game will surely be an important part of the ongoing debate.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover