Lion cubs are super-cute however lion cub petting and walking with lions needs to be put in the context of canned lion hunting. So bear with me….
The canned lion hunting industry in South Africa has a highly lucrative economic value chain that starts with approximately 200 captive breeding facilities around the country. These facilities combined house an estimated 8,000+ captive bred lions. The life cycle of these captive bred lions is as far removed from its wild brothers and sisters as you can ever imagine.
The life cycle of captive bred lions
Most of the lion cubs are taken away from their mothers within days of birth to be hand-reared by humans. Removing the cubs from a healthy mother and bottle feeding them, does not only habituate the cubs, but ensures the lioness becomes fertile again much quicker. Meaning, the breeding farm can capitalise on as many as two to three litters every year from a single lioness, while in the wild she would only have an average of one litter every three years.
As soon as the cubs are old enough, they are used for lion cub petting at the breeding farm or associated wildlife facility, where the paying public can interact with these cute cubs and take selfies.
Unfortunately, after about six months the cuddly lion cubs outgrow the petting facility and the slouchy teenagers are moved to the next stage, where they are used as walking with lion props. Both stages often involve paying international volunteers, who believe they are contributing to lion conservation.
The teenage lions will outgrow the walking stage, as walking with a mature lion is too much of a potential risk. At this stage, they will need to be housed somewhere until fully matured and have no further commercial value, unless….....they are sold for their trophy to a canned hunting farm or their bones sold for traditional Chinese medicine to the Far East.
Where do these lion cubs go?
Many facilities that offer lion cub petting and/or walking with lion activities will deny their (direct) involvement in the canned hunting industry. They will claim that their lions will be given a forever home or that they are released back into the wild. Let’s unpack these last two statements.
IF a wildlife facility were to give their captive bred lions a forever home, we need to do some simple maths. Many lion cub petting facilities will generate at least 10 lion cubs per year, although some have as many as 27 cubs at one time and hence passing close to 80-100 cubs a year through their facility. The lifespan of a captive lion is on average around 15 years. This means that in 15 years, they will have another 150 (best case scenario) adult lions to house, to feed and to take care off. Keeping that number of mature lions is not a sustainable business model, so those animals need to go somewhere.
I ask the question, where do these cubs go?
The reintroduction into the wild of habituated and/or captive bred lions, if possible at all, is a long, slow and laborious process. Sadly, these animals are poorly equipped for survival in the wild and successful reproduction is often inadequate. Habituated lions have also lost their natural fear for humans and when reintroduced in the wild can lead to undesirable human-wildlife conflicts. Furthermore, many of the captive bred lions have been inbred to some extent and therefore have inferior gene pools. It is a risk to the long-term genetic diversity of the species, to mix the much purer wild genes with the captive bred inferior ones. For these reasons, not a single member of the recognised predator conservation community is involved in the captive breeding industry. Basically, captive bred lions have little or no conservation value.
Again, I ask the question, where do these cubs go?
The inevitable and poignant end result of these seemingly innocent activities of lion cub petting and walking with lions, is the support (direct or indirect) of canned lion hunting and/or the legal lion bone trade.
So, knowing what you know now, would you still want to pet or walk a lion?
For more information watch the Blood Lions documentary.