Canned Lion Hunting

In the aftermath of the killing of Cecil the Lion attention has rightly been focussed on the trophy hunting of lions in Africa. I’ve been investigating both sides of the argument for an upcoming Radio 4 documentary.

In previous blogs I’ve discussed the fact that the picture is complex, with trophy hunting of lions contributing to conservation in some regions (though falling short of the true amount needed in many places) and being a conservation concern in others. We’ve also seen the importance of stable land ownership and fencing as ways to combat the human-wildlife conflicts that can be devastating for wildlife, particularly predators. If land can be owned and fenced then wildlife can be conserved and pay its way through activities like hunting and tourism. Consequently, the “it pays it stays” philosophy of conservation I’ve heard a lot from reserve owners in South Africa can work. The problem seems to be that it can’t, or at least doesn’t, work in some other parts of Africa.
Following in the wake of trophy hunting, the media have picked up on a practice that is far from new but nonetheless new to many – canned lion hunting. Some UK papers are speaking of how this story has “emerged” following the killing of Cecil. For example, see This is incorrect – the hunting of captive bred lions released into small enclosures (perhaps a hectare or so) specifically to be hunted has been well-known for some years and has certainly not “emerged” in the last few weeks.

Canned lion hunting is a repugnant practice to many (me included) but it’s important to realise that it is not, at least at the moment, a conservation issue. As lion conservation and ecology expert Professor Craig Packer said to me last week, “Canned lion hunting is a welfare issue”.
Lions breed well in captivity. Indeed, several people have said to me that they breed “like cockroaches”. Farming lions to shoot may be repugnant to you but it does not have an impact on wild populations, which is where our conservation concerns must lie. One could argue that canned lion hunting is easing pressure on wild populations since those wishing to shoot a lion can do so without killing a wild individual.

You may, as I do, find it offensive but canned lion hunting undoubtedly services a demand and it may reduce pressure on wild lions. To a certain extent of course the demand to shoot lions is being fuelled by the availability of “easy targets”. Also, not everyone wishing to partake in a canned hunt would be able or willing to take part in an open country hunt. However, I am with Craig Packer on this one – canned hunting is an animal welfare and rights issue. The industry needs to be monitored to ensure that animals are being housed in the right conditions. They also need to be killed cleanly in a way that minimises suffering (just as other farmed animals can be killed in an ethical manner).

This conclusion might be unpalatable but banning canned lion hunting will not, at least in the short-term, reduce the demand that it has helped to create. International condemnation may be effective in reducing that demand eventually but in the short-term a ban on canned hunts could result in increasing pressure on wild lions.

A final thought. If you’ve ever been to Africa and had your photo taken with a tame lion cub, ask yourself what happened to that lion once it got too big to be safe? It won’t have been released back into the wild that’s for sure. It may be lucky and end up as a “viewing lion”, or it might be euthanized but it could also end up walking around a canned hunting enclosure waiting for a bullet. I’ve driven past a number of these “lion experience” places in South Africa and seen many people going in, excited to hold a lion cub. Many of these people I am sure would find canned hunting abhorrent and yet quite possibly end up contributing to it.

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