The lost kingdom.
In 1990, reports began to circulate of old circus lions being sold for ‘canned hunting’ in South Africa. With their deaths, an industry was born.
A decade later, the commercial farming of lions in South Africa was well established. They were intensely bred for lion bones and body parts to be sold to the Asian market, to meet an ever increasing demand from hunters, and for tourist cub petting ‘experiences’. Today, 11,000 lions are kept in captivity, held across an estimated 300 facilities. With no governmental regulations, the inbreeding of lions has resulted in a population with chronic physical defects and manipulated, inferior genetics.
For years, conservationists and welfare experts have pushed to shut down the captive lion breeding industry, stating that it is cruel and damaging to South Africa’s international image – especially as a safari tourism destination. This is all underpinned by the fact that these lions have no conservation value due to their genetic disorders.
In May 2021 in a surprise move, Barbara Creecy, the Minister of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE) published a document that announced the immediate closure of the entire industry. As a result, lion farmers who had created a $300m industry from live lion stock, became bankrupt overnight. Within the published document there is mention of ‘sustainable use of wildlife’ and although this remained completely undefined by the government, nonetheless, the proposal was perceived as a giant step forward for animal welfare and lion conservation.
During the same period, facing a myriad of challenges – poaching, decreasing habitat and prey, human wildlife conflict, and weakening genetic diversity – Africa’s wild lion population has decreased from approximately 100,000 wild lions to just 20,000.
Genetic diversity within a species is critical to its survival; they have to be able to evolve and adapt through natural genetic mutation in order to survive. In which case, ‘conserving lions’ means more than preventing the extinction of the species. It also means preventing the loss of genetic diversity within that species. Whilst the African Lion has quietly disappeared from 94% of its historic range, leaving it now classified by IUCN as vulnerable to extinction, what captive bred populations may offer, when correctly managed, is access to the genetic diversity required by wild populations for their very survival.
This is a conundrum at a scale not faced by conservationists before, who, for the most part, agree that re-wilding captive-bred lions is not a solution due to their diseases, compromised genes and human habituation. There is also simply not enough wild habitat available to accommodate so many lions.
While the future of Africa’s captive lions remains uncertain, the continent’s wild lions are rapidly heading for extinction. Lion numbers have dropped by half since The Lion King premiered in 1994; meaning the icon is quietly slipping away from Africa’s landscapes. Maybe, our only hope now is that a captive bred population does indeed offer us hope for survival of the wild species as geneticists are examining the possibility of utilising select individuals from captive populations, to turn the clock back on extinction.
Perhaps the closure of the industry is indeed, as Barbara Creecy suggested, ‘a giant step forward for animal welfare and lion conservation’.
The next 12 months will be critical in determining the future of the African lion, and whether or not it can reclaim its Lost Kingdom.