A male lion laying behind bars

The lion farming industry in South Africa is fuelling the illegal international trade in big cat bones


The horror of South Africa’s inhumane lion farming industry and its ties to international crime syndicates for the bones to be used in traditional medicine has been detailed in a new report.

We received evidence from anonymous sources on unregulated “off grid” lion farms who described unimaginable animal suffering. They also detailed how the facilities are using South Africa’s legal lion breeding and ‘canned’ hunting industry to cover their involvement in the illegal international export of lion bones for use in traditional medicine.

With you by our side, we're calling on the South African Government to stand by its commitment to shut down the country’s cruel commercial captive lion breeding industry for good.

World Animal Protection’s Global Head of Wildlife Research, Dr. Neil D’Cruze, said:

“Even as experienced researchers, we were deeply disturbed by the cruel practices taking place. It is sickening to see these majestic mammals reduced to mere commodities kept in merciless conditions.”

The evidence includes:

  • Lions kept in decrepit, filthy and barren enclosures littered with old food carcasses and piles of faeces.
  • Lions and tigers slaughtered and processed on-site, with up to four animals processed by each labourer per day at both facilities during busy periods.
  • Lions severely neglected and starved to save farm owners money – resulting in instances of lion. cannibalism, including how desperately hungry lions attacked and ate another adult lion at a facility.
  • Inhumane and unhygienic slaughter processes, with lions’ entrails spilled over the floor, and skin peeled back from their paws and skulls.
  • Low paid farm staff working in unsafe conditions without protective gear and at high risk of suffering an accident or being infected with zoonotic diseases.
South African Lions 2023

Although the commercial captive breeding and canned hunting of lions remains legal, though poorly regulated in South Africa, the export of lion skeletons - including claws and teeth – was declared unconstitutional by the South African High Court in 2019. In 2021, the South African Government announced its intention to immediately halt the “domestication and exploitation of lions, and to ultimately close all captive lion facilities in South Africa”.

But in late 2022, the government backtracked on its commitment and instructed a Ministerial Task Team to “develop and implement a voluntary exit strategy and pathways for captive lion facilities”.

Lack of enforcement of regulations and clarity on the future of the industry, has left a legal grey area, enabling some farms to operate what on the surface appear to be legitimate captive lion breeding and ‘canned’ trophy hunting businesses - but which in reality supply the illegal international big cat bone trade facilitated by organised crime gangs.

Dr. Neil D’Cruze continued:

“This new intelligence gathered by brave sources confirms what was previously suspected - these well-established legal operations are plugged secretly into unethical practices and an illicit international trade network.”

According to sources – whose identities World Animal Protection and local partner NGO Blood Lions are protecting - staff and their families are routinely threatened with violence to maintain their silence about the cruelty and illegal bone trade.

It is estimated that between 8,000-12,000 lions and other big cats, including tigers, are bred and kept in captivity in more than 350 facilities across the country.

Together we can protect lions and end their suffering. 

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