An examination of the extremely controversial practice of put-and-take lion hunting.
By Craig Boddington
It happens at least a couple of times at the major hunters' conventions. I'm shown a picture of a magnificent lion, so resplendent in mane that it is extremely unlikely that it's a wild lion. Of course it's a South African lion, so now there is little doubt about the actual circumstances. So be it, it's a beautiful lion . . . but then the explanation generally takes one of two turns. Either I get a long and involved story about how the lion came in from Botswana (at just the right time), or the hunter is apologetic. Then the story goes something like, "Yeah, I know that maybe it wasn't exactly kosher, but it sure is a beautiful lion."
Yes, it almost certainly is, and it was probably taken in complete legality. So why do some hunters and outfitters feel the need to lie about it, and why do other hunters feel the need to apologize for it? The captive-reared lion industry is major in South Africa. It wouldn't surprise me if more of these lions are taken annually than throughout the rest of the entire continent, and there are several thousand lions in hundreds of private breeding programs, the sole purpose of which is to provide mature males for visiting hunters.
Let me be clear: I have not participated in one of these hunts, and have no desire to. However, I will not throw stones at those who do. I started hunting Africa in a different time, when the opportunity to hunt lion was part of the deal on many-maybe even most-safaris. Success wasn't assured, and in fact it took me several tries before I got my first lion, but that was long before prices skyrocketed like they have, and hunting a lion wasn't considered a specialized safari.
Eventually I got my first lion, and over time a few more came along. Taking a lion is one of the greatest thrills in the hunting world, but I've had at least my share of that special excitement. It's OK with me if I never hunt lion again. That's me. African hunters coming up today are in a different place. There are relatively few good lion areas remaining on the African continent, and in the supply-and-demand world of the safari business, prices for lion safaris in wild Africa are frightening.
Boddington and Dirk de Bod with the kind of wild lion we need to be harvesting today. He's old and scarred and had been kicked out of his pride. (Photo by Dirk de Bod)
The South African lions are available for much less than the least expensive wild lion hunt available today, which is probably in Zimbabwe, and perhaps a third or a quarter of the cost of a lion safari in Tanzania or Zambia. Zimbabwe is the sleeper, surprisingly good in the right areas. Some areas in both Tanzania and Zambia are very good. Namibia produces some of Africa's best manes today--but the quota is tiny. There are few other options, and regardless of costs or exactly where you go, there are no sure things for wild lions.
In this context it's pretty easy to understand the attraction to South Africa's captive-reared lions. Costs are not low, but are certainly low in comparison. Manes range from good to spectacular (with prices often going up and down the scale accordingly). Success is pretty much assured. These hunts are thus enticing to hunters who desperately want a lion but can't afford lion safaris elsewhere. They are also extremely attractive to hunters who have done one or two or even three lion safaris and come up empty.
Although I don't want to do one of these hunts, I don't want them to stop, and for multiple reasons. As detailed above, they offer opportunity in an Africa that is fast running out of wild lions. Thanks to last-minute efforts by range countries and conservation groups, including Safari Club International, Dallas Safari Club, and John Jackson's Conservation Force, efforts to uplist the lion to CITES Appendix I, thus making importation of trophies extremely difficult, has been staved off, at least for the moment. Range countries and outfitters have a last chance to get their acts together on lion management, and this seems to be happening. I hope so, because the dream of hunting Africa will be much the poorer if lion comes off the game list.
In the meantime, the South African lions reduce pressure on wild lions. This is a good thing. Recently Tanzania enacted a minimum age (five years) for a lion to be legal. In order to maintain lion hunting, hunters and operators alike must demonstrate that we are only taking older males that are not in prides. This is essential, but, realistically, it means that hunting wild lions will become less successful as a result, and I seriously doubt we will ever see the prices go down.
In terms of quality of experience, I think it depends a lot on the outfitter. There are very strong feelings about this business of "canned" lion hunts. I personally would hate to see it stopped altogether, not just for the foregoing, but because I don't want to think about the fate of the thousands of South African lions supporting this industry. They cannot be released into the wild, at least based on what we think we know now, but surely they represent a valuable resource in an Africa with dwindling lion populations?
There are already rules in place regarding how long the lions must be released prior to a hunt, and use of vehicles on hunt is not legal, at least in some provinces. It appears that the "habituation period" will be extended, and I'm fine with that, provided the period is reasonable enough so that neither the lions nor the landowners will starve to death. Reality is that the majority of these captive-reared lions have not learned to kill prey, and they also have no fear of humans. This is why they cannot be released into the wild; it would be a disaster. This is also why the captive-reared lion hunts, conducted properly on foot, are extremely dangerous. I've been around some areas where lions are being raised. These lions have no fear, and are often aggressive. Odds for a charge are quite high, especially if the first shot is messed up.
Africa needs more lions, but the problem with releasing captive-reared lions into the wild is few of them have learned how to hunt and kill prey. (Photo by Dirk de Bod)
So why do we have to lie about it? The thing that galls me the most is that, at every major hunters' convention, there are still outfitters selling these lion hunts as the real deal. On the ground, there are still outfitters conning their clients about lions coming in from Botswana or from this or that national park. This can actually happen, especially in the Kruger Park corridor, and there are breeding populations of wild lions on a few very large properties. However, it is probably not true that there are any genuine free-range lions--meaning "no boundaries"--in South Africa.
The other thing that irritated me was that, for some time, wild lions had to compete with better-fed, better-maned captive-reared lions in the record books. Fortunately this has mostly been taken care of. Because of the complexity of the situation and the impossibility of determining exactly where and under what circumstances a given South African lion was taken, quite some back the Safari Club International record book decided that all lion entries from that country would be put in the "estate" category. I used the term "mostly" because, regrettably, and in contravention of local laws, there is some "releasing" of lions elsewhere, in both Namibia and Zimbabwe. Rule of thumb in hunting, as in most things: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is!
"Estate" is our current euphemism for "behind a game fence." And so what? There's a lot of good estate hunting on every continent today. I don't much care for fences, but I can't turn back the clock. So what's the ethical difference between a lion, a kudu, a red stag, a mouflon, or whatever? Those of us who don't wish to participate don't have to. Those of us who choose to, for whatever reason, shouldn't have to be apologetic. And neither the operators nor the hunters need to invent tall stories. It is what it is. Like it or not, it's part of the African hunting scene today. I, for one, am tired of the malarkey surrounding it, but I don't want to see it discontinued.