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SA’s cruel lion farming industry is fuelling the illegal international trade in big cat bones

A new report by World Animal Protection details the horror of South Africa’s inhumane lion farming industry and its ties to international crime syndicates.

World Animal Protection is today 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. The international NGO has received evidence from anonymous sources on unregulated “off-grid” lion farms that 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 Asian medicine. 

Their gathered evidence includes: 

  • Lions kept in decrepit, filthy and barren enclosures littered with old food carcasses and piles of faeces
  • Lions and tigers are slaughtered and processed on-site, with up to four animals processed by each labourer per day at both facilities during busy periods
  • Lions are 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.

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

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.  

While the skins, paws and skulls are handed over to the canned hunters as prized trophies, the skeletons are left to dry in the sun, packaged and sold to “Asian buyers who regularly visit” the off-grid breeding farms. Dr D’Cruze continues: “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 and 12 000 lions and other big cats, including tigers, are bred and kept in captivity in more than 350 facilities across the country.

A voluntary phase-out of the industry alone won’t be enough to halt the commercial exploitation of captive lions in South Africa. We now know some off-grid lion farms go to great lengths to avoid detection.

Facilities use various tactics like security cameras, patrols and messaging apps to avoid detection during inspections to conceal illegal activities,” says Dr D’Cruz.

We urge the South African government to make good on their 2021 decision and bring a mandatory time-bound end to the commercial captive lion industry, which will make detecting and preventing the illegal trade easier at the same time. Only then our reputation as a leader in conservation be restored, and the welfare of the country’s captive lions and other big cats ensured,” adds Dr Louise de Waal, director and campaign manager of Blood Lions  

World Animal Protection and Blood Lions have handed their findings to government.

South African citizens are encouraged to add their voices and call on the government to phase out the captive lion breeding industry by registering their support at  and using the #PrideNotCruelty on social media.  We also advise tourists and visitors to avoid venues and attractions that cruelly exploit lions and other big cats for entertainment, such as cub petting and walking with lions.