Hi I’m Rachel, and I write about wildlife crime and exploitation for National Geographic. For this story, photographer Nichole Sobecki and I visited one of South Africa’s controversial lion farms, where lions are often bred for sale or hunting. Permits to own, breed, and even kill lions don’t take humane treatment into consideration, and this story covers the welfare issues in the country’s lucrative captive lion industry. You can read more of my stories here, and you can find me on Twitter. Thanks for reading and ask me anything!
EDIT: Thanks so much for your questions! I really enjoyed answering them, but I have to run now. Thanks again for your interest!
Hi Rachel! Your story says that South Africa requires permits to breed, buy, and sell lions, but that there aren't any animal welfare requirements attached. Why is that? Are there efforts to change it?
Hi! The two government departments that could theoretically be responsible for welfare—the agriculture and environment departments—both deny responsibility for welfare. The environment department issues permits, but they say the agriculture department is responsible for welfare, but the agriculture department says the environment department is responsible for welfare. So basically, it's a loophole.
There are efforts to change this! The NSPCA successfully sued the environment department and others this summer, arguing that by issuing a lion bone export quota but not accounting for welfare, they were encouraging cruelty. Now, the environment department will have to consider welfare when issuing quotas.
Hi! Great article - so touching and hard to read. Infuriating that this is happening, but thank you so much for bringing it to light. Why did you decide to write on this topic?
Thank you for reading! I originally wrote about the NSPCA's inspection of this farm back in May, and I was pretty horrified by the photos and videos of what they found there (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/05/sick-neglected-lions-found-at-captive-breeding-facility-in-south-africa/). As I was working on that story, I was struck by how many people said this was just the tip of the iceberg, and that animals were likely suffering under similar conditions around the country. I knew there was more to say, not just about this farm, but about the industry as a whole.
Hi there! What was the most challenging part about writing this story? And what’s one thing that you wish everyone knew about these lion farms?
Hi! I think one of the hardest parts was thinking about the future for these animals. It was something I didn't have space to include in this story, but a recurring theme in many of my interviews was the fate of these animals, even if captive breeding were to end. Some people hold out hope that these animals could be reintroduced to the wild, but that's unlikely, since captive animals don't usually survive in the wild. (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2008/01/predators-captivity-habitat-animals/) Many of the country's approximately 7,000 lions would likely have to be euthanized.
One big takeaway for me was how complicated it actually is to keep a lion in captivity. Their dietary needs are very complex—it's not like farming cattle or even having a pet. Like one of my sources said, not everyone should be doing this.
Are the lions hunted for parts the way elephants are hunted for ivory or is it just trophy hunting?
It's often for trophy hunting, but lions are sometimes killed for their bones, which are exported to Asia for traditional medicine.
Hey Rachel! Thanks so much for answering our questions. Is there a lot of public support in South Africa for these operations? Is the public generally aware that this is going on? What seems to be the driving force keeping these farms legal and operational?
Hi! There's a lot of pressure on the government to stop this industry. This summer, the NSPCA successfully sued the environment department and others to stop setting an annual lion bone export quota without taking welfare into account. https://nspca.co.za/news/high-court-rules-in-favour-of-lions-and-nspca/
Hi Rachel. I went and read your story and I find myself really struggling to articulate just one question. Please allow me this as I'm elderly, female, and I'm stunned by the escalation of human cruelty and insatiable greed.
How are you able to even breath dealing w/wildlife crime? Do you struggle w/hopelessness because there are so few fighting these atrocities?
Thank you for your service to the great horror. I'm still weeping and sipping water just so I don't throw up..
Please take care of yourself Rachel. I'm pretty poor but I will be making a donation to National Geographic on your behalf. If there is a specific direction for my humble donation please reply.
Hi, thank you so much for reading. The magnitude of this industry, and of wildlife crime as a whole, is definitely overwhelming, but I feel hopeful when I meet the people who are advocating for animals—like Dr. Caldwell and his clinic, the NSPCA, Dr. Ras, and Ian Michler. It's heartening to see how many people do care and won't let cruelty go unnoticed. Like Dr. Ras told me, we can't turn our back on these animals!
Thank you so much for donating. I write for National Geographic's Wildlife Watch section, which shines a light on wildlife crime and exploitation. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/wildlife-watch/
Hi, Roughly how much do these farm owners earn annually? And you said Steinman was fined $500 before for hunting 4 leopards without a permit. Wouldn’t getting a permit and permission for those 4 leopards (which shouldnt be granted in the first place) be more expensive than $500? And if thats the case then he got off easy so how are the government, which the increased public pressure, making punishments more severe and permits harder to obtain?
Hi, I don't know how much lion farm owners earn, since the farms are private, but the owners are wealthy, and trophy hunts are very expensive.
What is your favorite dinosaur?
Littlefoot from the Land Before Time
Fritz Ras, one of Pienika’s on-call veterinarians stated that he'd never seen the two cubs that couldn't walk? How isn't that right there enough to close Griesel down? Thank you for such an incredible news story. I'll follow you on Twitter.
Thank you! That's right, Dr. Ras said he wasn't called in until after the NSPCA's inspection. It's unclear if the cubs were receiving medical attention beforehand. I interviewed two other on-call vets who also said they hadn't cared for the animals.
Hello Rachel! How does the South African government justify these action? Are there efforts to stop these breeding farms in the country’s parliament?
Many South Africans are opposed to the practice, and there have definitely been efforts to stop it—for example, this summer, the NSPCA successfully sued the government over issuing lion bone export quotas without taking welfare into consideration.
Some argue the captive lion industry promotes conservation. They say it relieves poaching pressure on wild populations, and some say captive lions could be released if wild lion numbers declined. However, captive animals rarely survive in the wild, since they don't know how to hunt and don't have a healthy fear of humans.
Hi Rachel Thank you for writing on such an important topic. I have always wondered, even with captive breeding, do the people that are poaching these animals not realize that they are leading the species to extinction? Do they not see the implications of killing every single animal and leaving none left to reproduce?
Edit: I understand your story is about captive breeding, but I’ve always wondered this as a whole in Africa, especially with the ivory industry. Thank you
Hi, thanks for your question. While poaching is a terrible crime, I think it's often committed by people who are poor and/or desperate. I think it's less about an indifference toward wildlife, especially since programs that offer poachers alternate livelihoods/sources of income are often successful!
What security measures did you have in place to do this story?
To what extent did the ANC/whatever local politicians take interest in your work?
Do you think in an economically desperate environment like SA its possible to eradicate this kind of un-ethical business?
Hi, thanks for your questions. I didn't feel unsafe reporting this story, but my photographer and I traveled together for the most part.
I didn't communicate much with local politicians, but I hope my story will raise awareness.
I do think it's possible. Many South Africans are opposed to this practice, and this summer, the NSPCA successfully sued over the lack of welfare requirements in the lion bone export process. Also, it's not really a matter of economic desperation, since lion farm owners are often very wealthy. Unlike poaching, this industry isn't fueled by poverty or desperation, it's fueled by greed and political influence.
Do you know anything about how much it costs to hunt a lion? Or how much do farms sell their lions to hunting companies? A hunter that I know got an offer for lion trophy hunting in another country and it wasn’t cheap. Plus they require him to obtain “permits”
The cost of hunts vary, but sport hunters may pay up to $50,000. It's a very lucrative industry.
Are local governments providing support to minimize the number of animals that end up in such places?
Not that I've heard of. That's part of why the number of captive lions has grown so much over time. As one of my sources told me, “A monster has been created that now has to be fed."
Do you think we can put an end to this inhumane activity? Are there any powerful or influential people behind this?
There's definitely a will to end this industry—many South Africans are opposed to it. However, ending the industry is tricky, because pro-hunting/breeding organizations and individuals are very powerful. Also, it would raise the question of how will South Africa deal with approximately 7,000 captive lions that are too habituated to humans to be released into the wild?