Once again there is a horrified outcry in the tabloids on the subject of trophy hunting. This follows the publication yesterday of a photograph showing a couple – from Canada if I remember correctly – kissing over the carcass of a lion that the woman had shot.
‘Barbaric! Murderous! Ban this abhorrent practice!’ Are the screams from offended scribblers, but I have very mixed feelings on the subject.
In no way would I want to shoot a lion myself, but I was brought up among professional hunters and can understand the thrills involved in ethical hunting – and I stress the ‘ethical.’ In a proper safari, a client can pay thousands of pounds to hunt an animal he has a licence for, walk hundreds of miles through untamed bush to find it and never even see a specimen. The entire experience, although obviously disappointing allows the hunter – usually a rich man or woman who normally enjoys a sedentary lifestyle – to experience the magic of being in the bush – a magic that most tabloid hacks cannot even imagine.
Of course for a successful hunt, an animal must die, but hunting is part of Mankind’s DNA. It is as much part of us as the need to procreate or eat to keep ourselves alive. I have hunted for the pot on many occasions and although it is always sad to see a dead animal, I have always felt that my ‘victims’ died for a cause.
My business card describes me – among other things – as an elephant man and although I once shot an elephant, it was an act of mercy and I certainly don’t regret it. In similar circumstances I would shoot a lion.
Whether the couple depicted smooching over their lion were on an ethical hunt or part of the fairly new and rather horrible practice of canned hunting in South Africa, I don’t know but I am due to give a talk on lions at a Tavistock theatre in October and have been reading up on canned hunting. It does not make for pleasant reading I am afraid.
The business itself is huge, extremely profitable and legal, but it made me shudder at the implications. Let me tell you a little about it.
Lions are bred on various farms – there are over 200 of them in SA – in large pens. In the wild, a female will come into oestrus roughly every two years but if she loses her cubs, she will immediately become fertile again. So on these farms, the cubs are immediately taken away from her so she will breed twice or even three times a year, rapidly wearing out her body.
The cubs are transferred to other farms where they are used as tourist attractions. People love to cuddle and fuss over them and I can understand that. Lion cubs are very cute after all, but all these people are doing is paying the expenses of the breeders. Later on, paying visitors can walk with adolescent but large and dangerous lions, which I am sure is a great thrill. My Sister and my Granddaughter have both done it and showed me the photographs. Describing the experience, I could hear the enthusiasm in their voices and didn’t want to disillusion them, but again they were merely helping with the expenses of a lion farmer. Nobody would want to do that for someone who keeps battery-reared chickens damnit!
When the lions are fully grown, they are advertised in hunting journals around the world so potential clients can even choose the particular animal they want to shoot. Money is handed over and the client doesn’t even need a licence for his or her ‘hunt.’ The client comes in to the farm, spends a day zeroing his or her rifle, the lion is released into a much larger enclosure, sometimes sedated if the client is particularly fearful, then the killing takes place. Baits are frequently used so that the ‘hunters’ know exactly where to find their lion.
Other captive lions are bred solely for their bones, which are exported to China for use in traditional medicine. The ruddy Chinese again I’m afraid! Individually they are very pleasant people I am sure, but collectively they are a scourge on the world. At the moment one hundred and fifty lion carcasses a month are being exported quite legally from South Africa and as all that is required are the bones, the animals do not even have to be in good condition.
At the moment there are up to eight thousand captive lions in South Africa but that number is expected to rise to twenty thousand within the next couple of years. That is more than all the wild lions left in the world – a horrifying statistic! The breeders justify their grisly trade by claiming that they are doing it for conservation but that just isn’t true. Lions raised in captivity cannot survive in the wild, so the number kept on farms is immaterial to the general health of the lion population.
I am not sure I really like lions but in the wild, they are certainly impressive to see. I have been charged three times and it is a scary experience, but those stories are for another day. Looking into details of the canned hunting trade was a depressing exercise and if my words have upset some of you, I am sorry. I shall repeat them and show photographs in my October talk and if I can convince just one person not to handle cute little lion cubs on their South African holiday then I will have helped Panthera Leo in a tiny way.
Professional hunting has a long and honourable tradition but canned hunting is an abomination!