AG Secret Season Safari

How Lions go from the Petting Zoo to the Dinner Plate

It seems to be the way that human beings are wired, but as soon as something exists in all its natural magnificence, it becomes a desirable item to own. Sometimes even just a part of it will do to satisfy the customer.

In spring, colourful explosions of flowers are harvested by wanderers and merchants who wish to capture the beauty for themselves. The difference between the pickers is that one has a specific interest in making a profit out of the blooms. Dollar bills pop up with an inviting cha-ching and a market for the naturally occurring beauty is born.

The same concept is seen on an uglier, darker and a seemingly unstoppable scale in the trade of the African lion. The maned lion is celebrated worldwide and just like crystals, diamonds and exotic birds, it has become a hot commodity. The moneymakers lack heart and compassion for the creature; they are the traders who have pinpointed the demand and are holding the carrot in front of the donkey, knowing full well it will be gobbled up greedily.

A fully grown male is sought after as a trophy to adorn the walls of hunters.

A fully grown male is sought after as a trophy to adorn the walls of hunters’ homes.

The financial gain for South African lion farmers and breeders is large, making trading in the cats a lucrative business and one that has elicited the evil in some wildlife industries. It takes a specific kind of person to want to hunt and kill a lion. Whether it is a nomadic male roaming the wild or a drugged and disorientated lion in an enclosure, these people have a sick desire to want to watch it fall, especially when it is widely known that it is a species facing extinction. Others who are drawn to the cute factor of a cub or the thrill factor of a close encounter can pay money to get what they want. To have inquisitive baby lions rough and tumble on one’s lap is an experience that can now be bought, and is an activity that we are told ‘contributes to conservation’. Walking alongside these adult predators, being given permission to touch them and getting to take home the photograph is also an activity that has been labelled as ‘conservational’.

Hunting and breeding farms ensure that cubs are reared completely unnaturally and are never able to survive in the wild.

Hunting and breeding farms ensure that cubs are reared completely unnaturally and are never able to survive in the wild.

The nasty truth about the hunting, breeding, petting and walking with lions industries is that they are based on ugly lies. The bones of the cats are sought after as health and prestige products by a demanding mass market, most of whose members are unaware of the disastrous impact that their totally ineffective ‘tonics’ have on the lion species. The thousands of dollars fetched by this trade (around US$10,000 per skeleton) have lit fireworks on South African breeding farms. When hunters walk away with their trophy heads, leaving the rest of the animal to the metaphorical dogs, the farm owners greedily wrap them up and sell the carcasses for a vast profit to China, Vietnam and Laos. This insatiable market is only fed by the availability of the supply item.

An icon of strength and stature, yet parts of a hunted lion not flaunted on walls are used in traditional medicine and as meat in burgers. © Wikimedia/Cheva

An icon of strength and stature, yet parts of a hunted lion not flaunted on walls are used in traditional medicine and as meat in burgers. © Wikimedia/Cheva

People all over the world refute the sordid sport of hunting, arguing that the idea of shooting such a majestic animal is inhumane. However many of these same people also like to admire this king of beasts from close-up, and – hey presto! – their desire is easily met and is then used to the benefit of money-hungry merchants. Visitors can enter the sanctuaries where they can cuddle, pet and feed the cubs, or set out with a handler to experience a walk on the wild side. What many customers do not know (or merely ignore) is that when these young ’uns grow out of their fluffy-furred cuteness and lose their milk teeth, they are sold to hunting farms, adding to the industry that the animal-loving visitors are so against. The matured cubs are reared in enclosures until they are picked out for a hunt and shot by a paying customer dressed in camouflage.

Cubs at lion petting sanctuaries are sold to hunting farms once they are too big to be cuddled and are seldom released into the wild. ©  Flickr/Christina

Cubs at lion petting sanctuaries are sold to hunting farms once they are too big to be cuddled and are seldom released into the wild. © Flickr/Christina

Losing its head to a taxidermist, its bones to a Chinese pharmacy and its flesh to butchers in America, the African lion is smuggled out of its homeland, destined to appear as a burger patty, a magic potion or a floor mat. Harvested in superficial conditions, chopped up and sold for parts, the largest carnivore in Africa has gone from the iconic symbol of strength and bravery to a mere commodity that is traded amongst humans to the point where it is consumed as an unrecognisable version of itself. One should not be fooled by any industry that offers interaction with lions from any place other than the seat of a safari vehicle. If only the gentle act of observation was enough to satisfy the desire to ‘have’; we would ‘have’ so much more and we would have it forever.

The true beauty of a lioness only shows in her natural habitat.

The true beauty of a lioness only shows in her natural habitat.

Images Copyright: © iStock

Chloe Cooper

Hi, I’m Chloe. I’ve recently learnt that life is full of surprises and that one should learn to embrace that, as there’s little else to do when confronted with the element of surprise. This became obvious to me during the months I spent in the Kruger National Park, where my FGASA group would set out on game drive with bated breath, camera at the ready and snap-happy fingers poised. What we were to see could never be predicted. After obtaining my degree in organisational psychology at the University of Cape Town, I headed off, rather surprisingly, into the bush to learn game-rangering. Even more surprisingly, I became a qualified field guide (despite the lack of any sort of vertebrate present during my practical). I'll cut out the long, weepy story of how I came to leave the magnificent veld, and fast-forward to the part where I can happily announce that I’m living the dream – so very nearly. My job at Sun Safaris requires that I read and watch and look and listen to everything that is safari. I relish in the responsibility to write about this fascinating world, and to blog for Africa Geographic is the cherry on top. The ‘so very nearly’ part? Well that’s in anticipation of a surprise offer to visit the glorious African countries I love to read and write about!

  • Ewa Czyzewska

    Hi, Chloe.
    Good you have published this text. Many tourists mean well and are simply unaware what they contribute to with their stupid behavior. They honestly think that they help lions – and other animals used in this way. Others ignore the ugly truth becausre it’s easier not to think about such atrocities. Never enough writing how the animal businesss really looks like.
    All the best,

  • Pauline Hodson

    from England

    • Juanita Aitkenhead

      Its not only “Africa”, its the people with the foreign currencies who come here to flaunt their cheap holidays. On average the locals dont have that kind of money to waste on our heritage.

      • Sharon

        Exactly. Amerians make up 60% of the trophy hunters that come to SA to “hunt” lions.

        • Jhm0699

          Yes, you are right. And I say shame on my U.S. government for not banning the import of whole or parts of exotic species! I have written my congressmen numerous times trying to get them to pass the law against import. It still sits in congress waiting……..

          • shane

            are you retarded. these species are endangered… it is banned!! people dont give a fuck!

          • Jhm0699

            Since you are into name calling, you must be the retarded one! Anyone with a brain knows that it is legal to import lion parts into the U.S.A.! That is why the conservationists including IFAW are trying to get the African lion designated as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). As of November 2012 the U.S.
            Fish and Wildlife Service is deciding whether the species warrants such
            protection. A successful listing is a step towards greater protection
            for African lions as it would make it extremely hard for lion hunting
            trophies to be legally imported into the US. The USA accounts for 60% of the trophy hunters at the canned hunting grounds in Africa.

            There are millions upon millions of us who do care. You obviously don’t since you are so ignorant of the facts.

        • RAUL COLON

          FUCKING ASIANS!!!

          • Valérie

            You are right. Asians have no respect for animals, not even to their own people.

          • Asian

            Right.. fucking Asians!… and this was in a response to a comment which said 60% of hunters are Americans! Do you think the people would be doing this in Africa if there wasn’t money to made from it!? The people willing to pay for all this are usually well off rich and educated folks! It’s very easy to put blame on everyone else!

    • Edu Osieta

      Pauline, that’s quite patronising and a bit rich coming form England. Seen any wolves and bears for some centuries now? Let’s not even talk of the explorers who went all over the place and struggled to wipe out every animal they fancied.

      The moral of your story aside, it is about time this worldwirde market for endangered animals was crippled by uniform laws that disallowed wanton killing of animals to sate people’s grasping nature. Countries like US, France etc have stockpiles of ivory, that sends mixed messages to poachers who will happily kill all the animals in the world as long as someone creates a demand for that dead animal.

      Walk around pious England and don’t be shocked get a butchery which sells exotic meat like zebra, buffalo, bison etc..So yes, Africa should wake up and protect its beauty from YOU because complicity, while lying mostly on the seller, also involves the BUYER. WE ARE ALL TO BLAME

  • Morkel Erasmus

    I’ve yet to see PROPER stats showing how much money from lion hunts worth hundreds of thousands of rands per hunt REALLY go back into the communities around the hunting property/concession and how much goes into lion conservation projects (apart from breeding more lions for more hunting). Nobody comes up with those figures, yet every bad@ss hunter keeps saying how they’re doing it for conservation. The Professional Hunters and the Lion Breeders are the ones getting the benefit, not the wild lion population of Africa.

    • Ted Fowles

      I would bet a pound to a pinch of salt that nothing whatsoever goes back into communities or to conservation as a result of such nefarious activities. I will go further even. These bastards earn most of their money in US $’s and the evil low life pricks will all have offshore accounts so as much of the proceeds as they can spirit away is channelled in this direction. They don’t pay taxes or VAT in their home country even. It is little wonder that they don’t want to publish details of what is done with the money. Nothing from nothing still leaves you with nothing…..!!!!!!

    • Nanette Wheeler-Carter

      The answer is NONE! Or, very, VERY little. Typically the land owners and owners of the lions pay the government their share and keep the rest. What the communities make in compensation is the housing, feeding, shopping of the hunters. They typically do not get any of the profit from the actual hunt. Just the subsequent off-shoot of business from the hunters coming to town. So to speak.

    • Andrew Wildman

      I would think the amount is so small it makes not one iota of difference to the local community, all the talk about helping the local communities is a load of whitewash to try and justify the slaughter for profit. You will never find out because all are on the take from the government down, they are all corrupt, if they weren’t this slaughter would have been stopped long ago. The bastards involved are in it for the short term only because there will soon be no more animals left to kill and the population figures are manipulated to give the impression that there is a healthy amount of animals roaming the plains. They have even fooled the idiots governing the EU into believing there are around 33,000 left in Zambia, as if that is a sustainable breeding population, so they have lifted the ban on allowing the import of elephant parts even though the vote went against lifting by 97% to 3%

  • Mike Barth

    Fabulous article and one I empathise with entirely.

  • Tamara Lee

    Great article, Chloe. People need to think about the consequences of their interactions with wild animals.

  • Guest


  • Riana Hanekom

    Do we honestly believe that the cubs we are petting will ever go back into the wild? Therefore I reckon that every person who visits a Lion park (or elephant park, or zoo, or a small little reserve with a special lion camp) are aware, at least at some level, that the animals are destined for a life they wouldn’t have had were they born in the wild – as loosely as we may be using that word. Still, as gruesome and grim as it may sound, I still prefer canned hunting to poaching. Were our rhinoceroses so easy to breed we may not have had the desperate situation we currently have. At the risk of sounding very fatalistic – the evil exists and I much prefer the lesser of the two.

    • Sandy

      Canned hunting to poaching? – what makes either of these right???

  • Bruine

    Great article indeed Chloe. I loathe with all that I have in me those ruthless greedy robots who call themselves hunters. Despicable, lowlives robbing us all of our legitimate natural legacy for their own selfish profit. Hell is empty, evil minions are walking among us without an ounce of decency or compassion.

  • alessandra

    Shame! Hope these people will die soon , suffering and suffering very hard! No mercy for these evils!

  • Lion Conservation

    Very one sided and uninformed view of lions and lion conservation. I honestly expected better of a publication such as this. Knee jerk reaction and false accusation make for dramatic reporting i suppose. Shame.

    • compassionforall

      well I’m sure your involved in this industry…… of course you would say this…….protecting your pay check…..

    • Sharon

      But it isn’t false though is it?

    • Conservationist

      Maybe you should have a look at what the real experts are say Mr ‘Lion Conservation’ –

    • Jhm0699

      You find reporting on the lion breeding farms and the “petting zoos” that lie to the people about the final destination of the animals is biased? You are either in that despicable industry or you are ignorant of the entire topic!

    • David Janssens

      I happen to partially agree with your statement (definitely one-sided – not necessarily uninformed) but I think it would be good if you backed it up with some substance. Unfortunately, canned-hunting is a very real problem and it’s important to raise awareness about it – how can the average tourist know whether they are dealing with a legit lion-breeding park or not ?

  • Ken

    Losing its head to a taxidermist, its bones to a Chinese pharmacy and its flesh to butchers in America, the African lion is smuggled out of its homeland, destined to appear as a burger patty, a magic potion or a floor mat.

    lmao. Add some more emotional tug to the article why don’t you.

    • compassionforall

      you are obviously not very bright, please spare all of us your ridiculous comments and go back to school!!! You won’t find it so amusing when there are no animals, forests or clean air and your living in a bubble dying of toxic waste exposure……..

  • Very shocking. Today I watched Disneynature documentary film about african lions titled ‘African Cats’. Great documentary to watch…

  • Maurice

    thank you

  • Mark

    What is it about us humans that we want to touch, tame (and shoot) wild animals? Why do we need to have this control? I am in the photographic safari business and we frequently get requests from guests to pet large cats. The beauty of wilderness is it’s wildness. There is something so inspiring about being in a remote place where the game is not at all habituated and where a herd of zebra or impala dissapear in clouds of dust and thundering hooves as you approach.

    • MyKinKStar

      Thank you Mark – for knowing that it’s better for all the world to capture or shoot something beautiful with a camera! Pictures (or videos) allow millions of people to have the experience of being there, to see something out of the ordinary in that place and time. Only people like you can do it for those of us who might never have that chance to use our own eyes and see it. Those who capture or shoot exotic animals for a ‘trophy’ have no idea how damaging it is to be so selfish. Again, thank you.

  • Dingo

    I look forward to my annual safari,over 20 in that many years.I am struck by the shear natural beauty and wildlife,all but disappeared in my home country,why,we have destroyed it.I am revolted by the canned hunting industry,I read increasingly about this sickening industry.I for one look carefully at the establishment or organisation and if I see any hint of association with hunting I vote with my wallet and shun them.I just returned from South Africa and shunned a well known property in Timbavati.I encourage everyone to do the same.Hit these horrors where it hurts,there wallets.

    • SANDY

      I am with you – canned hunting is revolting and there is no place for it!!!!

  • Christina Pretorius


  • Liz Kariuki-Konzolo

    Great article Chloe. I once went on a “walk with the Lions adventure ” at the Vic falls and while doing the walk, a naïve volunteer working there even bragged how one cub ate a muffin the previous day! That was my wake up call, and i wasn’t too proud of my adventure after that. And now many years later, these Lion parks and walking adventures have mushroomed everywhere especially in South Africa. Of course most of them will hide under “conservation” ” saved orphaned cubs” and “giving back to the community”. Truth is, some may be genuine in their mission but most of them are just out to make money. There is no control on the breeding of these wild animals and lazy city slickers are not helping either. They are willing to pay any price to have the wild come closer to them and have their children play with cubs and get it off their bucket lists….

  • Lesley Blissett

    Why do people consider it “cool” to hunt wild animals especially USA citizens, they seem to think that everything that moves must be shot, most of these poor animals are shot in “canned” shoots where no skill is required whatsoever, it takes a very sick person to kill a beautiful animal, all animals must be protected from the inhumanity and evil of man!

    • suemenow

      $afari International is now a powerful organization and corporation that has grown its ranks using advertising, business partnerships and funding political action. It has almost single handily created the reassurance of big game hunting. The founder has a Hemmingway type of love for hunting…and works to involve women and children…They do try to instill the love of wildness and “respect” for nature..Protest their conventions…but be well informed about all their conservation and community action they taught first…or they will make fools of anyone who tries to call them out…

  • Cat53

    Did not know that about the interaction with lions. I must be guilty of this. We walked with 18 month old cubs and were told that they go on to be used for breeding purposes. We were on a safari with Epic Enabled as my husband is in a wheelchair. Now we would happily spend all our time in the Kruger seeing these magnificent animals where they truly belong. That’s more than enough for me, but interaction was part of the package. If what you say is true I will bring this to Epics attention. Cannot believe Alfie would be part of this.

  • Dina Strange

    It is simply sick. First of all what they do is not “hunting”. Hunting means going out there with BARE hands and fighting fair and square. What they do is MURDER. Now, that’s different. Those lowlives try to justify being born with small penises by killing magnificent animals. Pathetic, low and retarded. We should pass laws that not only ban hunting but ownership of wild animals. They belong in the wild, not with the human.

  • Rickey Osborne

    the same could be said about wolves in the USA.why kill some thing for sport if you cant or wont eat it.they say that wolves are killing the what man kills the deer to.i eat many people kill just to say they killed some rule to live by:if you aint gona eat it dont kill it unless there is a good reason and that dont include killing some thing just because it needed killing.

  • Captain_Sakonna

    If it takes farming for canned hunting to “conserve” the lions, let them go extinct. Look at the horrifying things we do to our cattle, pigs, and chickens … do we really suppose the majestic lion wants a future as a kind of exotic livestock? Live free or die.

  • Nathan

    I live in Costa Rica and we have the Jaguar and other big cats. You might appreciate a blog I wrote about the need to conserve wildlife at



  • shane

    the only type of person i could hate is the ones who do this to lions… they know their consequences and all they care about are the inanimate objects they get from the massacres they call hunts. if only they could be stripped of their objects, and hunted like this…

  • di

    Please let us know how we can help stop this awful trade?
    Di Martin

  • Great article. I just wish our tourism trade were more open about these lion petting zoos, and that there was some regulation in the conservation industry to prevent this. We really need to speak out and raise awareness about this. I’ve also written an article on the lion petting industry and its effects >

  • Nick Fox

    Dear Chloe,
    I read your article with interest and I understand and have on numerous occasions engaged in debate on many of your points (as a private game reserve owner).
    Sadly, I find that such dissertations, although true in much of the detail, and heart-wrenching in content, often fail to address the true reasons for the demise of many of our wonderful and majestic African species. Although it is indeed sad that such a mighty beast as the lion is reduced to a commodity, it is even more sad and ironic that this “commodification” might be the very thing that ensures the continuation of the species – even though it might not be exactly as we idealistically would wish to see them.
    In truth, by far the biggest threat to these species is destruction of habitat. As a consequence of forever burgeoning populations in Africa, there is a continual competition for land between man and animal… and sadly for the animals, man wins every time.
    So if we really want do something to save the lion and their Big 5 cousins, we need to work on the governments and greedy politicians of Africa – they need to be pressured to bring stability and education to the people. Only then is there hope of this population explosion being arrested and a chance that existing wild and open spaces can be protected from invasion by man. And only then is there a chance that our idealistic expectations can be met without having to rely on “commodification” and economics to save the Big 5. Otherwise hunting, petting and selling of lion bones is all that will be left to save this species!!!

    • suemenow

      I totally agree…And work with the women…Their eduction, voice and choice are paramount in helping make the drastic changes needed..

  • Ben Bristow

    What proof do you have of these so called petting zoos selling young lions to the hunting industry??? And have you ever given this a thought…what would happen to all our actual wild lions if there was no canned lion hunting??? please do not get me wrong, im not saying i agree with it at all!!! just give it a thought before you choose to fight sides…my personal opinion would be to ban hunting on all big cats outright…..but let us first start with the wild populations first, secure their futures. Then we can sit around and argue over personal feelings and actual conservative perspective…

    • Rika Van Der Vekens

      What did they do before ? Nature keeps his balance from it’s own, they don’t need human beings who just want to kill for fun without any feelings for real life. We don’t need meat to survive but we need the animals for more than one reason ! It’s heartbreaking how stupid some people are ! In the horn of the rino isn’t any medical source , it’s like our fingernails, In the tusks of an elephant aren’t medical suspects neither and it doesn’t work for religions, I never heard in any religion you have to kill living beings for a religion reason !!! It’s all superstishen. The Ivory of elephants is only for statues and other furnitures for the riches ! It’s disgusting to read all the animal abuses by humans ! Humans are the beasts between the animals !

  • David Janssens

    Hi Chloe, thanks for the article but I think it’s disingenuous of you to state that all lion breeding programs are only destined to fuel the canned hunting industry. The wild lion population is dwindling in Africa… FIV is on the rise and tourists in Kruger are sighting Leopards on a daily basis (this would not happen if Lions were not weakened).

    My point is that there is strong case for breeding disease-free lions and ensuring genetic diversity. This can only really happen in a controlled environment. Now, of course, lions bred in captivity cannot simply be released into the wild but there are programs to release these lions in a fenced parks where they are no longer in direct contact with humans (but where they continue to be monitored). The second generation cubs from these prides have never been in contact with humans at all and _are_ able to truly be released in the wild.

    I have been to such a “first generation” lion-breeding facility and they do offer a “walk with lions” tour. The lions we walked with were between 3 months and 1 year old – 1 year is roughly the age they get sent off the the “second generation” parks. They justify the walks because you cannot simply keep your lions in an enclosure all day – they need exercise too and, what’s more important, they need to exercise _before_ they get their food – they need to “earn” it so to speak. During the walk, we clearly observed the importance of these young cubs to run around, stalk each-other and play hunt. Their instincts are very well-preserved despite being born in captivity.

    I found this experience to be truly fascinating. I despise zoos and this was nothing nearly like that. There is a definite value in my opinion in offering these sort of “lion interactions” in order for people to experience the magnificence of these creatures up close and to raise awareness of just what might disappear if nothing is done.

    I can provide more info about the place I visited (it’s in SA near Pretoria) and I am open to be proven wrong but I just don’t buy that all forms of lion-breeding are bad.

    • Charl

      Hi David, can you provide us with a name of a “second-generation park” that has introduced re-wilded captive bred lions in a lion breeding facility?

      • David Janssens

        Hello Charl – there is plenty of info to be found here:–release-into-the-wild-program

        Specifically look at the “stage two” section…

        Again, I’m sure that a lot of parks are culpable of what Chloe states in this article – just not all of them.

        • Charl

          Thanks David, very interesting article, hope they make a success out of it.

          • Nikki Elliott

            See my comment above Charl – another complete hoax – no lions have been released in the wild from this facility – fact.

        • Nikki Elliott

          NO lions have been released in the wild from Alert! A fallacy.

          • David Janssens

            Nikki, that’s a bit of a curt response…
            Alert!s website is full of information about 2 prides it has released… are you saying that this is all lies ?
            (again: I have no sides in this except being absolutely against canned-hunting. I do believe there is a case to be made for breeding healthy & genetically diversified lions if it can contribute to bolstering their numbers in the wild)

  • Jill Mortimer

    Glad this is on an open forum and I hope that people learn something. Anyone who believes that “petting Zoos” or any sort of close up interaction with animals is helping conservation, must live in Cloud Cuckoo Land. It is all a money making business, and apart from that, it is absolutely disgraceful that these animals are allowed to be kept like this. – and then shot – when they are virtually tame. It’s a damn shocking and barbaric business.

  • Carol Lyes

    From my experience, those “safari vehicles”, carrying tourists are almost as bad as the canned hunters. If you’ve ever seen how dozens of them surround and box in a pride not allowing them to make their way out of the circle of vehicles when they need a drink or to get out of the harsh sun and find a shadier resting place. I am sure it is doing the lions no good at all.

  • Edda Kenney

    It is appalling how us humans treat animals.Disgusting.I am ashamed to be part of the human race.These people that contribute to this kind of barbaric behavior should be put behind bars.Or better yet in a petting zoo and then shot!!!!!!!

    Edda Kenney

    • jp

      but you would put animals in a zoo o that you can look at them… mmm a wee bit hypocritical.

  • Monique La Marca

    No more lions, panthers and other fur animals to be killed…shame on the cruel people who commit this crime…

  • Monique La Marca

    Stop hunting lions and other wild animals…you are barbaric people!…

  • Emma@greenglobaltravel

    The wild is the only place these lions need to be. They are not only majestic but vital to the ecosystem. Without them the stability of the habitat can plummet, and irreversible damage can be caused.

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