Africa Geographic Travel

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!

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