International rugby player speaks out about captive lions


A group of beaming smiles encircle an impossibly adorable lion cub. They rub its belly and paddle away a flurry of playful swipes while cameras go into overdrive capturing the event. Everything about the combination of cute animals and besotted humans appeals to our moral instincts.


But in the case of captive wildlife our moral intuitions are sometimes rotten to the core.

It is a sad fact of life that many actions causing great harm are motivated by well intentioned individuals either ignorant or armed with defective information. Subsidising institutions that hold animals in captivity appears to be an exquisite example of this kind of immorality. Early this week I felt a metaphorical punch in the guts as I realised my own complicity in the exploitation of Africa’s wildlife.

The pride of ignorance

Last Sunday the Brumbies squad paid a visit to a lion park twenty minutes outside of Bloemfontein. The cat enclosures were small (though no smaller than most zoos) and people moved about inside the pens with the cubs and adolescent lions. The level of supervision and management of the interaction between the lions and the visitors appeared woefully unprofessional. But there is a far more sinister side to lion parks than poor facilities and unqualified staff.

As tourists pour into South Africa in search of an safari experience, lions have been commodified in appalling numbers. So much so that South Africa now has a major overbreeding problem. To combat overpopulation and maximise profits many lions born into captivity are eventually killed by the grotesque practise of canned hunting.

Lions that have never known freedom are released into fenced-off bush-veldt where rich people execute them for pleasure – thus marking the nadir of our failure to protect the wild nature of wildlife.

As a former hunter in South Africa I understand that hunting is indeed an important cog in the conservation of African wildlife. But killing tame lions to make rich South Africans wealthier is ethically unsupportable.

The film Blackfish brought worldwide attention to the plight of captive orcas in SeaWorld theme parks. African cats and indeed all wild animals in captivity desperately need similar attention. Zoos and animal theme parks are born out of the nonsensical idea that animals which lack human intelligence exist for our amusement.

As images and videos of Brumbies players (myself included) began circulating on social media it dawned on me that by attending the lion park we had hitched ourselves to the profiteers of animal cruelty.

This brings my attention to the responsibility that accompanies athletes with an online presence. Being able to connect with a global audience via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram is a relatively recent phenomenon. This connectivity has given us unprecedented capacity to spread ideas and bring attention to important issues.

But this is not how athletes tend to utilise social media. Instead ‘followers’ are subjected to endless pictures of products, promotions and commentary that is all too often best described as drivel.

Is this the best we can do with the privilege of a platform?

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  • Simon Espley

    Well said Clyde

  • Rodger

    I live in the UK but have visited SA on many occasions purely to see and photograph the wildlife. I like your comments on the canned hunting. I am disgusted by it and hope that it can be stopped. Please keep up your good work with your comments.

  • Johann Malan

    Your observation is spot-on, Clyde! One must remember, though, that tourism drives conservation and there is a fine line not to cross. This, however, doesn’t seem like either responsible tourism or sensible conservation. Thank you for your well-considered opinion and for sharing it.

    • Chris Voets

      Canned hunting has NOTHING to do with conservation, and the whole lion farming business does not further conservation or tourism in any positive manner whatsoever. It is simply about money.

  • Gerlinde Thomas-Ruch

    Well said, please keep on going to fight for the freedom of our Lions and all animals in captivity!

  • Herbert Adler
  • Angela Wigmore

    Thanx for highlighting this cruelty and greed Clyde. Hope you can convince your sporting to do the same on their blogs, tweets etc.

  • Baroness Danuté

    Oh is so sad to see these lions in jail. People who do this to wild animals should be in jail. Wild animals belongs in the wild.

  • Valerie Lusaka

    I visited South Africa last year and I was involved, without knowing what it was, to walk with lions. What I saw completely disgusted me. Lions cubs are trained as the circus. I later learned that these lions as adults, are intended for canned hunting. Since I inform people around me for the day they will visit this beautiful country, they are not complicit in these outrageous practices.

  • Chris Voets

    Thank you Clyde, for helping to bring attention to this. Canned hunting is a terribly blight on South Africa, and people visiting places that allow lion cub petting or walking-with-lions usually have no idea that those lions are marked for death. Please join us in getting rid of canned hunting operations by reading up on this

  • caroline

    thank you so much for taking the time to write and publish this article. It is sad and it is all too true.

Jacis Lodges
AG Secret Season Safari
Africa Geographic