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(Ep. 2/4) It's in the Can — Everything you need to know about Canned Hunting with the 'Lion Whisper'

You've probably heard of trophy hunting, but ever heard of canned hunting? Hundreds of lions are bred specifically to be killed in South Africa each year, with hunters paying up to $50,000 per lion hunting safari. Hunting activities, including these canned hunts, adds a whopping $341 million to the South African economy and supports >17, 000 jobs. But in 2018, as a result of international outcry to help protect lions, the South African government reduced its yearly limit for exporting lion skeletons from 1,500 down to its previous quota of 800. But what's the real story behind this lucrative business? What's the ethical cost of this enterprise and are we really making any real progress in solving the issues involved? In Episode 2 of our interview with Kevin Richardson AKA the 'Lion Whisperer', we delve into the realities of both canned and trophy hunting and uncover how you can help save lions!

Josh: "Okay so now let’s get to an issue which I know is close to your heart and it’s something that we both really agree on and something we’re both quite passionate about as well — can you just tell the listeners what canned hunting is? "

Kevin: "Yeah look, canned hunting is very simple and not everyone agrees with my definition. But I don’t really care, because I’ve been looking at it from every angle for many years. If an animal, be it a lion or any animal for that matter, is constrained either psychologically or physically, and it is then hunted, I believe that that is a canned hunt. Let me elaborate. Even if a lion is in the wild, and somebody baits it and shoots it from a hide, that’s a canned lion hunt. You know, everyone wants to argue that a canned lion comes from the petting zoo. No, canned hunting is anything that is ‘in the can’, in other words guaranteed. That’s where the phrase canned hunting came from. So, you know, even if you hunt a herbivore, an elephant, whatever it is, and it’s been earmarked, that’s a canned hunt.

The point is that many people say that canned hunting is only as a result of an animal that’s born and bred in captivity, raised by humans and then put into an enclosure and shot by a trophy hunter, or a ‘trophy murderer’. You know, that’s not my definition. I think the definition of hunting is the animal has a fair chance of escape - a fair chase principle. If there’s a fair chase principle, and the animal, no matter what it is, has a chance of evading the hunter then that’s a hunt. But if the animal’s lost its advantage in terms of evading the hunter… that’s a canned hunt in my books.

For me, the big issue I have, besides obviously lions being shot that don’t stand a fair chance, is the lies that are perpetuated within the industry. Tourists still believe that the cub that they’re petting is going to be released into this wonderful wilderness area and live out happy life, and that simply isn’t true. And then this new narrative that’s been perpetuated, that these facilities nowadays say ‘well we’re keeping all the lions that we breed so come pet our lions, but we keep all of our lions in this lovely home that we have and that makes it all better’. Some may even claim to be a sanctuary for lions. And I look at that and I go, ‘really people?’ Are you that stupid?

Lion cubs in canned hunting facility, South Africa

Lion cubs in a canned hunting breeding facility, South Africa 📸 NJR ZA at wts wikivoyage / CC BY-SA

Are those the same people that see photos on social media and go out and do stupid things? Are those the same people that look at photos and want to go pet lions? Perhaps a bit of both. But really, are you that stupid that you think that by keeping all the lions that you breed that makes it okay? Because do the arithmetic, lions breed prolifically!

If your breeding lions, for example in a park, and many parks have many more lions than this, but let’s say that you just had 2 lionesses and they were breeding and they breed 4 cubs each - that’s 8 lions and you took all those lion cubs away for the petting. They (the lionesses) come back into oestrus and they have another 4 cubs each - that’s now 16 lions. Let’s say they only breed twice a year - that’s 16 more lions every year and now you’re trying to tell me that you’re building enclosures to accommodate 16 lions every year and you’re giving them a wonderful life until the day they die? Pull the wool over the other one mate, that’s not gonna happen. They can’t possibly keep all the lions they breed. Just another way of convincing the tourist to come pet the cub. And then there’s all these other spin offs of cub petting, there’s lion walking, and then there’s the lion bone trade, obviously there is the canned hunting, so there’s many aspects to the breeding of lions."

Josh: "So, you did touch on this, but just clearly, what can people do to help with the problem of canned hunting? Is it avoiding these cub petting places completely?"

Kevin: Well you know there’s 300 lion breeding facilities in South Africa... 300!

Josh: “Wow!”

Kevin: "Yah. You do the maths. Now imagine if each facility only had 10 lions. Now we know there are 12,000 odd lions in captivity. But, are all these facilities cub petting and tourist facilities? I would answer the question no, they’re not. So, one component is obviously the unsuspecting tourist coming in and petting the cub, that’s the one aspect. But the other is, even if you snuffed that out, would that bring an end to canned hunting? I’m saying no it wouldn’t, because there are people who breed lions not to be petted; they breed them to be slaughtered and for their bones to be sold to the far east. So yes, awareness around people coming to South Africa and not supporting those types of facilities would bring those petting facilities to their knees, but probably wouldn't stop the industry.

What makes me concerned is that many, many, many documentaries have been made, we’ve had many campaigns around it, we’ve got a lot of NGOs that are beating on about it all the time – the cub petting industry and the responsible tourism - and I thought well maybe we are making headway? And then on Sunday I passed one of the famous petting facilities, and their car park was overflowing. Which just shows that there’s still this immense appetite to play with these clubs and to pet these cubs.​

So, if we are thinking that people around the world are going to change their behaviour, and that this narrative if repeated enough, we will believe it, then I don’t think it’s working. I think if there’s enough people coming into South Africa, that are new to South Africa, they are always going to be wanting to partake in those activities. Especially when they get to the airport and get given a brochure of activities to do and one of them is petting a lion cub in a 'responsible' manner. All the facilities promote themselves as ethical and as having the lions best interests at heart. Truth is, they are businesses driven by profit.

The tourist misunderstands. They don’t have the same perspective that we do as conservationists. They are new to this and they have never researched anything to do with lions in captivity in South Africa, ever! And they never do. Why would they bother, you know? So, they come to South Africa unawares and they go and visit these places, and that’s going on despite all the efforts (to stop this) and all that we see on social media, and via certain documentaries and by certain organisations. It’s business as usual, I can tell you. They’ve just figured out clever ways to bait the tourist. So, when the question comes up - what happens to these lovely cubs?

'Well we keep them. We love them. We love our animals and we keep them and we give them good homes. No different to any big cat sanctuary who keeps lions in enclosures'

And that placates the tourist; the tourist doesn’t know any better. I’ve heard it so many times! People come and they look me up and they say listen, I’ve heard about this what are your thoughts? And I say well yah, this that and the other. And they say oh well we visited this place, what do you think? And I say look, I’m going to reserve my comments you know. And then they say oh but this place was different. But the truth is they’ve had the wool firmly pulled over their eyes."

📸 Martin Harvey

Josh: "I think it’s a classic example in tourism and ecotourism for these sorts of things. Where, in places like Asia, people go to these elephant sanctuaries and they ride elephants and then they say ‘oh no this place is different, they actually really look after the elephants here’. You can see comparisons with lots of that sort of thing in ecotourism.

Do you think if someone with authority in this area did some sort of advertisement in airports, like in South African airports, this might work as a potential solution?"

Kevin: "Well, no look some organisations here in South Africa have tried that. But they’ve been given an uphill task, because it was deemed unfair advertising as there was no concrete proof. Also, you’re bringing the country's tourism into disrepute and it’s kind of a sensitive topic. You’re actually going against government, and that’s not an easy position to take. You need buy in from the powers that be. If you have support from the government then sure. But you don’t because they don’t see anything wrong with it, and how do you change that? It’s very tricky, it’s very difficult to change. Especially when you’re dealing with a country with a high unemployment rate, and a lot of these 300 facilities are employing people and generating revenue and income. There’s a lot of income being generated. They're looking at it from the perspective of job employment, and 'is a human life worth more than a lion’s life?' Is employment, worth more than the lives of a few lions, that in their opinion are being shipped off to be slaughtered? it was deemed unfair advertising

So again, it’s a topic that’s very close to my heart because of my relationships with these lions. I know that lions are capable of so much more, and I suppose it’s why the people in the know are so upset about it. The animal welfare and rights kind of goes out the window when it comes to this kind of thing, and until such time as there’s an evolution of that thinking, I don’t know if we’re going to make any headway there."

📸 K. Richardson

Josh: "Wow – that’s quite a depressing thought really."

Kevin: "It is depressing. Think about it carefully. If these movies and efforts by these organisations really made people change their ways, then we wouldn’t see 300 breeding facilities and captive lion numbers going up year on year to 12,000, despite 1,000 lions being shot every year - that’s 3 every day!".

Josh: "That’s absolutely crazy - do you know where the majority of these tourists are coming from?"

Kevin: "All over the world: America, South America, all over Europe, Australia, Asia."

Josh: "I guess the point you were making was that the government values the lives of their people, saying that canned hunting and cub petting is really important for these people’s livelihoods, so they’re valuing that over lions, ethically?"

Kevin: "Yes exactly, that is the reason, but they don't say it. They placate the animal activists and pay them lip-service because if you had any kind of ethical bone in your body, you would be looking at it and saying it’s wrong, and outlaw it immediately. Look how the government has treated the COVID-19 pandemic. In less than a week they shut the country down. If there was any appetite it would've been banned years ago. If you speak to some of the environmental people who are in charge of this, they look at me and they say why aren’t you breeding lions? I say look no, I don’t breed because there’s nowhere for the lions to go and they'll end up in canned hunting and they go... 'So? Those lions are helping to protect our wild lions?'... How do you make that one up mate?"

Josh: "I’ve heard that jump as well."

Kevin: "Yes, you've heard that one? It makes no sense. Because canned hunting, or lions that have been specifically bred for canned hunts, have nothing to do with the lions that are hunted every year in South Africa that are wild. Every year, year on year, there’s been between 10-15 wild lions hunted in South Africa, despite canned hunting exponentially taking off."

Josh: "Yeah, I've heard that same argument loads when I’ve been working in Namibia as well. Guys saying ‘oh well they breed them up to protect the wild lions - if you didn’t breed those to be shot, more wild ones would be shot. But like you said, it’s been the same numbers year on year."

Kevin: "Yeah, if that were true we'd then see that wild lion numbers were increasing and there wouldn't be any quotas for wild lion hunting because there would be no demand. But the two have nothing to do with each other. And quite frankly, the people who ‘hunt’ or ‘murder’ canned lions are not the same as the hunters who hunt wild lions. Those hunters can't stand hunters that shoot lions that have been raised in captivity and released into areas to be shot - they don’t want to be associated with them."

Josh: "They’re not 'real' hunters..."

Kevin: "It's not a real hunt, exactly."

Josh: "I guess for me, I can see a kind of comparison in a way, comparing it ethically, between poaching and canned hunting. The people who are poaching are often trying to sustain their livelihoods for their families. Let’s say a local person goes into a park, shoots a rhino and sells their horn. I guess you could say that he is generating income for his family. How is that any different to what they’re doing for canned hunting? Do you see my point?"

Kevin: "I get you, I do see your point. However, the difference is that you know these poaching syndicates that operate – I think you’re more thinking about the poacher who kind of goes into the park to feed and support his family vs the poacher who is part of the syndicate, because there’s a difference in these types of poachings. Poaching comes in so many of these different shapes and forms.

The thing that I always say about the facilities breeding the lion for hunting, is t​​hat actually they’re doing nothing illegal. It’s perfectly legal to breed lions in South Africa for petting, for selling so you can make money, and for hunting them. These guys can say: “look Kevin, you may think it’s wrong, but we're doing nothing wrong. We have permits for everything we do, we’re not shooting them illegally. We’re not like the poachers who are coming in and doing it without any permission. We’re doing this completely within the confines of the law. Now because you, as a lion lover, think it’s wrong you’re now trying to twist and change everyone’s views on it. But we don’t think we’re doing anything wrong”.

Now therein lies the problem. Because if I tell you ‘Josh you're doing something wrong’, and you don’t believe you’re doing something wrong? You’re not going to change. So how do you change it?"

Josh: "Yeah, I agree it’s a really tricky one. So, what’re your thoughts on trophy hunting not canned hunting? You’re saying there’s quite a difference – hunters specifically like to be in these separate groups; the canned hunters vs the ‘real’ hunters. What’re your thoughts on these ‘real’ hunters - the trophy hunters?"

📸 Lord Mountbatten: CC BY-SA 3.0

Kevin: "Trophy hunting is a very tricky, precarious conversation. Because, where I’m sitting before you, I don’t like trophy hunting. I think its antiquated, I think it’s a relic of the past, and I think we’ve moved on as humans. I tend to agree with other organisations that I couldn’t think of anything more depressing than walking through the veld and shooting a lion with a gun or a bow and arrow, even if it was a wild lion or an elephant or a rhino or whatever. But likewise, I couldn’t think of doing that to a kudu or any other animal for that matter. However… there’s a big however. What’s the realistic not idealistic alternative? I tend to agree with other organisations that I couldn’t think of anything more depressing than walking through the veld and shooting a lion with a gun or a bow and arrow, even if it was a wild lion or an elephant or a rhino or whatever. But likewise, I couldn’t think of doing that to a kudu or any other animal for that matter.

Mounted Kudu heads at a Taxidermy shop 📸 Martin Harvey

Unless of course, my life depended on it and I had to eat or defend myself. But that’s not trophy hunting. So, the problem lies, Josh, in that people don’t give the realistic alternative. We hear that these hunting concessions must be closed and that trophy hunting is bad etc. and it’s anti-evolution and its anti this and that. I tend to agree with a lot of the arguments, but the realistic alternative is not there. So, when you say to somebody that 23 million hectares of land in South Africa is currently game farms, predominately for trophy hunting, and let’s say for example you could wave a magical wand and trophy hunting ended tonight. Do you think that 23 million hectares automatically tomorrow are converted into photographic tourism areas?

It’s not that simple, they don’t. They just become tracts of land containing animals that now have no value to the people caring for them, because they can’t hunt them or sell them to be hunted. So, these people then eventually move off these lands or sell off these animals – not that there would be any market for them, because these animals are being bred for that purpose (trophy hunting). These guys are not breeding animals to keep them in vast tracts of land so they can watch them every day and take pictures. These people are breeding them for a purpose - and now you’re telling them ‘you must convert your 20,000-ha property on the boundaries of nowhere’?

These are not areas that are even conducive to photo-tourism; it’s so difficult to get to there and it’s so dry and sparsely populated and horrible. These areas aren’t going to automatically become protected areas. If you wanted to protect those 23 million hectares you’d have to have a realistic alternative? Which would be what at this point in time?? I’m asking people?! I hear your cries, I’m with you on many of the points, but I’m not seeing the alternative. Especially when we talk about what we talked about earlier - these tracts of land that are finite in size. So as soon as you put a fence up in an area, you have an obligation to manage it. Now if you are taking away a component of management, which is hunting, what is the alternative to managing population increase? It’s a difficult one."

Josh: "I couldn’t agree more with everything you said there Kevin on trophy hunting. I was actually working in Namibia with some guys who were developing an alternative to trophy hunting. Because trophy hunting is big in Namibia and like you said it does protect land from being converted into agriculture or whatever, so it does have these really important aspects for conservation, which also include raising money and protecting land. Their idea, and it’s something I’ve been developing myself as well, calling it conservation hunting. And it’s similar to, I’m sure you’ve probably heard of green hunting in South Africa?"

Kevin: "Yeah."

Josh: "Yeah and the idea is that instead of shooting the animal, you tranquilise it and become a guardian for that animal. So, you pay money, you tranquilise it, you have the same experience and you make it a real 'hunt' - you don’t make it’s something that’s setup. But after tranquilising it you then attach a GPS collar and you monitor it and it’s like you’ve adopted that animal.

Attaching a GPS collar to a lion

Attaching a GPS collar to a lioness 📸 Josh Robertson

And my idea was that – let’s say in the area I was working in the Namibia I was with San bushmen, and lets say that there’s lions in the area. You'd go and tranquillise one as if you were doing a real hunt - you take your picture with the animal, you maybe take a cast of the print, and you have this memorable experience. You attach a GPS collar and you monitor that animal. Then I would say something like 10% of what you’ve payed for this hunt goes towards a local person’s salary and they become a guardian for that animal.

Ju'/Hoansi San Bushmen in Namibia 📸 Josh Robertson

So, through monitoring techniques on the GPS collar, if that animal comes close to livestock in the area, it’s his responsibility to drive that animal away from that area of negative human-lion interactions. I think it could be a really positive thing, but obviously hunters have their own agendas it’s a very specific community and obviously not everyone would buy into this, but I think they’re would be a real market for it and I think it would be a really interesting concept to develop, and with someone like you helping to broadcast that I think it would be really..."

Kevin: "Well they did try that in South Africa, Josh. I'll tell you in just a few sentences hopefully why it didn’t work here. Okay, so firstly just to tackle what you were saying. It would work with certain species, like for example rhino, perhaps even lion, leopard etc. It’s not gonna work for species which need to be culled or need to be taken out, because obviously their numbers are too great in their confined area or limited space. So that’s a component of why that might not work in certain regions, like South Africa, because in some game reserves where we have an oversupply of lions for example - part of the management plan for that game reserve would be to sell a trophy hunt of that lion to control the population. Now you’re not doing that you’re just saving the lion. Yes, you’d get some money or revenue in, but you haven’t solved the problem of overpopulation. You have a serious lion overpopulation problem. Believe it or not that happens in South Africa. So that won’t work there.

The other problem that we had here, was that they were over-darting. They were selling these green hunts and completely abusing these poor rhinos. They lost a few rhinos. Because obviously every time you dart a rhino, there’s a chance it won’t get back up. Like with any anaesthetic. So, if you’re now starting to dart a rhino 3/4/5 times a year it could be a problem. And I’m just taking rhino as an example. But yeah, I think what you touched on, which is quite right, is that there’s no silver bullet for every region. So certainly, that idea might work very well in that region in Namibia, and it might work in other parts of South Africa as well, or Zimbabwe or Botswana, but it might not be the right answer for east Africa or Mozambique etc. Also you are most certainly not satiating the hunter's appetite to hunt. You may get a few, but most hunters wouldn't partake as it really isn't the same. "

Josh: "I guess with your point on overpopulation, perhaps some of the money from the hunts could go into translocation? If it’s close to an area where lions are lacking?"

Kevin: "Yeah, I get what you’re saying. The problem in South Africa is that no one wants them. I put out an advert on our classifieds ‘one 9-year old male lion, going cheap, or free to good home’. You’re not gonna get any takers of bona fide reserves who want an old lion coming in. Because he serves no purpose, he's too old.

And those are the first lions we start getting rid of on our reserves - the older ones and some of the younger ones if there’s a potential for inbreeding. So, they have to look at it as a population as a whole and say, which is going to be better for new blood coming in? So, they would rather take three 4-year old males from another reserve, and there is programmes that do these swap outs, but by and large these lions that end up on the market are the ones that have no immediate value. And those are invariably the ones that get trophy hunted as wild lions in our permitting system. So, translocation is a tricky one, because most of the reserves are putting their hands up and saying we have too many lions who wants? In South Africa I’m talking about. It’s the other dilemma of fencing systems - you have to manage it. So, yes on the flip side if you don’t have fences, you don’t need to manage that. But you know, you need lions to manage! Because the lion numbers are depleted by communities and revenge killings etc. So, it’s complex.

Josh: "It is really complicated I agree. But I think if we can put people on the moon, then we can develop a solution."

Kevin: "Ohh you’re a man after my own heart… the question is did people really go to the moon? Hahaa."

Josh: "Hahah. Yeah that’s the real question. That should be the title of our interview haha - did people really go to the moon?"

Kevin: "Hahaha - Did people really go to the moon? Or was it just a space race? Haha."



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