The documentary Blood Lions exposes South Africa’s controversial “canned” lion hunting industry. In canned hunts, captive-bred, often hand-reared lions are confined in enclosed spaces on private hunting reserves, guaranteeing marksmen easy trophy heads in exchange for fees of up to $50,000. With approximately 8,000 “ranch” lions to draw on, South Africa’s hunt operators can make a fortune.
Ian Michler, who was a lead character in the film, talked to National Geographic about Blood Lions last July when it debuted in Durban, South Africa. The film has since been viewed in 185 countries and territories. More than 50 curated screenings have been held at film festivals and in parliaments and meetings of special interest groups, and this year, Blood Lions will be shown at every major tourism conference in Europe and Africa.
Building off the film, Michler and the team are conducting a global campaign aimed at ending captive breeding, canned hunts, and other exploitative activities involving lions and other large predators.
Australia became the first country, in February 2015, to ban imports of lion trophies, followed by France in November. That month, Blood Lions was shown in the European Parliament, spurring the governments of Finland, Italy, and Spain to pledge to hold their own parliamentary screenings, with a number of other countries likely to follow suit.
Meanwhile, at the end of last year, the world’s leading group of African lion researchers and conservationists, advised that any assessment of the current state of wild lions in South Africa should exclude its thousands of “ranch” lions. Wild lions in South Africa now number some 3,000, out of an estimated 20,000 remaining continent-wide.
“The great majority of lion populations in Africa have declined,” says Hans Bauer, lion researcher at Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit and lead author of a 2015 assessment of lions’ conservation status. "It’s important to stress that South Africa's ranch lions are a horror that has nothing to do with lion conservation and these lions are never taken into account in any serious analysis of the state of lions in Africa.”
Ahead of the March 16 screening of Blood Lions at Washington, D.C.’s 24th Environmental Film Festival, Ian Michler brings us up to date on what the film and campaign around it have achieved and what further hopes he has.
Blood Lions has touched many hearts. Has it opened minds as well?
From an awareness perspective, we’ve created a substantial and credible global campaign and constituency, with social media platforms now reaching millions of followers.
One of the most positive developments is that the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa [PHASA] has come out strongly against canned hunting and predator breeding. Moreover PHASA has committed itself to expelling errant operators.
We’re also getting the tourism industry to understand the links between lion cub petting and canned hunting.
Can you tell us about the disputes surrounding lion hunting in relevant industry circles in South Africa?
The December 2015 vote by the majority of members within PHASA was a perfectly logical decision in response to the increasing pressures being brought to bear on the hunting industry worldwide. It was clear to those voting against canned hunting that the practices are no longer defendable. Much of the credit for this has to go to the few ethical hunters that formed SAMPEO [South Africa’s Most Proven and Experienced Outfitters] a number of years ago. SAMPEO gained support from people within the PHASA leadership and this catalyzed things.
Not a single lion bred under the current captive conditions has any conservation value.
For the minority that continues to support canned hunting, most are now likely to side with the South African Predator Association (SAPA), a private sector body set up to represent the breeders. Their stance is a combination of ludicrously archaic thinking that seems to have no ethical or ecological grounding, as well as pure greed. We expect this group to continue with their attempts to justify intensive breeding and killing. And given mounting pressure from within sections of both groups, the danger remains that PHASA may still try and realign with SAPA.
Going forward, the real challenge for PHASA is to act on their statement by policing their membership effectively and then to get international hunting bodies to stop the marketing and sales of canned hunts. Until we start seeing a significant drop in the number of canned hunts and the closure of lion breeding facilities, we can’t even begin to start talking of positive results.
Why is the recommendation by the African Lion Working Group to separate “ranch” from wild lions in any conservation assessment of lions in South Africa important?
One of the more menacing aspects to Southern Africa’s predator industry—let’s not forget there are also operations in Zimbabwe and Namibia—is the way they’ve hijacked the conservation discussion, particularly around lions. In trying to legitimize the exploitation of lions for revenue, they’ve used misleading, and in many cases even false, marketing messages. This misrepresentation has caused confusion amongst those seeking to understand the conservation challenges and priorities. It may well have also served to syphon vital conservation funding away from the projects run by the recognized predator conservation community.
So the working group statement is timely and is to be applauded as it helps put the record straight by making it clear that not a single lion bred under the current captive conditions has any conservation value. This in turn means that South Africa does not have nearly as many ‘wild’ lions as the breeders and canned hunters would have us believe.
In December 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [FWS] included African lions on its endangered species list. Is this advancing your cause?
It’s vital that the conservation status of lions across the continent gets updated on a regular basis, and for that the recognized predator scientists and conservation agencies must get all the credit for assisting the FWS in coming to their decision.
Part of our role is to support the scientific community in their work by exposing the misinformation being put out by the lion breeders and canned hunters. The FWS decision reinforces the plight of lions and sends a clear message that breeding lions in captivity for commercial use is certainly not part of the solution.
In this regard, we were particularly interested in their comments on hunting and the links to conservation. An outright ban on importing lion trophies in the way Australia and France have done would have been first choice. But at least the FWS decision now puts the onus on the hunter—they have to show how their lion trophy is making a contribution to the conservation of the species before an import permit will be issued. This is a big step in the right direction.
What role does the tourism industry have to play in regulating the various enterprises that exploit lions commercially?
The only reason we have all these petting facilities and so-called sanctuaries is because we still allow the commercial breeding of predators. In addition, many people still refuse to acknowledge the chain of events that so often leads from cute cuddly cub to canned trophy or a bag of bones. Blood Lions shows how connected this industry is, and sadly it’s tourism that has played a major role in promoting all the abusive activities, from cub petting and walking with lions to the outrageously exploitative “voluntourism” sector.
Every tourism operator that claims to be responsible needs to stop visiting these facilities, and the volunteer recruitment agents need to stop placing unsuspecting students with them. South Africa has untold legitimate and commendable conservation or social projects that need support.
Have you made progress on getting buy-in from the South African government to end the canned lion hunting industry?
The continued state of denial at ministerial and senior levels is not unexpected as it’s become this government’s standard response to most challenges they face, whether environmental, social, or economic. Of course it would be beneficial for all stakeholders if they came forward and entered the discussion. It’s absurd that they continue to pander to the activities of a few hundred people in the face of mounting global opposition from all quarters. But in their absence it’s vital that the local and international campaign continues.
How is your campaign about canned lion hunting in South Africa influencing the wider debate about trophy hunting?
This is the thorniest issue the hunting industry has to deal with because it relates to the general scrutiny hunting currently faces worldwide. It’s not only about how and why they kill, which is mostly what Blood Lions is about, but it also involves the legitimate questioning of whether hunting is an effective land-use option or not.
One of the central debates is around ethics. And the furor around Cecil the Lion, a hunt that was supposed to have taken place under fair chase conditions, clearly shows how narrow the ethical divide between canned hunting and so-called fair-chase hunting can be. For many, Cecil’s killing carried many of the hallmarks defining a canned hunt. He was a collared animal and part of a well-known research project and was lured from a national park to be shot while feeding as his hunter lay close by in a blind that had been set up for the sole purpose of shooting him. What was fair about Cecil’s killing? And where did the money go? Did it really benefit communities or lions?
The upshot is that some hunters have decided not to support an end to canned hunting in fear that this will lead to the inevitable further questioning of such activities relating to other species. I guess for them it’s a bit like being caught between a rock and hard place. And for us it makes the work that much more complicated because groups that ought to be supporting the campaign end up opposing it.
In the run-up to the screening of Blood Lions in Washington, D.C., have you tried to draw an audience that includes people from the U.S. hunting fraternity, which you’ve said before is the most challenging to infiltrate?
One would hope that North American hunters will be at the screening, especially those that regard themselves as ethical. We will reach out, and it would be a significant development if some of the USA-based hunting organizations came out with statements similar to those of PHASA.
To date, we’ve received mixed feedback from recent hunting conventions in the U.S. Some reports indicate empty booths and slow sales for lion hunts in South Africa, while others suggest it’s mostly business as usual among some of the USA hunting organizations.
Blood Lions will be screened at 7 p.m., March 16, at the University of New York, 1307 L Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20005. Ian Michler will be at the screening for a Q&A session afterwards.
Katarzyna Nowak, a frequent contributor to National Geographic, is a research fellow in anthropology at Durham University, in the United Kingdom, and a research associate in zoology at the University of the Free State, Qwaqwa, South Africa. Follow her on Twitter.