Do test tube lions help conserve wild lions?

Lion experts dispute conservation value of test tube lions questioning whether this merely supports lion breeders’ claims that they contribute to the conservation of lions.

“World’s first test tube lion raising hopes to save big cats from extinction” and “IVF success for the King of the Jungle” read headlines, when in late August two lion cubs were born through artificial insemination (AI) under the auspices of the University of Pretoria (UP) at the Ukutula Conservation Centre (ICC), which still allows cub petting.

However, a group of 19 of the world’s leading lion conservation and research organisations dispute these claims in a letter to UP saying “…we do not support the captive breeding of lions, whether assisted or not, because it does not contribute to biodiversity conservation or address the main threats to wild lion conservation”.

The UP study states that their research efforts into the assisted reproduction of lions “opens new opportunities to improve breeding of captive and free ranging lion populations, and thereby assisting conservation efforts on this species”.

“The lack of ability to breed is not a recognized conservation threat to the wild lion. In fact, managers of reintroduced lion populations in small reserves in South Africa are challenged by high rates of population increase and how best to control them, often resorting to contraceptive methods”, the letter continues

Even in captivity, lions reproduce relatively easily, as our massive captive population of 8,000+ lions is testament to.

“Therefore, the breeding of lions is not in question or of concern, and AI is not a prime conservation requirement for the species”, the letter claims.

None of the IUCN recognised major conservation threats to wild lion populations, i.e. habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, prey depletion, use of lion bones and body parts for traditional medicine, and trophy hunting, are addressed in the UP study.

UP research was undertaken in cooperation with UCC, part of the Ukutula group. The Ukutula facility houses at least 15 white and tawny lions producing 4-12 cubs per year, 20 cheetahs, and various other predators.

Through this project UP links itself with an organisation that still facilitates dozens of international volunteers to act as surrogate mothers for “orphaned” lion cubs and to clean enclosures. Jobs that South Africa can ill-afford to give to unskilled and untrained youngsters from overseas, who pay Ukutula for the privilege (around ZAR 22,000 for the first 2 weeks and ZAR 9,000 per additional week).

Ross Harvey (South African Institute of International Affairs) states in his report on the “Economics of Captive Predator Breeding in South Africa” that as many as 84 full time jobs are currently undertaken by volunteers in the industry that would otherwise be available to local job-seekers.

Utukulu still offers cub petting and lion walks to paying visitors. Lions that become redundant at an age of 2-3 years old, as they become too dangerous, and are sold to other captive facilities or zoos.

“Links between captive lion breeding facilities, their associated spin-off industries, including cub-petting and lions walks, canned trophy hunting and the lion bone trade, are well documented”, the letter states.

The group of concerned conservation and animal welfare organisations asked UP and the Mammal Research Institute to:

  1. Publicly distance itself from captive lion breeding facilities;
  2. Review its Ethic’s Approval for this study as the artificial insemination cubs will remain at the facility and may be subjected to the same exploitative cycles outlined herein;
  3. Stop all research in the artificial insemination of lions, as this does not benefit the conservation of wild lions.

The group includes the IUCN African Lion Working Group, Blood Lions, Panthera, and Wildlands Conservation Trust, as well as representatives from animal welfare and protection groups, including Born Free Foundation, Four Paws, and Humane Society International.

So far, they have received no response from UP.

Back to Media

The NSPCA has huge animal welfare concerns for the animals exploited in the captive predator and canned hunting industry in South Africa. This industry is unregulated, uncontrolled and is responsible for untold cruelty. It is a tragedy that our wild animals are reduced to profit making machines. Coupled with this members of public are unwittingly encouraging and supporting this cruelty, so it is vital that the public are aware of the truth behind the industry so they can make informed decisions and hopefully choose not to support such an unethical industry.

Sr.Ainsley Hay, Manager, NSPCA Wildlife Protection Unit

Breeding magnificent wild creatures like lions in camps so that they can be slaughtered for ego and money is unconscionable and should be outlawed.  Lions have the right to live in the wild and to continue playing their unique role within the ecological communities of Africa.  The continued existence of the canned hunting industry is a moral outrage that diminishes us all.  This important film shines a light into the dark corners of this ugly business.

Cormac Cullinan, Cullinan & Associates Incorporated

Cruel, barbaric, macabre – all words used by Australian MPs about lion farming and the canned lion hunting industry in SA.  Our campaign was glad to be able to assist and participate in a full length documentary that aims to expose a brutal industry whose whole business model is routine, egregious cruelty to helpless animals – for fun.

Chris Mercer, Founder, CACH (Campaign Against Canned Hunting)

Captive lions have long been a blemish on South Africa’s wildlife and tourism landscape and their tragic story needed to be exposed before these practices negatively impacted on Brand South Africa. Congratulations to all involved in taking the time and making this happen.

Colin Bell, Tourism consultant and author of “Africa’s Finest”

“As a travel and conservation based organization, we find the “Blood Lions” documentary deeply disturbing. Despite being hard to watch, we urge people to get out there and see it. It is important to shed light on the dark and corrupt business of rearing lions for the purposes of hunting, in hopes of making a positive change. As we polled our membership, we found that individually each of our companies have chosen to stop booking all activities that contribute to this industry.”

The Safari Professionals – 30 Tour Operators based in the US and Canada

South Africa’s failure to address the canned hunting industry has emboldened those who make a living out of the death of lions bred, raised and slaughtered on a ‘no kill, no fee’ basis. The canned hunting industry is unnatural, unethical and unacceptable. It delivers compromised animal welfare and zero education. It undermines conservation and creates a moral vacuum now inhabited by the greed and grotesque self-importance of those who derive pleasure in the taking of life.

Blood Lions lays bare the truth behind the canned hunting industry that, far from contributing to the future survival of the species, may, in fact, accelerate extinction in the wild, leaving behind a trail  littered with rotting corpses of its helpless and hopeless victims.

Will Travers OBE, President Born Free Foundation

The Marchig Animal Welfare Trust, in providing support for the making of this Documentary, does so in the firm belief that it is important that the true facts behind captive lion breeding and canned lion hunting in South Africa, is brought to the attention of a global audience in order to create awareness which in turn will lead to much needed change.

Les Ward MBE, Chairman, The Marchig Animal Welfare Trust

This is a timely, courageous as well as a deeply disturbing documentary. It is at the same time, a voice for the wild and the voiceless … of saying “NO MORE!” to that terrible triad of financial opportunism, deceit and indifference to the non-human animal by those claiming to be conservationists.

Ian McCallum – Author, poet, psychiatrist and naturalist

With the constant pressure on wildlife, every effort must be made to keep our last vestiges of natural fauna and flora protected.    Canned hunting of any kind, along with the related consequences, must be condemned by humanity as not only a travesty of nature but also an utterly inhumane practise.   Taming lion cubs only to later hunt them is an utterly inhumane practice.   It is pseudo-hunting, a complete sham and does not even qualify as hunting on a sustainable use basis.   Wildlife conservation has to evolve into practices that are ethical, humanitarian and sustainable. This will not be achieved if there is not real and fair community involvement which has not been part of the hunting fraternity’s evolution.

Yvette Taylor, Executive Director, The Lawrence Anthony Earth Organisation

“Canned lion ‘hunting’ is nothing less than a bargain basement opportunity for foreign hunters to engage in one of South Africa’s most sordid practices. Hunting of captive bred lions entirely dependent on human fingerprints from cub to trophy is immoral, unethical and against all animal welfare concerns. The fact that it still continues as profitable commerce is a damning statement against all of us who have not properly engaged to snuff it out. Blood Lions is a good start to bring change.”

Dr Pieter Kat – Director: LionAid

Canned Lion