An investigation into the growing South African industry of hunting lions bred in captivity has reignited a long-running controversy among hunters, captive breeders and animal rights advocates.
The Guardian's Patrick Barkham investigated the practices of some of the 160 South African farms that legally breed lions and other wild animals -- many of which, animal advocates argue, will end up being shot by hunters who pay big bucks (sometimes close to $38,000) for the experience. This is the practice known as "canned hunting," and its popularity has increased significantly in the past few years. The South African Supreme Court in 2010 even struck down a law restricting the practice after lion breeders challenged the legislation.
"In the five years to 2006, 1,830 lion trophies were exported from South Africa," Barkham notes in his in-depth report on canned lion hunting. "In the five years to 2011, 4,062 were exported, a 122 percent increase, and the vast majority captive-bred animals."
Lions bred for canned hunting are generally kept in cages and released a few days before the hunt, according to Bloomberg. They are then killed by hunters using rifles or crossbows, as is the case in a graphic video (below), posted to YouTube in April, apparently showing a canned lion crossbow hunt.
The footage is shot from the perspective of a hunter who, perched in the bed of a vehicle, stalks a lioness, fires an arrow at her, hits her and watches her writhe in pain until she stops moving.
WARNING: Video may be disturbing for some viewers.
Pieter Potgieter, chair of the South African Predator Breeders' Association, defended the canned lion hunts as a perfectly acceptable business.
"The principle that you breed wild animals for economic exploitation is an international norm. It takes place everywhere in the world," Potgieter told the Agence France-Presse. "The problem is with the lions because the image has been created in the minds of people that the lion is the king of the animals. Walt Disney with his Lion King and all these things, they have created that image."
Today, more than half of South Africa's approximately 8,000 lions live in captivity rather than the wild, according to the AFP. Globally, there are around 32,000 African lions, a number which has seen a "substantial decline" and has earned them a "vulnerable" classification by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
While breeders claim their business is legitimate, animal rights advocates at Humane Society International argue the practice is inhumane, unethical and bad for South Africa's image.
The Campaign Against Canned Hunting calls for a ban on canned hunting in South Africa. Chris Mercer, one of the organization's founders, said in an email to The Huffington Post that the industry benefits from unsavory practices, such as the renting out of baby lion cubs for unwitting tourists to pet and cuddle.
"This enriches the canned hunting industry and allows lion farmers to externalise much of the cost of rearing the lionstock to huntable age," Mercer told HuffPost. "Tourists are deceitfully assured that the cubs will be released back to the wild. All of these cubs will eventually be killed by canned hunters."
Breeders may also capture wild lions -- sometimes from neighboring countries -- and smuggle them onto the farms, Mercer told Eye Witness News.
"This toxic industry is going to poison the conservation of wild lions," he told the site.