Newborn cubs are taken from their mothers, days old and still blind, and fed by humans
It is the most degrading and cruel of fates for the king of the jungle. Bred in captivity, lion cubs are torn from their mothers while still blind, a few days after birth.
Growing up, they are petted as playthings for tourists until they are ready to be released into small enclosures where they will be shot and killed by wealthy trophy-hunters in what are known as ‘canned hunts’.
But then a final indignity is visited upon the dead lions: for the carcasses are sent to the Far East to meet the enormous demand for ‘medicines’, jewellery and even wine made from the remains.
This has been the horrific destiny for 800 lions from South Africa this year alone – and it is entirely legal, as the government rubber-stamps export licences for the lucrative industry.
China’s insatiable demand is fuelling the trade in the lion bones, while shameful products from the callous trade are also on sale in other South East Asian countries including Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
There are about 8,000 captive-bred lions awaiting this fate on 200 ‘farms’ in South Africa – twice the number of lions roaming free in the wild in the nation.
While international conservation groups have put up a fierce fight against the callous industry, the quota has been allowed by the powerful Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which has 169 member nations.
Its ruling is seen as a compromise to appease many of the countries that were pressing for the legalisation of trade in the remains of wild lions as well as captive-bred animals.
With a sad irony, consumers in the Far East believe the bones come from tigers and therefore, in their minds, have almost magical medicinal properties and are seen as aphrodisiacs. But the strict laws now protecting tigers has led to increased use of lion bones by unscrupulous traders.
A chicken is fed to an older lion, getting it used to human contact while in a wire cage
The practice of canned hunting has long been controversial, and lion ‘farmers’ are notoriously secretive.
But a Mail on Sunday investigation can reveal details of the chain of shocking animal abuse inflicted on captive-bred lions from the first days of their birth to adulthood at four years when they are killed for trophies – and the lucrative trade to be had from their skeletons.
‘Hunters’ pay an average of £12,800 to shoot the animal in a small enclosure, then take home the skull and skin. The farmer can make extra profit selling on the carcass for about £1,440 to Asian countries. When divided into smaller consignments, each carcass could fetch up to £50,000 on the streets.
We visited four so-called lion parks and spoke to conservationists who have documented first-hand how lions are processed for an industry reviled by animal-lovers.
At Ukutula Park, two hours’ drive north of Johannesburg, tiny cubs were huddled up to their mothers in small woolly bundles.
A few days later they would be taken away and bottle-fed by volunteers, mostly young people who are paying for the experience during their gap years, believing they are involved in lion rescue.
At about a month old, the cubs are submitted to ‘petting’ by fee-paying tourists who play with them and take photographs for several hours every day.
A lion carcass is hung out, as shown in the hard-hitting documentary Blood Lion, made to highlight the sick trade
Later, when the youngsters have become adolescents they are used for bush walks in which dozens of tourists stroll alongside the animals armed with sticks – intended to show domination – and are later rewarded with diplomas to show their ‘courage’.
Mail on Sunday journalists saw one lion climb a tree to rest on a branch. It was rewarded with a piece of raw chicken thrown up to it by the walking guide – a circus act that helps keep the lions tame.
The guide explains that if the lions kill wildlife in the park, they are not allowed to eat it. They learn this way that their food comes from inside their enclosure.
‘They must remain in captivity,’ he says. ‘And they will die in captivity.’
The story was the same in three more lion parks – at the Krugersdorp Rhino and Lion Park and the Lory Park, both on the outskirts of Johannesburg, and at Akwaaba, outside Rustenburg, two hours east of Pretoria.
The guide explains that if the lions kill wildlife in the park, they are not allowed to eat it. They learn this way that their food comes from inside their enclosure
At about three or four years old, when male lions have grown a substantial mane, they become the target of trophy-hunters. The parks where they were born often sell them on to canned hunts, despite the sustained international outcry at images of drugged lions being placed in small enclosures with no chance of escape from hunters.
Attempts to ban these sick spectacles have failed, although new regulations have forced owners to put the animals in bigger enclosures, and to release the lions at least a week before hunting begins, to give the appearance of some sort of fairness.
But this newspaper has been told that lions are still being released on the day they are transported to a hunting enclosure, while still suffering the effects of sedation from the journey. Sometimes, the animals – who have become used to human voices and whistles – are summoned closer to the hunters, who then shoot from their four-wheel-drive vehicles.
The reasoning of South African ranch-owners who run canned hunts appears to defy logic. Clayton Fletcher, a professional hunter and owner of Tinashe, in the country’s North-West Province, is proud that his father Douglas was the first person to hunt a captive-bred lion back in 1985.
Making a killing: Carcass trader Clayton Fletcher with a lion he shot on his Tinashe reserve
And he justifies the cruel trade by saying: ‘The reason people breed lions is because of the value and the only reason why lions are valued is because they are being hunted.
‘If you stop hunting, you take away the value of the lion and if you take away the value of the lion, then nobody breeds them and the lion becomes extinct.
‘The only way you can protect an animal like a lion is to give it a value, and unfortunately the only way is through hunting.’
Defending the use of captive-bred lions for the Asian market in their bones, Mr Fletcher said: ‘We hunt the lion legally and then we notify the nature conservation authorities that we would like to sell the bones.
‘There are seven or eight permits we have to get before that carcass goes out. And when that carcass leaves the country, we have saved one lion from being poached in the natural world.’
Derek Gobbett is a celebrated safari photographer who was once hired by Americans to film them killing lions, but is now a fervent conservationist. He told of seeing the hunters shooting a lioness that had panicked and hidden in a porcupine burrow, and of another animal that climbed a tree to escape and was subsequently shot at point-blank range.
He said: ‘I shot footage that no hunter would show in order to boast. One male lion was whistled at and the shooter fired from the bed of a pick-up truck; another was impaled on fence-posts and shot. It was slaughter, with ten hunters killing ten lionesses in a week and wanting film footage of each shoot to take home with them.’
He said the lions had arrived the day before the hunt from a farm in Bloemfontein. Four were being released into an enclosure at the same time as the American hunters’ private plane landed.
Ian Michler, a wildlife guide and photo-journalist who made the hard-hitting documentary Blood Lion, exposing South Africa’s canned hunting industry, is campaigning to stop the trade in lion carcasses. He said: ‘Lions are a charismatic species at the apex of our ecosystems.
‘If we can’t look after them responsibly, then what hope is there for anything?’ He condemned the farmers who breed lions in captivity, saying: ‘They’ve tamed the lions. There is nothing noble or fair about the chase and it has nothing, absolutely nothing, to with conservation whatsoever.’
According to data from CITES, 2,000 full lion skeletons were shipped to Laos from South Africa in the six years up to 2015 and there were a further 2,300 shipments of incomplete skeletons, meaning bones and parts.
A spirit made from lion bones sold as a magical tonic, on sale in the back streets of China
But wildlife activists believe this is just the tip of the iceberg. Tons of animal parts are sent through the porous border dividing China and Laos, with no documentation.
Some are smuggled through to Vietnam for Tiger Bone Cake, which is crumbled into wine and used as an aphrodisiac and bone-strengthener. One ton of lion bones will make 60 to 70 ‘cakes’, which sell at $1,000 (£762) each.
A pilot in the region said a colleague had witnessed huge shipments of unregistered lion skeletons in cargo holds. They are marked ‘Scientific supplies’ and sent to China.
The full extent of South Africa’s despicable treatment of one of the noblest wild creatures has been revealed by Britain’s Environmental Investigation Agency.
Campaign leader Debbie Banks said: ‘There is a huge surge in these businesses now Asian countries are accepting lion bones.’
She predicts a substantial increase in the poaching of wild lions, and of the endangered tigers remaining in Asia.
‘We fought against the quota of carcasses allowed by South Africa and we fought against CITES allowing the trade. But the sad truth is that lions have now replaced tigers as the world’s prime source of big-cat body parts.’
The South African government’s Department of Environmental Affairs has argued that allowing a quota for the export of lion bones could help to deter poaching.
But conservationists believe this is spurious. Dr Luke Hunter, chief conservation officer of wild cat protection group Panthera, says: ‘There is not one shred of scientific evidence to show that canned hunting and legal bone exports help the wild lion population.
‘They only stimulate the demand for wild lion, leopard and tiger parts throughout the world.’
And Mark Jones, of conservation organisation Born Free, said: ‘The intensive breeding of lions and their exploitation for profit is completely unacceptable.
‘South Africa’s lion-breeding industry serves no conservation purpose and the animals all too often suffer short, miserable lives. The government has a responsibility to close this industry down and focus on protecting wild lions.’
His organisation is seeking tighter rules on trophy imports into both the EU and the US.
Additional reporting: Toby Selander