There’s something fascinating in the way a lion commands the land he lives on, lords over his pride, and moves fearlessly with its full grown mane. At least, in the wild.
Elsewhere in South Africa, you can walk with a lion, pet it, and even take a selfie. If that doesn’t sound bizarre enough, there’s worse. The older lions are used for canned hunting, a so-called sport where trophy hunters can shoot tame lions in a confined area, to increase the likelihood of obtaining the kill.
This is legal because these lions are commercially bred, while their wild cousins remain untouched by tourism and trophy hunting.
The documentary Blood Lions brings out these unethical practices – how thousands of lions crammed into small spaces are used in private breeding farms that resemble conveyor belt production.
The 84 minute feature film follows three stories simultaneously – of environmental journalist and safari operator Ian Michler, American hunter Rick Swazey and voluntourists in South Africa – to trace the movement of lions from breeding farms to hunting camps and even to Laos and Vietnam, where there is a high demand for lion bones for making traditional Chinese medicines.
The domestication process starts from the breeding farms. “Lion cubs which are meant to spend 18 to 24 months with their mothers are taken away within days of being born so that the mother goes into eustress and mate again. This makes the lioness breed four to five times faster,” explains Pippa Hankinson, the producer, who used to work in the tourism industry.
The result is a weaker immune system and deformity. “I mistook one big male lion for female because his mane had fallen off,’ says Hankinson. ‘When you see external indications like that, you have to wonder what’s going on internally to their organs. They cannot express this or even defend themselves as they never taught how to by their mothers.”
This is of little concern to breeders and tourist agencies. While some invite volunteers to take care of the “orphaned” cubs, others train them to be human-friendly for interactions and cameras.
The greater incentive lies in trophy-hunting, a strong tradition in Europe and North America, where hunters are attracted by a high chance of success, as well as the price. A captivity-bred specimen shot in South Africa is much cheaper than a wild lion shot on a safari in Tanzania. The film argues that even though the industry creates employment opportunities, its contribution to the economy is not very high.
The industry uses conservation and research as its defence, arguing that the practice does not threaten or endanger the wild population. In a clip from the documentary (below) hunters at a convention in the US are seen claiming that captivity-bred lions help in conservation while allowing them to follow their hobby.
Hankinson’s solution is to slow down this process and ultimately discourage it by creating pressure from outside South Africa. “This industry would give up if there were no demand for trophies or selfies or volunteers wanting to work with captive lions,” she points out.
This urgent appeal, however, may not immediately alter the practice of making traditional Chinese medicines.
For over 1,000 years, Chinese culture has believed that using tiger parts in medicines can treat ailments and cure diseases. In recent years, with countries implementing stricter anti-poaching laws and making large-scale conservation efforts to save the tiger population, the demand has shifted from tigers to lion bone.
Hankinson hopes that her film “shifts conscienceless” and reminds everyone that lions are only meant to be in the wild.
The screening of Blood Lions and interaction with Pippa Hankinson was organised by Humane Society International (India) at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.