Dateline reveals the controversial world of 'canned hunting', where lions are bred and tamed in captivity ready to be killed by trophy hunters.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013 - 21:30

For the tourists who flock to South Africa to get up close to the world's most majestic animals, stroking and petting a baby lion is an irresistible holiday highlight.

But how would they feel if they knew those same lion cubs were being bred and tamed by humans, only to be shot by hunters when they reach adulthood?

Dateline's Evan Williams reveals the controversial world of 'canned hunting'.

When the lions finally reach maturity, some are sent to safari parks and zoos, but others end up in the sights of tourist hunters.

They pay around $30,000 to shoot and kill the animals inside large enclosures from which they can't escape.

Those behind the trade defend it as the equivalent of farming for beef and say the hunt is helping the conservation of lions.

But critics maintain the practice is doing nothing to safeguard wild lions and they can see no winners in this trophy sport.

So is canned hunting a barbaric sport? Or is it helping conservation? Leave your comments below.

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First to South Africa and the lions bred for slaughter by rich tourists what's known as canned hunting. It's a highly controversial practice but its supporters claim it actually helps conserve wild lion numbers. Evan Williams stepped into this very passionate debate and a warning, this report contains graphic images of animals being hunted.

REPORTER: Evan Williams

The thrill of the kill has drawn big game hunters to South Africa for generations and out on the plains, man can still hunt his most feared predator.

PETER HAMILTON FLACK: Your heart rate will increase. Your breathing will quicken. It will become shallower. You need to get a hold of yourself. You need to breathe deeply, calm down and fight these emotions. And you need to make a calm, clear, clean one-shot kill.

Veteran hunter and conservationist Peter Hamilton Flack hunts lions in Africa's most remote wildernesses. He knows all too well the risks of a misplaced shot. Lions can cover 100 metres in five seconds flat. One bite can crush a human skull.

PETER HAMILTON FLACK: There will come a time when he has enough and he will decide he is now going to take care of business and hunt you. And, quite honestly, that's a terrifying prospect. This is an animal that can kill you with one swipe of a paw, and one bite with its mighty jaws.

It's the danger and the adrenalin rush that keeps the hunters coming and once they get a permit, hunts like these are perfectly legal. But sometimes the encounter between man and beast isn't what it seems. Welcome to the murky world of canned hunting, where lions are bred for one reason - to become a hunter's trophy.

CHRIS MERCER: Canned hunting is where the target animal is unfairly prevented from escaping the hunter. Now that can be either through physical constraints such as fencing, being shot in an enclosure, or it can be mental constraints, such as being habituated to humans.

FIONA MILES: They're not wild lions that are living in prides in open free spaces of Africa. These are lions that have been hand raised, they have been bred specifically to be killed.

Recently the practice made worldwide headlines. Self-styled, hard cored huntress, Melissa Bachman has made a TV career out of shows devoted to hunting. She's targeted everything, from Impala to black bears lured in with the promise of food.

MELISSA BACHMAN: You can see, rage put a pretty big hole in 'im! It didn't penetrate deep but within moments I knew it was fatal. Oh what a great sound.

But it was posing with a smile with a lion she had shot in a canned hunt that turned her into a global hate figure. A lion hunt starts years before a trigger is pulled or an arrow is shot. I've come to one of the 180 safari parks across the country where members of the public can pet lion cubs. These little fellas are just one week old. For a few dollars more, tourists can enter the enclosures and play with slightly bigger cubs.

REPORTER: They don't mind being touched?

MAN: No.

Most of these young lions had been taken away from their mothers just a few days after birth, otherwise, even at this tender age, they would be too wild to handle. Walking with lions is another tourist favourite.

GUIDE: Remember, not to single yourself out of the group because they do hunt the ones that are not in the group. Those are the weaker animal.

These two lionesses are just two years old but can easily kill and devour a human. But exposed to regular contact, they don't feel like much of a threat here.

REPORTER: How long does it take to train them into that?

GUIDE: About a month. If they do something good, they know they will get a reward. If they do something bad, they know they will get just a little tap on the nose. It doesn't hurt them. It's like how you train kids.

The lion parks are a draw card for foreign volunteers. Hundreds come to South Africa every year to hand raise cubs. Many believe they're here to help save the lions but in truth they're often directly supporting the canned hunting industry. Rachel from Perth paid $3,000 a month for the privilege of working in a lion park.

RACHEL: You believe kind of what they tell you, which is it's for conservation. They'll tell you that the animals there, once they are big, they go to game reserves and they get sold to other breeders to keep up the gene pool, that kind of thing.

Concerned at the sheer number of cubs being produced, she began asking where they were ending up.

RACHEL: And I found that the animals were just basically disappearing. Nobody was really, they were very cagey, put it that way, about saying where they were going and there was never any warning. You'd wake up early one morning to go and do your usual work around the place - cleaning enclosures and stuff - and they'd be loading up lions to go who knows where because they wouldn't say for sure.

REPORTER: What did you do then, to find out what was happening?

RACHEL: I did a lot of research and a lot of Google searches on various names that popped up and found some quite disturbing things in terms of links that the farm had to various people who were known animal dealers - there are links within links within links of these animals eventually making it to canned hunting concessions, mostly in the north-west province from what I could make out.

Canned hunting is big business that reaps big money. It can cost upwards of $30,000 for the kill of a big male. By the age of three or four, a lion that has spent its life in a small enclosure can suddenly find itself in the sights of a hunter, who has little or no experience of shooting big game.

GUIDE: Just squeeze it. Shoot again.

FIONA MILES: I've seen a lot of such footage. Every single time it makes me feel completely sick.

Fiona Miles runs a charity that rescues lions. She says canned hunts are well choreographed and designed to get a quick result. Sometimes the lion is still drugged from transport, sedated or lured in with meat. Confined to a specific area, they're easy to track and after a life of captivity, they're used to humans and easy to kill.

REPORTER: When a lion that's been hand reared and around people so long is put into that controlled hunt situation and they see humans, what do you think is going through their mind? What's their response?

FIONA MILES: From experience and what I've seen, they would see the vehicle and the people as a source of provision, provision of food, provision of whatever it is that they need. In a controlled environment, that vehicle coming should probably have this week's meal on the back of it.

REPORTER: The Hunting Lobby says that will help conservation because it reduces the motivation for killing lions in the wild.

FIONA MILES: In the last 20 years the wild lion populations have declined by 80%. So there's no argument for that because the canned hunting industry has increased in the last 20 years dramatically. So there's no evidence to suggest that's what's happening.

More than half of canned hunters come from the US - many more from Europe. But here, guided by professionals, it's a Russian tourist who has his quarry in his sights. His target is the ultimate prize - a male in the prime of his life.

GUIDE: You like it.

Destined to have his head stuffed and mounted on the wall.

CHRIS MERCER: There is no relationship at all between trophy hunting and canned hunting.

Chris Mercer has dedicated much of his life to saving South Africa's wild animals. After running a wildlife sanctuary in the Kalahari for seven years, he's become one of canned hunting's most outspoken critics.

CHRIS MERCER: Your canned hunter is not really a hunter, all he is, is a trophy collector. There's no skill involved. There's no time or effort put into the hunt. He just goes to the enclosure. It's all set up for him. He just draws the bow string and executes the animal and then he will pick up his family at the 5-star lodge he's staying at, and they'll go off to the casino for an evening. That's the sort of canned lion culture.

Chris has brought me to Jukani Predator Park on the southern coast where visitors are being tested with a trick question.

GUIDE: How many of you guys - we've got cubs here - would like to play with a lion cubbie.

At Jukani, there's no breeding, no walking with lions, no visiting volunteers and, above all, a strict no-petting policy.

CHRIS MERCER: I really hope that everyone who sees this program will never indulge in cub petting because all the cubs who are petted will end up being shot by hunters and what the cub petting tourist does is to put money straight into the pockets of the canned hunting industry.

PEITER POTGEITER, PREDATOR BREEDERS ASSOCIATION: Our association requirement is such lions may not be hunted.



REPORTER: Lions that have been in the petting zoos are not hunted?

PEITER POTGEITER: They are not hunted. We require that the way that lions for hunting purposes are reared and kept must be as far removed as possible from human, the human environment.

Peiter Potgeiter is the head of the Predator Breeders Association, whose members supply lions for hunters to kill.

REPORTER: I just need to be very clear on this because conservationists I've read say, there's a real link between the petting zoo and commercial, controlled hunting of lions, they say those lions - when the lions grow up they are hunted because where else would they go?

PEITER POTGEITER: It used to be like that.

REPORTER: Okay. But where do those lions go when they grow up? They're being rented by breeders, I believe, to the safari parks. They're sent back to the breeders, so where do they go?

PEITER POTGEITER: Many of them die from natural causes. Many of them are sold off to overseas game parks. But not many of them end up in hunting.

REPORTER: Some do, though?

PEITER POTGEITER: I will admit that. It is not possible to make a very clear distinction, to put an end to that absolutely. It will take some policing.

According to Peiter, the stigma to hunting captive bred lions is purely a result of people's ignorance.

PEITER POTGEITER: And this perception had been fuelled by films like the Disney pictures about the Lion King, which created the idea that a lion is king of a kingdom, he has servants, he has a court and he can speak and he can do all funny things like singing, for instance. And this is the problem that we are having from a conservationist point of view, there's no difference in principle between a lion and any other game species.

To understand more, I'm heading into the heart of South Africa's lion business. The vast plains of South Africa's North West Province are a major centre for lion breeding and controlled lion hunting. We've come here to meet a lion breeder who also supplies lions into the hunting trade. I find Koos Erasmus picking up chickens to feed some of his captive lions.

KOOS ERASMUS: The bigger prides I've given a whole carcass yesterday, so today is only for two females on their own. Giving them a carcass is too much so chickens is ideal. Okay, shall we take a drive?

With his wife, Koos runs a breeding facility and small game reserve where you can hunt a host of South African species. Lions are his speciality and those he raises are kept as wild as possible.

KOOS ERASMUS: No walking, no petting, no playing with the cubs. We don't do that. I don't think it's right - petting it today and tomorrow you shoot it. We as an industry - the predators association have to distance ourselves from that.

Every lion here is either destined to be hunted or kept to breed more lions. Koos is the only one who feeds them. The animals I see have a different temperament to those exposed to tourists.

KOOS ERASMUS: Let's go slowly closer and maybe;.

This lioness is protecting her two cubs.

KOOS ERASMUS: Already you can see it, with me being 10m away so if this being a hunting situation. She would charge all the way you could see her hissing and charging up to the fence, telling us to go away, so in a hunting situation they would charge without a doubt and attack. No they're definitely not tamed.

He may be dealing with Africa's apex predator, but for Koos, his business is no different to that of any other farmer. The problem he says is that lions stir emotions that other animals don't.

KOOS ERASMUS: It's a pure farming operation. Same as what we've got with cattle and sheep and even sable and buffalo, it's a farming operation.

REPORTER: But that's the problem. People say they're not the same as sheep or any other game animal, they're lions and the top of the food chain?

KOOS ERASMUS: I don't see the difference. We're farming for capital gain, no doubt. I'm farming lions for capital gain, but in the process, what people don't understand is they're not being abused. They're not being mishandled. They're not being mistreated, they are treated with the greatest of respect and firmly we believe that it is also securing the future by having more we are taking the pressure off the wild ones. And possibly, if need be, we can replace wherever they've been eradicated.

REPORTER: So just to be clear, are any lions released into the wild in South Africa that go through these safari parks or sanctuaries?

CHRIS MERCER: No captive bred lions have ever, ever been released back into the wild in South Africa and conservation authorities would never, ever allow that to happen.

CATHERINA: Always in lion hunting - the bigger the mane, the better the trophy. So that's the reason why lion farming has been so successful.

Turning a big cat into a trophy isn't a pretty business. Once the head and pelt is delivered, it's left to stilled people like Catherina to re-create the fierce countenance of the live animal.

REPORTER: You obviously have quite affection for them, is it sometimes a bit sad to doing this to them when they could be just roaming around free and alive?

CATHERINA: I'm sad for the individual animal but I do sometimes ask for forgiveness as well.

After drying the skin for three or four weeks, the trophy lions are given a final make-up session. UN wildlife records show 700 lions are exported as trophies from South Africa every year. Conservationists estimate it could be as many as 1,200.

ALEX LARENTY: I don't even understand the mentality of wanting to go and hunt. I can understand you want to go and shoot a buck down there because you're going to eat it. But you only do this for the skin. Why would you want to do it to such a beautiful animal?

Alex Larenty is the chief lion handler at Lion Park, just on the outskirts of Johannesburg. As he shows me around, his fondness for the animals is evident.

ALEX LARENTY: Daddy's little boy, yes he is, yes he is. He's daddies little boy. Yes he is.

The park is one of the biggest and most popular in South Africa, drawing thousands of tourists every month. Here, the petting of lion cubs is welcomed. Alex insists that none end up being hunted. Instead, he says, they are sent to reputable lodges and zoos around the world.

ALEX LARENTY: In this sort of business, we cannot afford to sell to anybody who does hunting. We can't afford to do that. That for us is a killer. That will kill our business stone dead.

REPORTER: Why is that?

ALEX LARENTY: Who would want to go and touch a lion like this and then find out later it's been hunted? I personally wouldn't. I don't think anyone else would. That would kill our business. That would kill our business.

Alex believes petting helps raise awareness of lion conservation which is needed now more than ever. In South Africa, there are four times more lions in captivity than in the wild. A new demand in Asia for lion bones is adding to the pressure on Africa's lion numbers, which have fallen by two-thirds to 20,000 in the past 10 years.

ALEX LARENTY: It's only going to get worse. I mean if it's gone down that in ten years, what will happen in the next 10 years? Maybe this, maybe this is all that's left for them. I hope not but maybe it is.

ANJALI RAO: Evan Williams in South Africa, they may call it hunting but to me it just looks like killing. We know you'll have a view on that controversial practice. Tell us what you think on our website. You can find out more on the story at our website.



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Additional footage provided by Four Paws Animal Welfare Foundation, Campaign Against Canned Hunting (CACH), and Thumbnail Productions.

26th November 2013