Nica Richards

By Nica Richards


Government ‘playing with fire’ by refusing to scrap canned lion hunting

The Citizen spoke to Unfair Game author Lord Ashcroft about his views on how South Africa must urgently halt the continuation of canned lion hunting and trade, and other wildlife crime syndicates.

A book detailing damning evidence of the detrimental consequences of canned lion hunting and trade has been submitted to Environment Minister Barbara Creecy’s high-level panel of experts currently debating the future of captive-bred lions. 

Unfair Game, written by British businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster, Lord Ashcroft hit local bookshelves on 16 July. 

It’s contents describe two covert operations carried out by British ex-Special Forces servicemen and undercover reporters from Humane Society International, providing exclusive and disturbing accounts of the sinister inner workings of canned lion breeding, hunting and trade. 

The Citizen spoke to Ashcroft about his views on how South Africa must urgently halt the  continuation of canned lion hunting and trade, and other wildlife crime syndicates. 

Lions being kept in captivity. Image: Ian Michler/Blood Lions

Stop petting lions and cubs 

One of his recommendations emphasised that South Africa must communicate the message that it is wrong for tourists to pet or touch lions. 

Cubs bred in captivity. Image: Ian Michler/Blood Lions

“Not only is it hazardous to health, but young cubs which are used as tourist magnets at the start of their lives usually end up killed in a canned hunt or being slaughtered for their bones years later. 

“So to stop this dreadful trade, everyone needs to know it is socially unacceptable to touch or pet a lion. Frustrate that first part of a farmed lion’s lifecycle, when it is very young, and you will eventually kill off the wider trade.” 

Creating urgent awareness surrounding unethical practices of interacting with lions and cubs should automatically signal to tourists that the volunteering centre, game farm or reserve they are visiting is directly involved in canned lion hunting and trade. 

Stopping interactions between tourists and lion cubs could help curb canned lion hunting and trade. Image: iStock

Creating a more eco-conscious and ethical tourism industry is critical to helping South Africa improve its image amid its perceived support for the continuation of the industry. 

“I think Brand South Africa has already been damaged by the lion farming scandal and by canned hunting. As I say in my book, its status as a responsible tourism destination is now under strain. The knock-on effect of this is potentially devastating for South Africa. 

“If tourists don’t visit, the economy will be hit hard. But the other hugely negative impact of a tourism slump is that national parks and game reserves will lose income, placing thousands of animals in peril.”

Ashcroft believes that government is “playing with fire”, emphasising that the only way to address a potentially damaging global image is “to root out lion farming for once and for all and also to tackle other wildlife crime in an open and honest way. Only then can South Africa begin to stem the flow of negative publicity.”

Throttle the flow of lion bones 

Ashcroft explained that if South Africa were to scrap its lion bone export quotas, ban the export of bones, and carry out rigorous checks to police the remaining stockpiles, it would “stop the flow of bones to Asia and damage the trade sufficiently that it ceased to be profitable.” 

The deplorable conditions farmed lions are subjected to when they are alive are described in painful detail in Unfair Game, which is difficult to read, but essential to provide context of just how potentially dangerous the harvesting and treatment of bones is to farm workers, and the consumers that buy them. 

Trophy hunters pose next to a dead lion. After parts are removed, the bones of the lion are harvested and sold to be turned into tiger bone wine or lion bone cake. Image: Unfair Game

The book explained that consumers, the majority of which reside in Asia, are tricked by sellers into thinking that the bones they are purchasing belong to tigers, who are endangered due to poaching and habitat destruction. Less than 4,000 mature tigers remain in the wild. But these bones in fact belong to lions, and sometimes cruelly bred lion and tiger cross-breeds, called ligers. 

Lion bones are used to make cake and wine for medicinal and aphrodisiac purposes in Asia. 

Lion skulls. Photo: Blood Lions

“Status plays a big part in the reason why people in Asia buy bones and bone products,” Ashcroft explained. 

“Buying a bottle of bone wine is like buying a bottle of champagne, as far as I can tell.

“A massive re-education programme needs to take place in Asia so that its people understand they are being duped every time they consume a product with animal bone in it. 

“That said, I’m not sure people in Asia have a clue what it is they’re buying, so it is easy to dupe them into buying a product which contains no lion or tiger bone at all.

“These bones do not improve the health of humans. On the contrary, there is growing evidence to suggest they may actually carry fatal diseases like TB.”

Strengthen enforcement 

The last section of Unfair Game builds up to two years worth of information gathered during the two covert operations and handed over to police. 

Information was given to SAPS wildlife unit head, Colonel Johan Jooste, who refused to look at any of the evidence, and threatened to lock up a member of Ashcroft’s team. 

When asked whether Jooste’s actions were followed up on, Ashcroft said he hadn’t heard of there being any repercussions. 

“I do know that in June the NSPCA said my team had collected some really damning footage during our undercover operation and that as a result of it, a criminal investigation has been launched by them under powers granted by the Animal Protection Act. This is welcome news.”

Lions living in deplorable conditions at captive facilities in Limpopo. Two facilities were shut down after the NSPCA received information about severely underweight lions. Image: NSPCA

Questions posed to Deff by The Citizen regarding the evidence revealed in Unfair Game in June were not answered. The Department’s media relations director, Peter Mbelengwa, advised that a statement was being prepared in response to the book. 

On 6 July, Deff’s statement said it “noted allegations made”, adding that “South Africa remains committed to the highest level of compliance with its international obligations. The country continues to act in accordance with, and in fulfilment of, the legal and scientific requirements of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).”

Deff confirmed that Creecy had written to Lord Ashcroft, inviting him to “submit his book and any other evidence to the [high-level] panel for consideration.” 

Lord Ashcroft. Image: Supplied

“It will then be possible to review whether remedial action is necessary to strengthen the administrative and regulatory system.” 

Unfair Game, by Lord Ashcroft, published in South Africa 15 July 2020. To order a copy, click here

It can also be purchased in-store for R275.00.

Royalties from the book will be donated to wildlife charities in South Africa.

Extended film footage from the undercover investigation can be viewed in a protected section of To access this area, click here and enter your date of birth. This footage is disturbing, and is not for sensitive viewers.

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