Opinion: From the cage to freedom


At the end of 2018, R500 000 was raised by the Lawrence Anthony Earth Organization to return three neglected Ukrainian lions to African soil. The three lions – Charlie, Kai and Luca – now spend their time at Kragga Kamma Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape.

Several international lion rescues have been recorded over the years. In May 2016, 33 lions rescued from Colombia and Peru were returned to Africa to live out their remaining days at Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in Vaalwater. In September 2015, Born Free rescued two Bulgarian circus lions that now reside in Shamwari Game Reserve near Port Elizabeth.

There is something special about seeing Simba restored to Pride Rock. After all, lions are ferocious African predators that belong in the wilds of Africa. But here is the thing: captive-born lions cannot be compared with Scarface, the legendary lion of the Masai Mara. And they don’t live in wild Africa; they’re in enclosures. Granted, they are (hopefully) no longer suffering.

Lions breed relatively quickly, as seen with lions bred for the canned lion hunting industry, lion bone trade, circuses, and cub petting. However, these captive-bred lions do not contribute to the survival of the species. They are unable to hunt and defend themselves, and have not run the gauntlet of natural selection that makes the lion the apex predator it is. Genetics are also questionable. White lions do naturally occur in small numbers in places like the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, but not in the frequency found in captivity.

Conservation experts will argue that these returned circus lions have no conservation value. What is conservation value? It means tame lions are unable to positively contribute to wild lion populations.

This creates a conversation-trolley dilemma. Should a suffering circus lion be sacrificed so that funds can be diverted elsewhere to save the wild members of the species? Is humane euthanasia a better option?

Real conservation issues plaguing the King of the Jungle include feline AIDS, bovine tuberculosis, habitat fragmentation, human-wildlife conflict, the loss of genetic diversity and regional extinctions.

Should the money not be spent on researching a cure for feline AIDS, bovine TB, or assisting a credible NGO relocate wild lions to protected areas where they have been eradicated? Alternatively, the funds could be used to subsidise the farmer for livestock losses, or to create wildlife corridors.

This is not to say captive facilities can’t inspire the next generation of eco-warriors or act as an education tool. Captive facilities have been instrumental in the survival of other endangered species, like the scimitar-horned oryx. Tame lions at the Ukutula Conservation Centre are used to develop pioneering veterinary procedures that will help wild felines. These lions are accustomed to human contact and are therefore less stressed when handled.

It’s a question you’ve got to ask: Do you want your children to see ‘Alex the lion’ in a zoo, or a wild lion hunting wildebeest on safari?  Returning captive lions to Africa has a high feel-good factor, but it’s not doing the lion populations any good.


Written by: Georgina Lockwood

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