by Larry Smith
Maggie Crouch, Julian Jakusz and Bonny Byfield are longtime Nassau residents who have operated a volunteer animal rescue and neutering service here for the past 20-plus years dubbed the Pink Potcake. Along the way, they have enjoyed several African safari tours, and last month they were in Cape Town to take part in a march organised by the Campaign Against Canned Hunting.
“This cruel practice is where lions are bred in captivity and then released into an enclosed area where they are shot like sitting ducks by wealthy trophy hunters,” Crouch told me. "We have been on many safaris and have been absolutely thrilled by all our wildlife sightings, so we were proud to have done our little bit of payback for one of the most fabulous animals of the African bush."
The lion is one of the world’s most charismatic animal species. They once roamed the whole of Africa, Europe and Asia, but their numbers and range today have been vastly reduced by hunting and development. Asiatic lions have been on the endangered list since 1970, and survive only as a remnant population of a few hundred in a single small area of India.
Some 30,000 African lions survive, down from perhaps 200,000 as recently as the 1970s and restricted to about 17 per cent of their historical range. But large populations (of 50 to 100 lion prides) are necessary to avoid inbreeding, which increases significantly when populations fall below 10 prides. These conditions are met in few wild lion populations today, experts say.
Like sharks in the ocean, the lion has an important role as a top predator in terrestrial environments. Killing off sharks, lions or wolves upsets the natural balance of ecosystems, allowing prey species to become so numerous that they can wipe out food resources for other animals. To a large degree, the health of natural systems relies on the presence of top predators like the lion.
But there is a growing threat to the survival of wild lions known as canned hunting - a fast-growing business in South Africa, where there are now more lions in cages than in the wild. Farms breed thousands of big cats to be shot in enclosures by wealthy tourists, while wild populations have declined by as much as 80 per cent over the past 20 years.
The factory farming of lions creates a market for canned hunts, which puts a clear price-tag on the head of every wild lion. This gives a financial incentive for local people to collude with poachers or turn a blind eye to illegal lion kills.
There are more than 160 lion farms in South Africa where you can pay to pet cubs seized from their mothers a few hours after birth. The lions become habituated to humans and are eventually sold to game ranches, where tourists pay thousands of dollars to kill them and take the head and skin home as a trophy.
In a recent report, British journalist Patrick Barkham described this process: "A fully-grown, captive-bred lion is taken from its pen to an enclosed area where it wanders listlessly for some hours before being shot dead by a man with a shotgun, hand-gun or even a crossbow, standing safely on the back of a truck. for this he pays anything from £5,000 to £25,000, and it is all completely legal."
Most of these hunters are from North America and Europe, with increasing numbers from Asia. As Chris Mercer of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting put it, “they just go to the enclosure. It’s all set up. They execute the animal and then they pick up their families at the 5-star lodge they are staying at and go off to the casino. That’s the canned lion culture. And it is big business."
Breeders consider this no different from cattle farming, arguing that it takes the pressure of wild populations. But conservationists say it fuels an increase in the poaching of wild lions. And there is another looming threat to wild populations from the increasing trade in lion parts with Asia. As tigers near extinction, many people are switching to lion products for traditional potions.
"If we can stop people supporting these industries in the first place and make them aware of what's actually going on and what the life of a [captive-bred] lion is actually like, I believe there will be an outcry," says Fiona Miles, director of a big cat sanctuary in South Africa. "There's far more value for a live lion long-term."
Efforts to ban canned hunting in South Africa failed in 2010, and conservationists say the industry is becoming more entrenched, so they are trying to stop the practice by deterring hunters and cutting off sources of funding. The Campaign Against Canned Hunting has worked for more than a decade to raise awareness on this issue around the world.
Safari tourism is a huge foreign exchange earner for Africa. But while trophy hunting is considered a relic of colonialism in countries like Kenya and Botswana, where it is banned, there is a strong hunting culture throughout Africa, and the wildlife factory farming industry carries a lot of weight in South Africa.
On March 15 protesters marched in over 60 cities around the world, including several in South Africa. In Cape Town, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Rev Mpho Tutu, led a global prayer to open the march, which was digitally screened to marchers in each city. The demonstrations were preceded by a worldwide advocacy campaign, which collected over 1.5 million signatures calling for a ban on South Africa's death-trade in lions and lion parts.
At the Cape Town march, Crouch, Byfield and Jakusz wore t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Bahamas Pink Potcakes Roar for Lions”, which must have required frequent explanation. Crouch also designed placards using a lion photo she had taken on a previous trip to Africa, and commissioned the Sign Man to produce them.
Crouch and Jakusz are well-known in Nassau’s animal welfare community. “For the past 20-odd years we've been buzzing around the island doing mainly dog work, but we've also been involved with cats, raccoons, birds, and the odd turtle. We have also transported a few pregnant women who needed a ride to the hospital,” Crouch said.
"We buy our own traps, and donors help with the supplies. We average about 300 spays a year funded by groups such as ARK, Proud Paws and BAARK, and performed mainly by the excellent veterinary surgeons at Palmdale Veterinary Clinic and Central Animal Hospital. We also took part in both Operation Potcake neutering programmes at the Kemp Road Clinic.
"Like many British kids of our age, we were weaned on nature programmes like David Attenborough's travels around the world on Zoo Quest,” Crouch told me, "and our love and interest in all animals, both wild and domestic, stemmed from that. Doing our animal rescue work here and taking time off to see the animals and places we'd always dreamed of, was just one easy and wonderful step."
According to March For Lions organiser Chris Mercer, there are only 2,700 wild lions left in South Africa today, but about 8,000 are in captivity, waiting to become living targets. ”The canned hunting industry’s whole business model is based on cruelty, right from the birth of the club, through the raising of the cub in dreadful conditions, until the final killing,” he said.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service is currently reviewing whether to list African lions as an endangered species (they are currently listed as “vulnerable to extinction” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature). A finding that they are endangered would enable the US to prohibit trophy imports. Campaigners are also working to implement a European Union-wide ban on the import of lion trophies and body parts. These two actions would cut off most of the funding for hunting.
Trophy hunting is not the only threat to lions. They also suffer from habitat loss, the bushmeat trade, exotic diseases, conflict with livestock farmers, deforestation, and the often illegal trade in lion parts for use in traditional medicine, most of which is fed by poaching and smuggling—but hunting is occurring at unsustainable levels in 16 of the 20 African countries where lions can still be found, experts say.
According to The IUCN, fewer than 250 adult lions are left in West Africa. And an assessment conducted in 2012 predicted a 30 per cent depletion of the African lion population over the next two decades. The conclusion is that these iconic animals will soon become as scarce as tigers, which are now critically endangered with only about 3,000 left in small, isolated populations.