Spotting Differences Between Canned And Wild Lions

by Professional Hunter Andrew McLaren

Many hunters have a dream of bagging all of the Big 5 in an ethical and fair chase manner. Many also realize this dream, some on one long hunt, others in dribs and drabs. Unfortunately an increasing number of hunters who are under the impression that they have realized a life dream, have actually taken a canned lion. No, not the sort that is in a small enclosure and is obviously canned, but the sort that masquerades as a wild lion. Naturally, a lion, even a canned one, does not act and pretend he is what he is not. It is always the Hunting Outfitter (HO) and his Professional Hunter (PH) that set up a canned lion in such a manner that the hunting client thinks he is hunting a wild lion. This piece is written in an attempt to contribute in my own small way to make potential lion hunters aware of the scam, as it is nothing else than a money-making scam, and so help to at least reduce the incidence of canned lions being offered as wild lion.

The "canned lion" debacle is so much in the news these days, and has been for a number of years, that a valid question to be asked by anyone wishing to hunt a wild lion is: "Is there still true wild lion that can be hunted in an ethical manner?" Sure, such ethical hunting for real wild lions still exist! Who offers them? Mentioning names of such HO's can be seen as advertising, which I certainly do not want to do here. In any case I don't know well enough to reply with all the names of such HO's, and I do not want to cast doubt on the reputation of any HO by not including him in such a list. So, for the moment, I'll just let it pass with the comment that I'm sure there are a few hunting outfitters out there that can do it. I'm also sure there are a few hunting outfitters out there that regularly and consistently do it. These are the ones you want to get in touch with! Problem is...how do you know that a particular hunting outfitter is one of these few? Big question! Difficult answer! You could ask the same question in a different manner: "How do you know that a HO does offer canned lion as wild lion?" Also a big question, but at least some guidance on how to go about answering that one can be given.

What I relate below is done to stir the proverbial pot a bit. Not to simply pick a fight, but to warn prospective ethical lion hunters to be very wary of offers to hunt "wild lion" in areas that are not really known for the large numbers of wild lion that occur there. Everyone ready to hunt lion probably knows that there are vast areas in Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and quite a few other African countries where wild lion occur in stable numbers from which a number can be hunted every year without jeopardising the whole population. The areas that are refered to here are in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and probably a few other countries where wild lion "is sometimes present". I do not claim to be an expert on southern African lion hunting; but will say that I have hunted wild lion as a PH a few times; with my last lion hunt conducted in 1986. I do not get involved in any form of lion hunting any more. The reasons why I don't offer lion hunting any more have nothing to do with canned lion, or being scared, but has a lot to do with the effects of hunting a pride ruling wild lion on the rest of the pride. Ever since then I always listened with utmost attention whenever the subject of lion hunting came up in any conversation; be it with lion breeders, hunters, hunting outfitters, taxidermists, research scientists and Nature Conservation officers.

Given that for many years I have listened to and spoken to a large number of persons involved in lion hunting and also read a lot of studies on lion and lion behaviour, I feel at least a bit qualified to issue a bit of a warning to hunters wishing to hunt a wild lion. My advice to such a prospective lion hunter is to be very, VERY and even V-E-R-Y, diligent in the selection of the hunting outfitter to trust to make his dream of hunting a wild lion in the proper manner come true. It was stated before that there are such HO's out there that can and regularly do offer ethical fair chase hunting of wild lion. Unfortunately I also know that there are a few Hunting Outfitters out there that can do it, and may even sometimes get it all together and actually let their clients shoot a real wild lion. But unfortunately many of them regularly let clients shoot a canned lion that masquerades as a real wild lion!

The scam works more or less like described below. There are some real innovative variations to the theme, but it is left to the reader to imagine ways in which hunting outfitters can innovate on the general scenario. Typically it works like this:

The owner and/or a hunting outfitter who has hunting rights on a farm or other area where wild lions may or do wander around from time to time - fenced or not, it's immaterial - offers lion for hunting. There are many such farms, for example, along the western boundary of the Kruger National Park, along the Botswana/South Africa border in Limpopo and particularly, in the North West Province, near the Etosha Park in Namibia as well as large areas in Zimbabwe, Botswana and probably other southern African countries too. The fact is that true wild lion do sometimes visit or pass through the area! So the offer by the HO to hunt a wild lion is very real and quite valid, as it may be possible for him to actually let his client shoot one!

Problem is that such lions are often not very accommodating by being present on the hunting concession when the client is actually there to hunt them! Remember, I'm not talking about areas where lion occur in numbers, but about areas in which wild lion may be found sometimes. When lion are actually there, they seem to know very well how to evade the hunters and outsmart the trackers for days on end. These two facts together results in a rather low success rate for hunters hunting true wild lion in many areas where they do occasionally occur. Another very important cause of the low hunting success for wild lion in areas where they only occasionally pass through lies in the fact that they only "pass through" the area. They do not stay there but just pass through - by some stroke of genius always to the next property, where the hunting outfitter does not have permission to hunt them!

Hunting outfitters who hold hunting rights on such properties know this, or learn it rather quickly, and often to their great embarrassment! Most (I speak not for myself) hunting outfitters would love to offer lion hunting - and share in the big profits to be made from offering lion hunting. Now I'm not talking about those sick individuals who offer idiots the opportunity to shoot a lion in a small enclosure - 'typical canned lion shooting' - I’m talking about those who offer "true wild lion hunting", but actually let their clients shoot a canned lion.

OK. So the client who wishes to hunt a lion and the Hunting Outfitter came to an agreement, signed a Remuneration Agreement and the client duly arrived to make his dream of hunting a wild lion in an ethical manner, on foot, come true. We pick up the story when the client has been hunting for a number of days, searching for a true wild lion in an area where these sometimes are present.

The hunting team usually include one or two trackers, the PH, the hunter and often a video camera operator to capture the moment of truth on video. There are many variations on the theme and I will put a few innovations together into a 'theoretical canned wild lion hunt'.

Maybe seeing some tracks, maybe not, the PH hunts hard...really hard, the trackers do their best... their very best. The client walks himself into the ground, but alas, no contact is made. This continues for quite a few days. Seldom, in my opinion, very seldom indeed, does a client actually get and shoot a real wild lion under the described conditions. Mostly though, it is all futile hard work and after a number of days of very hard hunting the client has nothing to show but a nice collection of blisters on his feet!

In some, but not all, cases, following the lion spoor seen on the hunting concession is quite a futile exercise! Why? Because the spoor was planted! In South Africa there are quite a number of lion breeders who own very tame lions. Some are so tame that the trainer/owner can take such a lion for a walk in the veldt every morning! Just the same as I take my dogs for a walk, with no lead. My dogs will run around within sight and return when I call. The big lion spoor in these cases is picked up, and lost later the day in a stony or very hard ground area where the lion walker starts and ends his early morning walk. What happened in fact was that the lion is brought to the area and then after the walk taken away after jumping onto the back of a pick-up truck, just like I do with my dogs! Some of the trackers do not even know that there are following a planted spoor! In every case the PH knows what the truth is.

Time is running out for the HO to get his client a real wild lion. Decision time! Do they continue hoping and letting the hard hunting client return empty handed? Or do they "make a plan"?

Enter the 'Captive Bred Lion Provision Industry'. This industry provides, amongst other, lions for traditional canned lion shooting in small enclosures. It is also from this industry that a lot of the tame lions that are used as film stars in movies and TV adverts come. This is a very large industry in South Africa - large enough to scare the shit out of the South African Minister of Environmental Affairs, Mr Marthinus van Schalkwyk when they threatened action to reverse his so proudly announced plans to stop all canned lion hunting with the promulgation of the so-called TOPS regulations (threatened or protected species). There is very little doubt that if the TOPS regulations were in fact promulgated as designed, it would have put an abrupt end to all canned lion shooting in South Africa. But, the 'Captive Bred Lion Provision Industry' reacted and forced Minister van Schalkwyk to remove lion from the list of "large predators" in South Africa. Can anyone imagine that a lion is not on the South African government’s official list of large predators in our country? It just shows you how large and powerful the 'Captive Bred Lion Provision Industry' is. Why is this industry so big? Because there is such a high demand for captive bred lions to be supplied to hunting outfitters who let their clients shoot them. An industry can only grow to the extent that the demand for the services of the industry exists or can be created by good advertising. As said, this is a big industry - and so because there is a big demand for captive bred lions to be shot.

With time running out our hunting outfitter then makes an all important telephone call to one of the many members of the 'Captive Bred Lion Provision Industry'. In most cases there is a close co-operation and trusting friendship between the hunting outfitter(s) who offer such canned lion hunting and the lion breeder with which he regularly works. The hunting outfitter may have visited the breeding operation beforehand, negotiated the prices for one of a number of lions and made all the arrangements with the breeder about method and timing of payment.

If the HO is "hunting" with his client in South Africa, a relatively easy procedure is required. The lion breeder or seller must just adequately sedate the agreed on lion with a drug that, being in use as a social human drug, is quite readily available in South Africa. They then load the lion, either in a secure cage or not, but usually in a delivery van or pick-up truck with closed sides. A drive that usually starts and is completed at night follows, and they deliver and release the caged or drugged lion at an agreed on location very early in the morning on an agreed on date.

There will not be any legal permission or permit to transport such a lion, but there is really little risk of actually getting caught! They will be using a nondescript transport van with no markings to identify it as a game transport vehicle, closed sides, frosted rear window and so hardly attract any attention. Road blocks late at night in rural areas are very rare, and the driver (often the actual breeder or a very trusted worker) will have a wad of cash to bribe his way out in the very unlikely event of being caught.

Sometimes the delivery has to be made in Botswana or Namibia. Then some more daring individual is required to smuggle the live but tranquilized lion across the borders. But it is regularly done! Many farmers living along the border have very good across border relations with their neighbours in the next country. Regular no-passport social visits, looking for strayed livestock and business deals are done across the borders. So an early morning illegal border crossing by an unmarked delivery van at a suitable place is hardly noticed!

Once the ordered captive bred lion has been delivered at a given location on a given date, the chances of the PH and trackers getting the client on to the, often still tranquilized, lion increases dramatically! In fact the lion does not really stand any chance. This is because the lion is often still under heavy sedation to keep him calm during the transport process. You may ask: "Why not simply inject an antidote to at least have a fully awake and aware lion to shoot?" Remember that the lion was illegally delivered on the farm and any escape by such a lion will result in untold legal complications for the HO, so they play it safe and let the client shoot a lion that does not know his arse from his backside by the time the hunting team closes in with him.

Very few clients will ever notice anything wrong with the whole of the hunt. All the correct things are said by the PH and HO. The correct mental attitude is portrayed and the correct noises are made. All the correct encouragement and blister treatment is given. The client is assured that the hunting goddess Diana will soon smile upon him if he can just keep it up for another day. The client is so prepared to expect the unexpected that he does not even for one moment wonder why, after so many days hard hunting, the lion is suddenly seen in the open and apparently not really bothering to make any getaway! The canned lion is shot. Lots of back slapping and congratulations follows. High fives given all around! Photos are taken. Measurements made and finally the lion is loaded to be taken to the skinning area.

Sure, unless the client knows exactly what has happened behind the scenes, he will never even suspect anything wrong or amiss. The client will write a very good and favourable hunt report, and will give glowing testimonials on how exhilarating and ethical his hunt with the particular HO was. BS! He may, possibly but not definitely, have ethically hunted a wild lion for a number of days. Or he may have been following spoor of a tame lion taken for an early morning walk. Where there are actually a real wild lion passing through, believe you me, the PH/farm owner hunts very hard to get the client a shot at such a wild lion - thereby saving the considerable cost of paying for a captive bred lion! Truth is often (usually) that he actually shot a "canned" lion! No, not "canned" in a small enclosure, but canned by virtue of having been captive bred and possibly/probably still drugged on release! The hunter is happy in his mistaken knowledge that he hunted a wild lion. The Hunting Outfitter is happy with the money he made. The Professional Hunter is happy with the generous tip he gets. The trackers are happy with their tips. The Captive Lion Breeder is happy with the good business he made. The taxidermist is happy with the work he gets. Everyone is happy! A good lion "hunt". The poor lion hunter was cheated out of his money to make his dream come true, and all that he got was a staged show!

This is evident on the 'Mickey Mouse' appearance of many of the lions hunted by clients of HO's that offer such hunts. You ask: "What the heck is a 'Mickey Mouse' lion?" It is one with absolutely no facial or body scars and a fantastic mane that looks as if it was very recently washed, shampooed and blow-waved to a full-bodied dryness! There is no indication that he has ever been in a territorial scrap with another male lion. Just look at the pictures of clients posing with their lions, the ones with a criss-cross array of facial scars are true wild lion. In contrast with this it can be said with a high degree of confidence that the unscarred ones are captive bred individuals.

The reader of this rant may have come to the conclusion that I simply hate and detest the fact that there are Hunting Outfitters out there who, in the quest for making money, will stoop to disguising a canned lion shooting to look like a real lion hunt. It is, in my opinion, simply disgusting!

What is really interesting is to study the reaction of lion hunters who were caught by such tricks if the fact that they were caught is slowly revealed to them. Picture the scene...a HO arrives at a well known taxidermy studio to deliver his clients trophies. He sees a mounted 'Mickey Mouse' and happens to get the actual hunter there. The HO asks to "Please tell about your lion hunt?" The proud hunter tells. At times the HO asks a few very specific questions to confirm beyond any doubt that it was indeed a setup canned lion. Lion hunters are generally clever guys, after all they were clever enough to, despite competition, make enough money to afford to go lion hunting. If the HO is not very careful with the wording of his question the clever lion hunter soon realises that something is amiss. It is then that the true character of the lion hunter surfaces. Some will admit that he was caught then explode with anger. I like them! They are then prepared to name and shame the hunting outfitter and PH involved and so contribute to curtailing this malpractice.

Some go into a deep denial! Something like: "Whatdya mean? Me HIV positive? Like bloody hell! I've never cheated on my wife!" They simply refuse to accept the obvious...they have been caught! This despite all the due diligence, research and glowing testimonials form other lion hunting clients about the high standards of ethics of the hunting outfitter they hunted through. I do truly feel sorry for these guys. But not nearly as sorry for the poor fellow to whom they will soon give glowing testimonials about his ethical and fair chase lion hunt arranged through their chosen hunting outfitter, who he then highly recommends. The term 'vicious circle' comes to mind!

Maybe the few who do not even realize that they were caught are the lucky ones? Of late, I do not tell hunters that I suspect their lion was a canned lion. Let them enjoy the false knowledge that they hunted a true wild lion!

But I do want to have the hunting outfitters who partake in these malpractices exposed and put out of business as far as possible.

I honestly do not have enough knowledge of who's who in the zoo to, without taking chances or be accused of favouring friends, make a recommendation on a lion hunt Hunting Outfitter. So don't even waste your time asking me! I really don't know, but wish you well in your quest to find an honest Hunting Outfitter to arrange a true wild lion ethical hunt for you.

I can only offer very limited help in your quest. The things that should be done include:

1. Look at a lot of 'trophy lion' photos. Learn to recognize the presence of facial and other body scars of old wounds that could have been caused by a scratch from another lion in a territorial dispute. Note which hunting outfitters' clients mostly pose with lion with no visible scars, and then avoid these like the plague!

2. Avoid hunting outfitters who operate in 'marginal lion' areas. There is one particular farm - or rather a collection of farms in North West province - where a very large number of lions that have strayed from Botswana are 'hunted' each year.

3. In South Africa it is a legal requirement that the hunter and hunting outfitter enter into a legally binding contract - called a Remuneration Agreement - before the onset of the hunt. Now, before any contract between two parties are signed, it must be acceptable to both parties? Yes! So you insist that a few clauses to guarantee that you won't hunt a "captive bred or wild caught and then translocated lion" be included. The wording can be done by a legal eagle but will include phrases like these: "The HO guarantees that any lion shot will be a wild lion that has not been captured and released less than two full years before the onset of the hunt...", "No trophy fee will be paid if the hunter can prove that the lion hunted was indeed a released individual...", "Duplicate blood samples of the lion will be taken and appropriately preserved as soon as appropriate after death and one of these retained by the client for possible forensic examination by a suitable laboratory to test for the presence of residual tranquilising agents...", and "If any dispute arises about the true wild or canned status of a lion arises that part of the contract will be dealt with by the legal system in the client's own country..." Tie the HO's who offer canned lion with a contract that they will rather not sign. This same contract should present absolutely no problem for an honest HO that offers true wild lion hunting

Andrew McLaren

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