The Lion King: the circle of death [exploited to the bone]

Article updated on May 26, 2021
Text & photos: Marcella van Alphen (except if credited differently)

“Until the story of the hunt is told by the lion,
the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
African proverb

Between the release of Disney’s The Lion King 25 years ago until its new photo-realistic computer-animated version of 2021 our planet has lost half of its wild lion population. Half…! If the main reason is habitat loss, it is not the only one why lions are in an alarming state. Other causes are ego for the hunters, greed for the farming, canned lion, and bone trade industries and maybe even worse, a lack of critical sense for some of us often with the best intentions.

A blockbuster about nature is often inspiring, and most take their children to these movies to make them dream. We leave the theatre amazed by the beauty of the wilderness. We want to explore more of it and to enjoy it. In the best cases we realize it is precious and we want it to be preserved for the next generations. However this does not really turn out this way… Remember the excellent Pixar’s Finding Nemo? Did you know that this movie led to the setup of captive breeding programs in Australia to keep up with clown fish demand? Did you know that 90% of clown fish found in aquariums were taken from the wild? Did you know that in South East Asia and more specifically Thailand, Indonesia and The Philippines, clownfish are collected using cyanide poisoning? The already threatened species was propelled to the brink of extinction thanks to a movie which theme was to respect and preserve wildlife…

So what can we expect form the reaction of the public after crying in theatres for little Simba losing his father? Luckily nor the fish tank neither the pet is an option (mind me, lion pets are actually a growing business…)! One can most likely expect the best intentions. For instance how many viewers will do some research and read about the worrying situation of lions after centuries of extensive hunting? How many moved spectators will want to help save lions in Africa looking for volunteering programs? How many of these will be heartbroken hearing the story about how little cubs abandoned by their mothers in the wild were rescued by amazing organizations where they can volunteer to help bottle-feed them (in order to release them in the wild once they are strong and old enough)? And how many will save up to be part of one of these exciting programs? Except this is all BULLSHIT (mind me, big and smelly LIONSHIT)!

Only the alarming situation of lions is the sad truth. In South Africa there are three times as many lions in captivity (about 10,000 to 12,000) than in the wild (3,000 left in National Parks such as Kruger and private game reserves otherwise referred to as wild), and this gap is increasing. Genes are getting weaker and weaker. For the rest? They are nothing but smartly setup business models with the highest possible return on investment throughout the life and death cycle of the product: lions.

Take a lioness and have her breed as much as possible. Separate her rapidly from her cubs. Advertise for volunteering opportunities in Africa to help save big cats on a well-sought after website preferably with a research and conservation section. Recap your pitch about how these little cubs need our help to get released into the wild. Get a whole lot of nice volunteers to pay a significant amount of money and spend time bottle-feeding, weighing, monitoring and cuddling these vulnerable balls of fur. Work with so-called “ethical” travel agencies to host busloads of tourists to pet some more and take selfies, or to observe the cub feeding. It seems to work pretty well. However, the real truth is that no lioness ever abandons her cubs (but in very, very rare occasions). These lion cubs will never be released into the wild. These volunteers will not contribute to any form of conservation nor research. Instead they will fuel a multi-million Rand industry of which the cub cuddling and feeding is just Part 1…

In Part 2, teenage lions are getting too big and are not to be cuddled nor fed anymore. They are taken to tourist centres where you can walk your lion… Seriously. People walk with them and have their photos taken. The problem is that the teenage lion becomes an adult and needs to eat a lot: the cash machine becomes expensive to feed. So after this “sanctuary” it is time for Part 3.

In Part 3, these lions that have hardly anything wild left in them are taken to hunting farms where they become easy and high-revenue generating targets. Photos of the lion with its weight, characteristics and price are shown on websites of different hunting farms. “Hunters” pick their lion. Onsite they are taken for a “real” adventure on the farm land for hours, sometimes days to get the idea that the lion is wild and tough to find. Most of the time, they are guided around in circles before they “find” the tame lion that has been hand-fed. The hunter takes his shotgun and from within a short distance mercilessly fires the deadly bullets into the soft fur of the defenseless lion (if he misses, a backup shooter will do the job). Sometimes the lion gets cowardly shot from behind a fence… sheer murder. Thanks to western governments like the USA lifting bans and countries like the UK where there as never been a ban on importing hunting trophies the income is even greater. The carcass, or often only the head is flown out of the country, governmental taxes (15%) and trophy fees are paid, and the trophy can go home. The trophy fee depends on the size and colour of the manes (the closest to the black mane of the MGM lion, the more expensive!). Part 3 is known as the canned lion hunting industry (of course some of the lionesses are not killed yet and go back into part 1 to breed before being shot later).

Gruesomeness doesn’t even stop here. There are actually many lions who are so messed up in their genes that they would not make a nice trophy… Their faces are disfigured and the inbreeding shows in their eyes. No worries, this is when Part 4 starts. When the lion is large enough, it is killed, boiled and its bones are traded for traditional Chinese medicines (tigers are almost extinct – no need to explain why, is there? – and lion bones are said to be the next best thing). They come in the composition of tiger bone wine that is supposed to promote healing and to have anti-inflammatory properties. If you are wondering, no, there is no proven medical value…. Tons of lion bones leave South Africa each year. This is the bone trade industry. To get a better idea of its extent 800 skeletons were exported in 2017 as well as in 2018.

Bottom line: real-life lions generate more than The Lion King blockbusters throughout these four despicable parts! They are literally exploited to the bone from the minute they get born.

If you are full of good intentions and want to make an impact to help lions, don’t worry: you can! But it is a challenge to find a really ethical organization. Misinformation rules. Tourist traps are many, often promoted by so called “ethical” tour operators. Thousands fall for it as stories of these facilities seem solid and lead to an increasing number of lions being born in captivity each year and being exploited as described.

Real sanctuaries where you can contribute to help lions and participate in conservation do exist. Hardly, but they do. After extensive research and asking leading conservationists such as Simon Naylor in Phinda Private Game Reserve, we walk the grounds of Panthera Africa. It is one of the very few organizations that make a positive impact on lions by rescuing them from these horrendous industries and providing them a real sanctuary: no petting allowed, no reproduction. Co-founder Cathrine Nyquist, tells us the heart-breaking stories behind each animal she and her partner Lizaene have rescued. They are devastating. In a nutshell she explains:

“Apart from the lions living in the parks, lions in South Africa are bred in captivity. They live in enclosed spaces often in shocking conditions. Females are used as breeding machines with up to three pregnancies a year. There is no care of the genetics and brothers and sisters, fathers and daughters, mothers and sons are all put together to breed; inbreeding is a severe issue. Cubs get weaker suffering from many deficiencies such as vitamin A deficiencies, bad eye sight and weak bone density. At the scale of the species, genes get weaker posing a very serious threat to the species as a whole. Most of these lions can never be reintroduced into even a captive wild, and as the bone trade industry is becoming the new trend, tragically some of the lions are better off being put down. There is a total lack of animal welfare at these places as the only need for them is their bones.”

Her voice is soft, yet the frustration clearly noticeable in her intonation. She knows what she is talking about and has first-hand experience. She knows how easy it is to be misled. Cathrine came to South Africa to volunteer at a breeding facility for cheetahs, leopards and servals. Developing a very special connection with the cub she was attending to as a volunteer, it became a calling for her to find out what happened to the lions that one after the other were sent away. In her rollercoaster search for her lion she uncovered the shocking truth, and this changed her life. She left a promising business career in Norway to move to South Africa and together with co-founder Lizaene made it their joint mission in life to save lions and raise the awareness to bring down the breeding industry.

And this is not an easy task – neither operational, financial nor emotional. Setting up a non-profit company is a challenge in itself, and losing one of their lions to the bone trade industry nearly brought Cathrine to the brink. Financially they have managed to pull through the first difficult 3 years and they are now becoming self-sufficient in the daily running. At Panthera Africa volunteers are welcome to help – and there is plenty of work to do – but they will never pet a lion. The lions that are rescued by Cathrine and Lizaene will simply live happily ever after and won’t reproduce to not contribute to weakening the species.

Yes, you can help lions very easily! And here is how:

  • Have you noticed the photos on Instagram or Facebook of someone cuddling or feeding a cub, walking or petting a lion? Soon it will be raising a lion cub in the air just like Rafiki in The Lion King. Don’t like these posts! Better, make an impact and question these stupid photos by commenting. It should become shameful to post such photos online. The impact of social media in tourism practices is huge and wildlife can’t afford it. People like Dean Schneider are also setting the wrong example by cuddling wildlife, don’t encourage this.
  • Follow legitimate organizations on social media, share their posts and sign their petitions (Panthera Africa is a good start as well as Blood Lions, Claws Out and the Born Free Foundation).
  • Obviously you should not even consider participating in a program where you interact closely with lions. Question yourself: touching, cuddling, petting, walking… Don’t! Wildlife. It’s in the name isn’t it?
  • Don’t fall for it. Any organization claiming they breed lions for conservation purposes is a scam. Any organization that lets you touch wildlife is a scam (and this is valid for all wildlife). If you come across some, leave a TripAdvisor review denouncing their practices. Don’t be a passive witness and act to help to put an end to the exploitation.

You have a choice: either you feed the breeding industry, or you are a passive witness, or you decide to act. What will be your choice? On our parts, this article is one of our contributions to raising the awareness to avoid that in 25 years from now the only lions in South Africa will be the ones behind metal bars or in photo-reality rendering. Sharing is caring – please help the lions, the wildlife and help us spread the word.


  • On May 3, 2021 Minister of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Barbara Creecy, announced long-awaited steps that will forbid the commercial captive lion breeding industry in South Africa, meaning that South Africa will no longer keep lions in captivity, breed them and use their derivatives commercially. As per direct no more permits will be issued to shoot canned lions and the country shows that it will take a turn towards sincerely taking a leading position in conservation. However what will happen to the 10 to 12 thousand lions remains a question during the phase out time as there are not enough true sanctuaries that will be able to take care of them. Putting them back into the wild is simply not an option as they won’t survive as they do not know how to hunt and they cannot defend themselves against wild lions or other predators such a hyenas. Their weaken genes are also a threat to the wild lion population and there is not enough safe wild habitat available for them to be accommodated. A task force will be auditing the breeding farms to asses which lions can be saved. Sadly, most likely most of the mentally abused, cross-bred and in-bred and ill lions will be euthanized.
  • To know more about the canned lion industry, read the excellent and well-researched Cuddle Me, Kill Me by Richard Peirce.
  • A very special thanks goes to Lizaene and Cathrine at Panthera Africa for sharing their knowledge and passion, and for their tremendous work with their beloved big cats.
  • Another thanks goes to Blood Lions for their hard work to fight the canned lion indusry and for providing us with information and photos. Watch their impactful documentary.
  • We also would like to thank Beth Jennings from Claws Out for providing us with the photos of the cub feeding and petting. Watch her video below showing how easy it is to be deceived.

Travel tips:

  • From weekly volunteering programs to a short visit to learn the life stories of the rescued big cats, do check out Panthera Africa, easily reachable from Cape Town.
  • By visiting a safari park to observe lions in their environment you show that there is more money to make in keeping the lions in the wild rather than behind bars.
  • Before you get involved with any volunteering program, refer to Volunteers in Africa Beware to double-check how ethical the organization you are considering is.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

Like it? Pin it!

Get inspired by South Africa, click on one of the images below to be directed to another article:

Pin with original photographs of wild lions taken during safaris in Africa and 8 facts to help you spot lions in the wild &Beyond Phinda Private game reserve - Pinterest - Pin 3 - South Africa Kingsley Holgate- The humanitarian explorer - Pinterest- Pin Safari South Africa Must do Adventures - Pinterest Pin South Africa Shark diving PIN Seal snorkelling- Pinterest - PIN - Cape Town - South Africa SCUBA South Africa PIN Drinking lions looking into the camer, young zebra, colourful bird and hippo with open mouth.

13 thoughts on “The Lion King: the circle of death [exploited to the bone]

  1. Just to follow up, have you seen the recent news that the SA Cabinet has endorsed a report calling for ending lion farming, captive lion hunting and cub-petting facilities? Factors include that such practices do not help conservation and also that they damage SA’s tourism and conservation reputation. It shows that the various campaigns and awareness-raising initiatives have made an impact.
    See for example this newspaper article published yesterday:

    • Yes, we saw the press release announcing the will to move on and pass a law to ban lion breeding & petting. This is great news. Looking forward to seeing it being implemented. Thanks for the link. We are doing a bit more research and want to update this article. Just maybe a bit afraid of a potential backlash with regards to lion poaching in order to feed the bone trade?

      • Yes it is a significant step, but there is much to be done and there will likely be resistance from some quarters and unpleasant repercussions. As far as I understand, legal trade in wild animals and their body parts feeds/increases demand but it is all very complex. I look forward to seeing your updated article.

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