Are South Africa’s captive lions inbred? No—at least not yet
Rachel Fobar/National Geographic:
For years, industry critics have argued that South Africa’s captive lions are inbred—but a new study shows that may not be the case.
Between 8,000 and 10,000 captive lions live on about 300 farms across the country. The multimillion-dollar breeding industry supplies cubs for tourism, lions for trophy hunts, and bones for traditional medicine. Numerous reports have shown that the animals often are kept in inhumane conditions, such as in overcrowded spaces with poor nutrition and veterinary care. (Take a look inside one of South Africa’s controversial lion farms.)
Animal advocates are also concerned that these lions could be inbred as a result of poorly managed, inexpert breeding programs. Inbreeding can lead to a number of health issues including lower fertility, higher mortality rates, and potentially painful abnormalities.
To investigate, researchers compared the genotypes of more than 780 lions from 31 different captive facilities with those of South African wild lions and found that they were “comparable,” according to a new study published in the journal Conservation Genetics. However, scientists did find that many of the lions from different properties were “closely related”—some were as genetically close as cousins or even siblings, says Susan Miller, lead author on the study. “If they keep this up, they’re going to start—just by chance—mating very closely related animals.”
The study also identified signs of “genetic drift,” a natural process in which DNA mutates over generations. This is significant because captive lion farmers sometimes “justify their existence by saying they are preserving the genetics of the wild populations,” Miller says. But the new research suggests that’s not the case.
In May 2021 the minster of South Africa’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Barbara Creecy, announced that the government would shut down the country’s captive lion industry, acknowledging that it was damaging South Africa’s image as a conservation-friendly tourist destination. Several factors influenced this decision, the minister said, including growing public opposition, possible links between legal and illegal trade in lion bones, and a better understanding of the risk of diseases developing in captive populations and spreading to wild animals or even humans. A ministerial task team is working on a voluntary exit plan for stakeholders in the captive lion industry.
The debate over this industry has been a polarized one, says Tina Hiller, a conservation biologist who conducted more than 50 interviews with lion farmers, hunters, veterinarians, and others for a 2022 report. Now that the industry has grown, many farmers are dependent on these animals for income, and some say the government should provide compensation to those trying to exit the industry.
“Unfortunately, the animals are the ones that are having to experience the consequences,” iller says.
The data used in the new study was submitted by facilities that sought independent genetic testing. Because the facilities’ information is confidential, researchers don’t know which ones were involved, so it’s impossible to say if the study’s results are representative of the industry as a whole, Miller says. “It’s more likely that people who look after their lions well are going to have submitted lions for genetic testing,” she says.
Some proponents of lion captivity have argued that the captive populations pose conservation value because they could be re-introduced into the wild if South African lions decline. Critics say that this plan is far-fetched, since captive-born lions likely lack hunting and survival skills. Additionally, if some captive lions are inbred, reintroducing individuals could be harmful to the wild population.
Even though the lions in the study are not inbred, Miller says, this research is not justification for an attempt to rewild them. “Where that argument falls apart is that the wild lions in South Africa are not under threat,” she says. Of the estimated 20,000 wild lions continent-wide, South Africa is considered a stronghold with about 3,500. “I don’t think South Africa has any need for a safety net.”
Releasing captive lions into the wild would come with other risks, says Neil D’Cruze, global head of wildlife research for the nonprofit World Animal Protection. Captive animals could introduce new diseases into wild populations, and because they’re so habituated to humans, they might attack people or livestock.