A baby lion cub snuggles up with its mother. (Bigstock)

They call it canned hunting.

South African ranchers breed lions in captivity, from cubs to adults, then release them just after the arrival of a hunter who pays about $15,000 for a kill. Sometimes the animal is drugged to make it easier game. Sometimes it’s lured by fresh meat to a place where the hunter lurks. Sometimes the felines are so accustomed to humans that they amble up to the person waiting to kill it. Not surprisingly, the success of these hunts is 99 percent.

But the Obama administration’s federal protection of lions could end the practice when a new rule goes into effect in about three weeks

As part of actions listing African and Indian lions as threatened or endangered, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that it will make it much harder for American hunters to import the slain animals’ heads — their trophies and bragging rights. In addition, the fees for hunting permits will increase substantially.

A recent analysis by Humane Society International said the harsher U.S. scrutiny of trophy imports, along with the higher fees and the refusal of some carriers such as Federal Express to ship them, could drive the South African ranchers out of business. According to the organization, almost nine of 10 lions shot in canned hunts there are killed by Americans.

“It’s the responsibility of the hunting industry and the American hunter in particular to do better,” Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe said last month, vowing that the agency will pay more attention to how African nations use permit fees intended to benefit wildlife conservation. “Hunting, particularly trophy hunting, is going to have to lead to the enhancement of lion populations. We have an obligation to make sure U.S. citizens are supporting wildlife management programs that enhance lion populations in the wild.”

Humane Society International studied data compiled by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an agreement involving more than 150 countries, and found that in 2014, a total of 363 lion trophies from South Africa — 85 percent — were imported to the United States. Poland was a distant second with 20 trophies, followed by Spain with 17 and the Czech Republic with 10.

Fish and Wildlife officials declined Monday to comment on the Humane Society’s analysis without seeing the raw data behind it. However, spokeswoman Laury Parramore wrote in an email: “We are aware that most of the sport-hunted lions documented in the international trade are imported into the United States and that most of these lions were exported from South Africa.”

The agency said there were about 3,600 captive lions bred for trophy hunting at more than 170 facilities in South Africa in 2009. The industry often publicizes captive breeding as a potential solution to the dwindling populations in the wild. But lions bred in cages rarely have the tools and behaviors to survive on their own, according to scientific research.

Canned or captive hunting, as it’s also known, has been widely condemned by animal-rights groups, including Born Free USA, which has declared 2016 as the “Year of the Lion” to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the movie, Born Free, that focused worldwide attention on the African species. Blood Lions, a documentary set for worldwide release this year, targets such hunting. 

“If you thought Walter Palmer’s killing of Cecil was deplorable, what happens to nameless lions at these facilities is even more appalling and unsporting,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States. “Along with the new U.S. import restrictions, we applaud France and Australia for banning lion trophy imports, and we urge other importing countries, including the Czech Republic, Poland and Spain, to enact similar rules.”


A lion cub explores its enclosure at Monarto Zoo in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Morne de Klerk/Getty Images)

African lions numbered in the hundreds of thousands in much of the last century but now total only about 20,000. They are haunted by a range of issues: people expanding into their habitat, the widespread human slaughter of animals they prey upon for bush meat, and government-sanctioned hunts for permits that fetch up to $400,000 each.

While the death of the Zimbabwean lion known as Cecil drew worldwide attention last summer, little is generally known about lion hunts within contained areas where kills are all but assured. South Africa has about 6,000 captive lions. They are born in cages and often rented out to petting operations when they’re young. When they grow into adults, their value as hunting targets increase.

“The animals are normally kept in small cages and released just before being shot,” said Teresa Telecky, director of the wildlife department for Humane Society International. “They hang an animal for the lion to kill, and the hunter lays in wait for a guaranteed kill. More people are becoming aware of it.”

South Africa isn’t the only site of canned hunts, which often are promoted at U.S. hunting conventions. Here at home, Texas ranches breed African antelopes for hunts, while red foxes in Virginia and elk in Colorado also are raised specifically for hunting, according to Born Free USA.”If you look at trophy hunting overall, it’s predominantly Americans engaged in the activity,” Telecky said.

“There are more than a thousand captive hunts in at least 28 states,” the organization says on its website. “Of the 12 U.S. ranches holding current or recent government-issued endangered species permits, 11 are located in Texas and 1 is in Florida. The animal most commonly hunted at these ranches is the barasingha, or ‘swamp deer,’ native to India and Nepal.”