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'Dirty Little Secret': Lions Bred And Killed For Chinese Medicine, Rich Hunting Trips

Across South Africa, thousands of lions are being bred in captivity before they are killed by trophy hunters or slaughtered to turn their bones into medicines. 

The horrors of captive-bred lion farming were exposed in a report by U.K politician and philanthropist Lord Ashcroft this week following a year-long undercover investigation into the trade.

According to the report, there are about 12,000 captive-bred lions -- more than four times the number of lions in the wild -- in South Africa, the only country that permits the practice on such a large scale. The country permits rich hunters to pursue and kill the animals, while others are slaughtered for their use in traditional medicine in Asia.

It's the country's "dirty little secret" which animal welfare group Humane Society International (HSI) has been campaigning against for years.

Head of Campaigns in Australia, Nicole Beynon, welcomed the Ashcroft report and said the "exploitative" industry is "rife with cruelty" at every stage.

"We know the lionesses endure a lifetime of reclusive breeding to produce the cubs who are kept in so-called sanctuaries," she told 10 daily.

Tourists are invited there to pet and cuddle them -- not knowing those same lion cubs then get passed onto the camp hunting industry where they are shot by hunters.

"Then, their bones get traded off for traditional medicine to Asia."

Lions farming is permitted in South Africa. Image: AAP

According to the RSPCA, trophy hunting refers to organised pursuits where the hunter takes their prize, usually being part of -- or even the entire -- animal they have killed.

Beynon said the practice exists in Australia for hunting of introduced species such as wild boar, deer and buffalo. The federal government has repeatedly rejected moves by the Northern Territory government to allow trophy hunting of native crocodiles.

"The federal government has has always maintained the line that it is not appropriate and the Australian public does not support it," Beynon said.

'Canned hunting', involving the captive breeding of lions and other game species, has developed in some parts of Africa.

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As part of his study, dubbed 'Operation Simba', Ashcroft travelled to South Africa where investigators infiltrated breeding farms and a slaughter house, where it's claimed more than 50 lions were killed in just two days.

Investigators saved one 11-year-old captive-bred male lion, named Simba, from an illegal "green hunt" where a British hunter had paid US$4000 to shoot him with tranquiliser darts. The team managed to rescue Simba and take him to a sanctuary where he will live out his days.

Along with large-scale captive-lion farming, South Africa also permits the export of lion bones, mainly to the Asian market, for traditional medicines.

Beyon said about 98 percent of the product base goes to Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, warning the  benefits of such medicines are "completely bogus".

She recognised Australia as a "leader" on this issue, banning the impact of lion body parts in 2015. Many other countries, including the U.S. have followed suit.

Now, Ashcroft is calling on the U.K government to fall into line and ban the import of protected species.

Meandwhile, the HSI wants the South African government to stop selling lion petting and 'fake volunteering' to tourists.

"It's people's good will being exploited," she said.

Featured image: Getty