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Environmental Film Festival: Blood Lions

March 16, 2016


The Story

Blood Lions follows acclaimed environmental journalist and safari operator Ian Michler, and Rick Swazey, an American hunter, on their journey to uncover the realities about the multi-million dollar predator breeding and canned lion hunting industries in South Africa.

It is a story that blows the lid off claims made by these operators in attempting to justify what they do. Last year alone over 800 captive lions were shot in South Africa, mostly by wealthy international hunters under conditions that are anything but sporting.

Ian has been following this story since 1999, and he goes onto the breeding farms to witness the impacts that decades of intensive breeding is having on the captive lions and other predators.

Aggressive farmers and most within the professional hunting community resent his questioning, but the highly profitable commercialization of lions is plain to see – cub petting, volunteer recruitment, lion walking, canned hunting, trading and the new lion bone trade are on the increase. And all are being justified under the guise of conservation, research and education. 

In parallel we follow Rick, who purchases a lion online from his home in Hawaii. He then travels to South Africa to follow the path canned hunters do.

We also speak to trophy hunters, operators and breeders as well as recognized lion ecologists, conservationists and animal welfare experts.

The film shows in intimate detail how lucrative it is to breed lions, and how the authorities and most professional hunting and tourism bodies have become complicit in allowing the industries to flourish.

There is also hope in our story as we cover the very latest developments with the Australian government announcing a complete ban on the importation of all African lion trophies into Australia.

Blood Lions is a compelling call to action and shows how you can get involved in a global campaign to stop lions being bred for the bullet. 

The Back Story

About four years ago Pippa Hankinson visited a private lion breeding farm for the first time where she found approximately 80 lions in small enclosures, many visibly inbred and clearly stressed. She was deeply disturbed by her experience.

Determined to find out more, she learnt that there were between 6000 and 8000 lions living in similar conditions on other breeding farms around South Africa – part of a multimillion-dollar industry – where the majority are sold into the captive/canned lion hunting industry or to Asia to supplement the “tiger bone” trade. Most shocking of all was not only that the industry was legal, but how few people seemed to know anything about it.

She often quotes Martin Luther King Jr. when he said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”. Animals have always mattered a great deal to Pippa, but Africa’s wildlife and particularly lions, are very close to her heart.

A documentary seemed the most effective way to raise awareness around the exploitation of these captive-bred lions, but never having made a film before, Pippa set about gathering a proficient and committed team of professionals around her. Along with the extraordinary generosity and support of individuals and organisations from around the world, they helped her make this film. 


The Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital is the world’s premier showcase of environmentally themed films. Through our annual festival, year-round events, and online resources, we seek to advance public understanding of the environment through the power of film.

Each March in Washington, DC, we host the largest environmental film festival in the United States, presenting more than 100 films to an audience of over 30,000. Often combined with thematic discussions and social events, our films screen at museums, embassies, libraries, universities and local theaters. Many of the screenings are free, and all are open to the public.

EFF also partners with filmmakers, distributors, and venues to present environmental films throughout the year. Our Washington, DC location offers the unique ability for films and filmmakers to reach national decision makers.

Founded in 1993, EFF is the longest-running environmental film festival in the United States. It has grown into a major collaborative cultural event both during the festival season and all year-round. 

Special Guests

Luke Dollar

Luke Dollar

Ian Michler

Ian Michler

Luke Dollar

About 150 million years ago, a sizeable chunk of Africa broke away and floated into the Indian Ocean, allowing the rich array of primitive animals aboard the newly formed island to evolve in isolation. Today, the miracle that is Madagascar holds more than 200,000 species of plants and animals, many found no place else on the planet. But since the arrival of people 2,000 years ago, more than 90 percent of its original forest has been destroyed, carrying many species into extinction.

No one understands the urgency of saving this threatened evolutionary wonder better than Dr. Luke Dollar, a scientist devoted to ensuring every minute and dollar spent on conservation efforts counts. "A conservation project may be well-funded and issue glowing reports, but if 25 percent of forest cover is lost while it is in effect, something's wrong," Dollar explains. "When I arrived, my work was on the ground and I could see the habitat disappearing. I needed a way to quantify the qualitative claims being made by conservation management. I used satellite images, and pictures don't lie. Comparing an image of an area taken at one point in time, with an image of the same area later provides an irrefutable measure of the success or failure of conservation programs, no sugarcoating. It also shows what areas need the most attention first."

Grassroots efforts such as this are Dollar's passion. "I'm a big fan of muddy boots. Field biologists are there in the forest, fighting the fight. We see what's happening to habitat firsthand, and that knowledge is invaluable—without it, bad decisions will be made."

Dollar stresses that to simply go to a remote place, collect data on a little known species, and write papers is no longer enough. "We need to let policymakers know what's happening. My best days involve working in the field, then flying to the capital city to meet with government officials, then flying back to the field."

"I take the money I raise or borrow straight to the ground level and get more bang for my buck," he reports. A prime example is his work with a group of village women. Overhearing them sing as they pounded rice, Dollar knew other outsiders would love to hear their music. He convinced the group to sing for a few research groups he was leading. The women used the money they made from those appearances to create a campsite. "This was their idea, their initiative," Dollar notes. "The project grew and since 2000 they've served more than 60,000 plates of food to researchers and ecotourists. They've put wells in their settlements, enrolled every child in school, and eliminated the need for slash-and-burn agriculture that destroys habitat in their area."

Expanding on their success, Dollar raised money to finance unlimited education for any qualified local child. "My goal," he explains, "is to one day have a director of the national park service who came from one of these forest villages and knows what it's like on the ground."

Dollar first came to Madagascar in 1994 as an undergraduate research assistant studying lemurs with Duke University. The lemur he was assigned to follow was eaten by a fossa, an elusive predator found only in Madagascar. Dollar was instantly intrigued and upon discovering the species had never been studied, vowed to return. "Here was a mysterious predator which sat atop the food chain in the world's top biodiversity hot spot, yet no one knew anything about it. As a flagship species, the fossa plays a crucial role in maintaining the equilibrium of Madagascar's entire food chain."

Dollar's decade of fieldwork has quantified the fossa's shrinking numbers, now about 2,500, and yielded a trove of data on its biology and behavior.

"When you're in the field it's muddy, sweaty, stinky, gritty—there's no sex appeal to it at all, but it's great fun. I wake up every morning knowing I'm one of the luckiest guys on Earth because I'm doing exactly what I want to do and it's going to make a difference." 

Ian Michler

Ian Michler is a safari operator, specialist wilderness guide, consultant and environmental photojournalist. He has lived and worked across Africa for the last 25 years. His feature articles, diaries and blogs documenting the major conservation challenges facing Africa, and especially those on predator breeding and trophy hunting are well known to readers of a number of award winning publications and magazines. He is an ecotourism consultant for both private and government sectors, and currently channels his conservation work through The Conservation Action Trust (

Ian is also a member of the International League of Conservation Writers, and is author of seven natural History and travel books on various African countries. Prior to his life in the wilderness, Ian was a partner in one of South Africa’s leading stockbroking firms. He is a co-founder and owner of Invent Africa Safaris (, a specialist safari company that runs trips to 15 countries across the continent, and is a Director of Eden to Addo (, a successful regional corridor conservation initiative. 

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