Most of the more than 700 lions shot and killed in South Africa by foreign hunters last year were “captive bred” animals, the department of environmental affairs confirmed on Tuesday.

The department was reacting to an earlier statement by Animal Rights Africa (ARA), which warned that “since 2005, the number of lions killed by the canned predator industry has doubled”. The department said lions were not listed as “large predators” under current Threatened or Protected Species Regulations (TOPS).

“The regulation of prohibited activities involving listed large predators is thus not applicable to lions… Most of the lions hunted during 2007 were captive bred lions,” director regulation and monitoring services Bonani Madikizela said.

According to a recent written reply by environment minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk to a parliamentary question, a total of 702 lions were “hunted by foreign clients in each province in 2007”. The majority, 637, were killed in North West province.

ARA said canned lion hunting – a controversial practice whereby animals are bred and raised in captivity before being released onto game farms to be shot by hunters – was growing rapidly.

“The general public, both local and international, cannot be criticised for thinking canned hunting is a thing of the past. But nothing can be further from the truth. Far from being controlled, the canned hunting industry… is growing exponentially,” the NGO said.

Madikizela said a decision was taken by his department late last year to “temporarily exclude” lions from the TOPS definition of large predators, following legal action from the SA Predator Breeders Association (SAPBA). “It was decided that by changing the definition, the implementation of the Threatened or Protected Species Regulations will not be jeopardised, as SAPBA wanted to stop the implementation of TOPS,” he said.

Last year, Van Schalkwyk announced the regulations, which he said were aimed at “putting an end, once and for all, to the reprehensible practice of canned hunting”. They originally sought to outlaw the hunting of captive-bred large predators, including lions, within two years of their release on a property for the purpose of hunting.

According to Van Schalkwyk’s reply to the parliamentary question, tabled in August, foreign hunters last year also hunted and killed, among other animals, 27 elephant, 56 hippo and 156 white rhino.

Also included on the list of hunted species were 15 yellow mongoose, a scrub and grasslands mammal that weighs about 500g, four aardwolf and 370 vervet monkeys.