Last month, 108 lions were found in deplorable conditions at a farm in South Africa’s North West province, shining a damning light on the country’s captive lion-breeding industry.
According to National Geographic’s Rachel Fobar, the National Council for Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA), which enforces animal welfare in South Africa, was alerted to the situation at Pienika Farm through an anonymous tip. When inspectors arrived at the facility, they were greeted by a horrific scene. The lions had been packed into filthy, overcrowded enclosures, they had not been provided with any water, and 27 of lions were afflicted so badly with mange—a skin disease caused by parasitic mites—that they had lost nearly all their fur. Two cubs at the facility appeared to be suffering from neurological conditions that rendered them unable to walk. One was ultimately euthanized by a veterinarian.
Tigers, leopards and caracals, a mid-size wild cat, were also found at the facility in similarly dire states. Senior inspector Douglas Wolhuter told Naledi Shange of Times Live, a South African publication, that the caracals were so obese that they could not groom themselves.
“It is deplorable that any animal would be forced to live in such conditions, with such medical ailments,” Wolhuter said. “The fact that these are wild animals that are already living unnatural lives in confinement for the purposes of trade, just makes it more horrific.”
South Africa’s legal but controversial captive-bred lion industry generates tens of millions of dollars each year, Adam Welz reported for Yale Environment 360 in 2018. Concrete numbers are hard to come by, but it has been estimated that as many as 14,000 lions are being held on hundreds of farms. And from birth to death, critics say, the lions are exploited for profit.
Cubs are taken from their mothers and hand-raised by volunteers from abroad, who pay for the opportunity and are often under the mistaken impression that the lions will be released to the wild. Farms also charge tourists to take photos with the cubs and, when the lions are a little older, to go on walks with them. Once the animals get too big to safely be around humans, they are sold off for “canned” hunts, which take place in fenced areas that the lions cannot possibly escape. Many trophy hunters who participate in these events are from the United States, according to Humane Society International.
But Ian Michler, a journalist and conservationist, tells Fobar of National Geographic that the Pienika Farm lions were most likely destined for the bone trade. While lions that interact with tourists and hunters need to look healthy, the same cannot be said for animals that are being reared for their skeletons. “If you’re breeding lions for the lion bone trade, they don’t care what those lions look like,” Michler explains. “Because at the end of the day, all they’re going to do is end up in a sack, a bag of bones that’s going to go to Asia.”
Once abroad in Asian markets, lion bones are passed off as tiger bones, which are believed to have medicinal properties. The international trade of tiger parts is largely prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) treaty, but the regulations are not as strict for lions. “Lion bone leaves South Africa legally, with CITES permits, but once it arrives in Southeast Asia it is typically relabeled as tiger bone and smuggled to black markets across the region; thus the legal product feeds illegal business,” Welz writes.
The owner of Pienika Farm is Jan Steinman, who is listed as a member of the South African Predator Association Council—an organization that, according to its website, works to maintain “healthy and sustainable predator breeding and hunting industry in South Africa.” Proponents of captive lion breeding maintain that the industry helps conservation, in part by curbing the poaching of wild lions. But critics say that most breeding facilities “have no conservation value.”
Steinman is now facing criminal charges for animal cruelty, reports Live Science’s Stephanie Pappas. Whether this disturbing case will lead to any policy changes in South Africa is another question. Last year, the country’s Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) raised its annual lion skeleton export quota from 800 to 1,500, prompting an outcry. The government subsequently appointed a panel to review the captive breeding trade and bring the quota back down. But according to Conservation Action Trust, the DEA “backtracked on the Parliamentary Resolution to introduce legislation to end the Captive Breeding of Lions in South Africa and proposed instead to allow the industry to continue with the introduction of regulation and appropriate legislation.”
The future of the abused lions is also uncertain. After years in captivity, they cannot be released into the wild, and South Africa does not have enough sanctuaries to take all of them. “There is sadly no quick fix to re-home more than 100 lions all at once,” says Audrey Delsink, executive director of Human Society International/Africa. “It’s an extremely sad situation, with these lions the innocent victims.”