In what is being called “one of the most shocking cases of animal neglect” in South Africa, more than 100 lions and other animals were discovered in an abandoned facility in South Africa’s North West province. The creatures were diseased, overcrowded, and in some cases, close to death.
According to National Geographic, the situation received attention after an anonymous tipster contacted a journalist, who then contacted the National Council for Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA). The organization is tasked with enforcing South Africa’s animal welfare legislation.
NSPCA inspectors ventured to the facility, located at Pienika Farm. They discovered 27 lions afflicted with mange, a skin disease caused by parasitic mites. The condition was so severe, all of the lions lost their fur. The inspectors reported that the animals were being held in filthy, overcrowded enclosures. In a space meant for two, thirty were contained.
At least three of the lion cubs were suffering from a neurological condition called meningoencephalitis. The inflammation of the brain left them unable to walk. As a result, one cub was euthanized by a veterinarian at the facility.
Said Douglas Wolhuter, manager of the NSPCA wildlife protection unit that inspected the farm: “It’s hard to describe because it leaves you feeling hollow, knowing that you’ve got the king of the jungle in conditions like that. It’s soul-destroying.”
The situation isn’t entirely unique in South Africa. In 2015, the documentary Blood Lions estimated that between 6,000 and 8,000 predators — mostly lions — were being held in captive-breeding facilities in South Africa. The film’s protagonist and narrator, Ian Michler, estimates that number is now 10,000. Furthermore, there have been multiple reports about South Africa’s captive lion industry revealing that the animals’ living conditions are often less than satisfactory.
Facilities of the kind exist primarily for tourism purposes. Visitors pay to pet, bottle-feed, take selfies with lion cubs, and even walk alongside the mature animals. According to Michler, most of the lions end up shot by trophy hunters — the majority of which come from the United States.
Michler theorizes that the Pienika Farm’s lions were being breed for the lion bone trade. As National Geographic reports, the trade serves an an alternative to the tiger bone trade for traditional medicine in Asia. Though the lions intended for the bone trade need to appear healthy, it is common for many of the beasts to be neglected.
“If you’re breeding lions for the lion bone trade, they don’t care what those lions look like,” he said. “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.”
Now, it’s up to the courts to punish the accused. But, Michler isn’t optimistic this will occur. “If the lions had a voice, of course they would be roaring for the courts to come down and decide—say that, yes, we actually do need fair and first-world standards for welfare of our species,” he said. “But I can’t see any outcome ending the breeding practices or the lion bone trade.”
The surviving lions are still being kept in the same facility. Their fate depends on the results of the investigation and the following court case. According to the Humane Society’s Delsink, things are “very uncertain.” If the lions survive, they can’t be released into the wild because all they’ve known is captivity. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough reputable sanctuaries in South Africa to care for the animals.
“The future for these cats is bleak,” Delsink said, “because there’s very few options available to them.”
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IMAGE CREDIT: Humane Society International