The Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary near Bethlehem in the Free State will receive its first rescued lions for this year on Wednesday, World Lion Day.
Five young lions, all from the same litter, arrived at OR Tambo International Airport from the Netherlands and are on their way to Lionsrock where they will grow up together in a 2.5ha enclosure.
The three males, named Roman, Vincent and Dolf, and two females, Geena and Ellie, were rescued by the global animal welfare organisation, Four Paws, from “unsuitable and unsafe keeping conditions” in Romania in September last year, according to media officer Elize Parker.
They were taken to Four Paws’ Felida Big Cat Sanctuary in Nijberkoop in the Netherlands and have been there for the past few months.
South Africa has more than 300 captive wildlife facilities that breed and keep an estimated 10 000 to 12 000 cat species, including lions, cheetahs, leopards, caracals, tigers and ligers — a crossbreed between a lion and tiger — Parker said.
These big cats are bred in captivity, often raised by humans and, in some instances, kept under appalling welfare conditions for commercial exploitation, according to Four Paws.
“The captive lion population in South Africa is three times the size of the country’s wild lion population. Approximately 9 000 lions [are kept in] captivity [compared with] 3 000 in the wild,” she said.
The campaign, Blood Lions, drawn from the 2015 Blood Lions feature documentary, continues to create global awareness about problems facing the conservation of lions.
To celebrate World Lions Day, Blood Lions published a short video on the commercial captive lion breeding industry. “These predators are bred for commercial purposes, including interactive tourism, voluntourism, ‘canned’ hunting, the lion bone trade and live exports,” it says.
Despite the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment announcing in May 2021 that South Africa would no longer breed or keep lions in captivity, or use captive lions or their derivatives commercially, the captive trade is still thriving, Blood Lions says.
The legislative process for the department’s policy on the conservation and sustainable use of South Africa’s biodiversity, which includes the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of lions, is still underway. Public comment opened in July.
The breeding of rescued cats at Lionsrock, which houses 80 lions, 23 tigers and three leopards, is prohibited, says the sanctuary’s manager, Hildegard Pirker.
She said the absence of specialised care, facilities and space leads to lions being neglected while in captivity because “owners of these facilities are often not willing to spend money” on necessities, says Parker.
The five young lions will at first adapt to their new environment in a smaller enclosure before being released into a larger space. Both females have had laparoscopic surgery during which their uteruses were removed to prevent certain health problems and breeding.
Pirker said the animals would take part in various enrichment activities “to stimulate their natural instincts”.
“Enrichment can be in the form of different scents, objects to play with or destroy like boxes and balls and sometimes food is hidden for them to find around the enclosure. It’s an important part of their wellbeing,” she said.
The young lions cannot be reintroduced into the wild because they were born in captivity and their chances of survival in the wild are low.
“In many instances, animals born into captivity may have genetic or other issues that will cause them to be weaker,” Pirker explained. “Bred big cats may starve in the wild as they have never learned how to hunt. They also don’t stand a chance in a fight with wild lions and can easily be killed by wild animals”.