South Africans are calling it one of the most shocking cases of animal neglect they’ve ever seen—more than 100 lions and other animals found diseased, overcrowded, and, in some cases, near death in a captive-breeding facility in South Africa’s North West province.
The situation came to light after an anonymous tipster reached out to a journalist who contacted the National Council for Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA), which is responsible for enforcing South Africa’s animal welfare legislation.
When NSPCA inspectors visited the facility, at Pienika Farm, they saw 27 lions afflicted with mange, a skin disease caused by parasitic mites. It was so severe that they’d lost almost all their fur. The inspectors reported that the animals were held in filthy, overcrowded enclosures, with more than 30 held in spaces meant for two. At least three cubs were suffering from a neurological condition called meningoencephalitis, an inflammation of the brain, that left them unable to walk. One was subsequently euthanized by a veterinarian at the facility.
“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,” says Douglas Wolhuter, manager of the NSPCA wildlife protection unit that inspected the farm. “It’s soul-destroying.”
Pienika Farm is owned by Jan Steinman, who is listed online as a council member of the South African Predator Association (SAPA). The organization favors captive breeding and asserts that hunting is “legitimate and ecologically responsible.” It requires members to “maintain high ethical standards.” The NSPCA has charged Steinman with violating South Africa’s Animals Protection Act 71 of 1962, which could result in a fine of up to about $2,700 or one year in jail for each charge that leads to a conviction.
Steinman did not respond to a request for comment.
Deon Swart, the CEO of SAPA, denies that Steinman is part of SAPA’s leadership. “He’s just an ordinary member of the organization,” he says.
In a press release, SAPA announced today that they had “conducted an in-depth investigation” and that they would “immediately institute disciplinary action against Mr. Steinman.”
On its website, SAPA enumerates norms and standards for animal welfare, including that “no animal suffers from undue” hunger, thirst, discomfort, disease, or pain. Audrey Delsink, wildlife director of Humane Society International-Africa, says the word “undue” is a loophole—“a little escape route” for breeders when it comes to what constitutes suffering.
“‘Undue’ paints a lot of gray in the terminology,” Delsink says. “And it can’t be gray, it has to be black and white. We can’t have any gray areas when it comes to animals and compromising their health and safety.”
The 2015 documentary Blood Lions estimated that between 6,000 and 8,000 predators—mostly lions—were being held in captive-breeding facilities in South Africa. Ian Michler, the film’s protagonist and narrator, who has worked as a safari operator, journalist, and conservation advocate for more than 25 years, estimates that the number today is around 10,000.
At these places, tourists pay to pet, bottle-feed, take selfies with captive-bred lion cubs, even walk alongside mature animals. At the end of their lives, Michler says, most captive lions are shot by trophy hunters—often from the United States—in “canned” hunts that are held in fenced areas from which the lions have no escape. Trophy hunters keep the skins and heads, and the bones and other parts are exported to Asia, where they’re used in traditional medicine. South Africa sets an annual quota for the number of lion skeletons that can be exported legally.
Michler says Pienika Farm’s lions were most likely being bred for the lion bone trade, which serves as an alternative to the tiger bone trade for traditional medicine in Asia. Animals used for tourism or trophy hunting need to appear healthy, Michler says, but it’s common for lions headed for the bone trade to be neglected. “If you’re breeding lions for the lion bone trade, they don’t care what those lions look like,” he says. “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.”
Michler doubts that this case will lead to any substantial change for captive-bred predators in South Africa. He thinks the accused will likely hire a powerful lawyer, drag out the case for as long as possible, and ultimately receive a slap on the wrist.
“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 says. “But I can’t see any outcome ending the breeding practices or the lion bone trade.”
For now, the Pienika lions are being kept in the same facility. Their fate depends on the results of the investigation and the subsequent court case. The Humane Society’s Delsink says things are “very uncertain.” She says that if the lions survive, they can’t be released into the wild because they’ve been in captivity their whole lives, and there aren’t enough reputable sanctuaries in South Africa to take so many of the animals.
“The future for these cats is bleak,” Delsink says, “because there’s very few options available to them.”
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.