The role of big cat sanctuaries

The role that the many overseas volunteers play in the canned lion hunting chain through their involvement with breeding farms, is well recorded. Uninformed and more often misinformed volunteers, mainly from Europe and North America, pay thousands of dollars to play what they believe is their small conservation role in the rearing of ‘orphaned’ lion cubs.

The Blood Lions team has recently done an amazing job in raising awareness of the true and often sordid stories that lie behind these ‘conservation’ volunteering programmes. Organisations like these play a pivotal role in the lucrative canned lion hunting supply chain. Stopping the breeding of predators in captivity would bring about an end to this entire controversial industry.

This is the story of one of those volunteers, who came to South Africa believing she would fulfill an important role in the conservation of big cats, and lions in particular. Cathrine Nyquist (aka Cat) made the journey between Norway and South Africa several times before she started to unravel the truth behind the lion breeding and cub petting industry. By that time, Cat had lost her heart to those same lions she helped to raise. Animals who would either lose their lives to end up as trophies on somebody’s wall, for their bones to be exported to southeast Asia, or to be destined to a life of producing 2-3 litters per year, until they would die of pure exhaustion.

Together with her partner, Lizaene Cornwall, who was working at the same volunteering organisation, they decided that enough was enough. They were committed to make amends and provide a safe haven for big cats in captivity. To provide these habituated cats with a certain amount of freedom and a life away from breeding and petting. They also wanted to play a role in educating the general public by raising further awareness of captive breeding, exploitation of big cats, and the illegal wildlife trade.

After purchasing property just outside of Stanford in the Overberg and a long period of obtaining the required permits and licences, Panthera Africa was born and opened its doors on the 3rd April 2015. They were able to rescue and relocate a number of big cats from the facility they both worked and volunteered at. Some of these animals were actually hand reared by either Cat or Lizaene, which explains their very close and personal bond with the rescues.

They created several spacious and secure outdoor enclosures for the various animals that are used for educational tours for day visitors. They do not breed with any of the animals and do not allow ANY human-wildlife interaction. Currently there are 16 rescued animals, including seven lions, both males and females, white and tawny (brown) lions, two tigers, a black leopard, three caracals, and three jackals.

Obi (a tawny lion) and Oliver (a white lion), both males, were born in captivity in October 2011. They were both raised by Cat and Lizaene at the previous project they worked, and sent back to the owners at a lion breeding facility at the age of 9 months. They lived in an enclosure with eight other lions, where they were left to fend for themselves, often with a lack of good food and water. When Panthera Africa rescued Obi, he was suffering from severe malnourishment and an untreated vitamin A deficiency – he could barely walk. They have now been living together at Panthera Africa in the same enclosure with plenty of nutritious food, medication, and lots of TLC, and have turned a fortunate corner. They look healthy and content, and are able to live the rest of their lives in peace. Before photos top – After photos bottom.

Through a wider awareness and public outcry of the unethical practices in the canned lion hunting industry, many breeding farms and volunteer projects are feeling the pressure and changes are now starting to happen. However, this leaves countless lions and other big cats bred in captivity with an immensely uncertain future. This is where wildlife sanctuaries, such as Panthera Africa, fill an important and necessary gap.

While these sanctuaries hugely improve the quality of life for rescued animals, I personally don’t think these facilities are ideal. I would prefer to see these majestic animals returned to the ‘wild’ on for example private game reserves, and so would the founders of Panthera Africa for that matter. However, the reality is that some of these big cats are semi-domesticated and may not be able to live a wild existence without intensive rehabilitation programmes. For now, we will need to be content with genuine big cat sanctuaries like Panthera Africa.

In memory of Zorro, who sadly passed away on 5th December 2015 due to medical complications

In memory of Zorro, who sadly passed away on 5th December 2015 at Panthera Africa, due to medical complications.

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