Thanda Tau – Where do your lion cubs go? An open letter.

These beautiful creatures have never known their lion moms. Abandoned, says Thanda Tau. Rejected.

Instead, the cubs are bottle fed and raised by humans. In the first six months of their life, they need to endure up to 10 hours of human interaction seven days a week. Being touched and cuddled by a range of strangers.

Even though Thanda Tau states that “it is not their intention to generate an income from their animals”, in the hour or so I was at Thanda Tau on a Friday in the middle of winter outside the school holidays, I saw three groups enter their cub petting enclosure. A total of about 10 people, paying R80 per adult for the privilege to touch a lion cub.

Imagine the potential visitor numbers during the summer school holidays, especially considering this roadside petting zoo is conveniently located on the N3 – the main artery between Gauteng and Durban.

After about six months of being cooped up in a small enclosure, putting up with a continuous stream of visitors, these girls have reached the end of their cub petting life. The big question is, where do they go from here?

What is Thanda Tau?

Thanda Tau consists of a petrol station, deli, brewery, restaurant, accommodation and a range of wildlife enclosures housing anything from black panther, white and tawny lion, to cheetah and rhino. It has recently been developed with R80 million government funding through the Free State Provincial Department of Economic, Small Business Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs.

Dear Johan and Hannes de Jager,

I have been following the wildlife facility on your property with great concern, as have many other wildlife and conservation organisations, in particular with regards to the hands-on lion cub and rhino activities offered by Thanda Tau.

As I have not received a single response to the numerous emails I have sent to you in the recent months, I will raise my concerns again on this more public platform, so we can try to bring transparency to the many questions posed with regards to the wildlife in your care, which should help Thanda Tau to be taken seriously as a wildlife facility.

Lion enclosure at Thanda Tau

Lion enclosure with several lionesses and one lion at Thanda Tau.

Your white and tawny lion enclosures, house around four females and one male lion each, but none of the lionesses are on contraceptives. In October 2016 in a public statement on Facebook, Thanda Tau acknowledged that you breed lions, although you state that you don’t force breed. This expression is rather interesting and I would like to understand the difference between natural breeding and forced breeding.

Thanda Tau Facebook statement October 2016

In my personal view, natural breeding would imply that the cubs stay with their lion mothers until they are old enough to look after themselves. In the wild this means that cubs are weaned until they are about 10 months old, they can only hunt properly at about 2 years, while they are fully grown at 3-4 years old.

Continuing this train of thought, your type of breeding could never be classed as natural, as it is quite clear that your cubs are removed from their mothers at a very young age and used as props for cub petting.

More importantly, the question should be asked why you allow captive breeding of lions in the first place?

It is widely accepted in the conservation community that breeding of captive lions has no conservation value and only adds to the 6,000-8,000 lions already in existence in captivity. In this context, would you not agree that breeding more captive lions is unethical and irresponsible?

Thanda Tau publicly states that you neither “support canned hunting nor trade in wildlife“, which is wonderful news. However, from a Facebook investigation, it can be established that you had at least four tawny lion cubs in late 2016/early 2017 and three white lion cubs in autumn 2017 plus a tawny cub a couple of months later. This adds eight more lions to your already substantial number of predators in as many months, which can never be a sustainable situation.

Thanda Tau lion cubs first half 2017

Thanda Tau – lion cubs in petting enclosure during the first half of 2017.

Again, on Facebook, Thanda Tau states that many of your lions are “given back to parks, where they continue help sustain the natural populations”. Unfortunately, this statement does not wash with anybody slightly more informed, as habituated lions can never be released into the wild.

Hence, the question remains, where do your habituated lions go to once they outgrow the petting stage at 6-7 months old?

Thanda Tau, where do you lion cubs go once they outgrow the petting enclosure?

Walking around Thanda Tau’s wildlife enclosures it appears that only adult lions are kept here, so the cubs are not returned to their mums, as one of the guides stated at the petting enclosure.

If Thanda Tau’s lions are indeed released into parks and reserves, surely you would be able to provide evidence of this happening, as returning captively bred lions to the wild to support natural populations would be an incredible PR opportunity?

However, if you indeed provide a forever home to these predators, we need to do some simple maths. At the current rate, you will add an average of 12 lions per year to an existing pride of 20+ that were already in your care before Thanda Tau opened. A lion kept in captivity can live up to 25-30 years. Hence, how will Thanda Tau cope with this exponentially growing number of lions, if you continue to allow (natural) breeding?

As you can see, more questions than answers remain around Thanda Tau as a wildlife facility. Only transparency can assist you in your quest to be seen as a genuine wildlife facility. The Thanda Tau management, including yourselves as owner and CEO of the facility, have been given ample opportunity to comment on these serious questions raised, but so far no response has been received.

Hence, do we need to draw our own conclusions and expect the worse? Your ex-petting cubs may end up on another lion farm or even sold to a walking with lions facility. However, wouldn’t you agree that they will soon reach the point, where your lions have no further commercial value and are sold to a canned hunting facility and/or killed for their bones?

I look forward to receiving an official response shortly.

With warm regards,

Dr Louise de Waal
Sustainable Tourism consultant


Read Thanda Tau’s official response HERE.


  • This is absolutely heartbreaking and horrifying and needs to stop now

    • Well just sit and think without your emotins where could your grandkids see lions if not for places like these.and another thing where do you think where does the food come from to feed these animals if not from an enty fee.or maybe good idea why dont you supply these animals out of your pocket.thanks to places like these where the animals are looked after and not critisized for beig alive

      • Dr Louise de Waal

        Hi Pieter, Thank you for your comment and interest in the blog post. In response to your first question, I would like to think that future generations will still be able to see lions in the wild or in genuine sanctuaries that do not offer hands-on interactions or breed lions to be held in captivity. There are many such facilities in South Africa and other countries, and thanks to the efforts of conservation bodies such as SANParks there are still around 3,500 wild lions in the country that future generations can view in protected areas without touching or petting them.

        There would be no need to raise money to feed captive bred lions at facilities such as Thanda Tau, if the lions were not purposefully bred for a life in captivity in the first place. The answer is to stop breeding lions for paying international volunteers, cub petting, walking with lions, canned hunting and the lion bone trade and to focus on the conservation of remaining wild populations or the genuine rehabilitation of big cats and those that can’t be reintroduced and have been given a forever home in true sanctuaries with ‘no touching’ policies. I do put my hand in my pocket to directly fund such big cat sanctuaries that do not permit touching, petting or other forms of habituation to humans. I would not wish to directly fund any facility that uses captive bred lions for entertainment and exploitation.

  • I was horrified to see the lions in open pens without shade when I stopped there last week. I would have thought there was legislation to prevent this. I certainly will not stop there again and will share your post widely.

    • Although I also feel the lion enclosures are extremely bare, they do have some shade underneath the raised platforms. I guess just enough to satisfy the authorities. Thanks for the support 😍

  • Pingback: Lion Cubs Cannot Return To The Wild | personnelente

  • YAS QUEEN. You tell em! I hope something positive comes out of this for the benefit of the lions.

  • Unless a response is received from ThandaTau it can only be assumed that the accusations made are indeed true and this facility must be closed down asap

  • Surely the govt authorities are fully aware of what happens to the lions after they outgrow their surroundings?
    I am aware that so called hunters (Americans etc) still travel to SA to ‘hunt’ lions
    What can we do to prevent this?

    • Hi Mark, yes the authorities should be fully aware of what happens to the lion cubs, as records should be kept. However, these practices, including canned hunting, are currently fully legal in South Africa. The only thing we can do is raise awareness, so we can reduce the demand for the cub petting and walking with lions type of hands-on activities and volunteering options, making the breeding of lions and canned hunting a less economically viable option.

  • Pingback: Thanda Tau: a response to our open letter | Green Girls in Africa

  • Im sorry, I don’t understand the need for this establishment.
    What is the purpose of saving the cubs?
    Do you have plan to release them in a wild and find adoptive lioness?!
    What exactly are you thinking of doing with adult animals

    • Good questions we are hoping to get answers to. However, they should never allow their captive lions to breed in the first place, as we already have more lions in captivity than in the wild in South Africa. Captive bred lions can’t be reintroduced into the wild, so sadly a totally unsustainable situation.

  • This facility needs to close down , they must not be supported, I have friends who stopped for petrol and saw the facility , we don’t need this , and people must see wild animals in there natural surroundings NOT LIKE THIS

  • Good Day all
    I looked at the organisation SAPA and would like to bring the following under your attention:
    The organisation re-introduced captive bred lions in the Matlabas area (South Africa) a while ago and they adapted very well(4 female and 1 male) they are doing very well and the first cubs were born in the wild.
    All are aware of the lions in Fochville (South Africa) that escaped from a breeding facility…..The lions also adapted to be free roaming (longer than 3 months).Should you look at the news paper (Beeld page 5 of September 2017) you will see that Drew Abrahamson of Captured in Africa Foundation wrote”any Lion even if it is captive,will return their natural instinct the moment its been released.They will start hunting again even if they were used to be fed.” Dr Louise de Waal can you still make the same statement that captive bred Lions can not survive on their own in once released in the wild?The Fochville story and Matlabas tells us its possible,even Drew Abrahamson steted it.

    • Hi James, thank you for your response and we do need to interrogate all angles, so I welcome your comment. However, reintroduction of habituated and/or captive bred lions, if possible at all, is a long, slow and laborious process. You only need to read the story of Joy Adamson, trying to set Elsa free and spending many months training her to hunt and survive on her own.

      In addition, there are various issues linked to the potential release of habituated and/or captive bred lions, not just their lack of survival skills, that need to be taken into account. Some lions may well find their natural hunting instincts. However,

      * Many of the captive bred lions have to some extent been inbred and therefore have inferior gene pools. It is a risk to the long-term genetic diversity of the species, to mix the much purer wild gene pool with the captive bred inferior one.

      * Habituated and captive bred lions have lost their natural fear for humans and when reintroduced in the wild can lead to further undesirable human-wildlife conflicts.

      * As the Alert project has shown, successful reproduction among captive bred lions released into the wild is extremely poor. Many of these lionesses gave birth to many cubs, but have actually never been allowed to raise any of their babies to maturity. They often don’t know what to do. They have not learned these skills from their mothers and sisters in the pride. I have even seen a captive bred lion that was raised with tigers. It now lives in a sanctuary, but can’t be mixed with its own kind, as it doesn’t understand the intricacies of living as part of a pride – it basically doesn’t understand how to be a lion.

      I would love to be proven wrong, as that would mean that we may be able to reintroduce at least some of our captive bred lions, but I need to see hard scientific proof first rather than the anecdotal evidence that is in the public domain.

  • Pingback: From stony silence to anger – the response to online critical voices | Green Girls in Africa

  • Pingback: The role of ambassador species in wildlife tourism | Green Girls in Africa

Leave a Reply to KdeM Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s