Green Girls in Africa

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 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.

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 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.