Exclusive: Inside a controversial South African lion farm

National Geographic investigates the fate of lions found in terrible condition earlier this year.

By Rachel Fobar
photographs by Nichole Sobecki
Published 23 Nov 2019, 08:00 GMT
Burkhart massages Karlos’s paws to stimulate his cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls movement. ...
Burkhart massages Karlos’s paws to stimulate his cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls movement. Karlos is one of a pair of lion cubs seized for rehabilitation from Pienika Farm, a captive-breeding facility.
Photograph by Nichole Sobecki, National Geographic

Thirty-four lions were crammed into a muddy enclosure meant for three. Rotting chicken carcasses and cattle body parts littered the ground. Feces piled up in corners. Algae grew in water bowls. Twenty-seven of the lions were so afflicted with mange, a painful skin disease caused by parasitic mites, that they’d lost nearly all their fur. Three cubs lay twitching in the dirt, one draped over the blackened leg of a cow, its hoof visible. Mewling, they struggled—but failed—to drag themselves forward. A fourth cub looked on, motionless.

“Soul destroying.” That’s how Douglas Wolhuter, senior inspector with South Africa’s National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA), described the scene at Pienika Farm, in North West Province, on April 11, 2019. The NSPCA is responsible for enforcing the country’s Animals Protection Act, and Wolhuter was conducting an inspection of Pienika, one of the more than 250 privately owned lion farms in South Africa.

“Ever since I’ve been a young kid, a lion has been known as the king of the jungle,” Wolhuter says. “And then you see it reduced to basically an intensively farmed animal—you’ve removed everything regal and noble about the animal.”

He says the sight left him feeling hollow.

Pienika surrendered two of the four cubs. A third was euthanised, and the fourth remained on the farm, along with the adult lions sick with mange. The NSPCA later laid charges against Jan Steinman, the farm’s owner, and his staff for violating the Animals Protection Act 71 of 1962, which prohibits keeping animals in “dirty or parasitic condition,” allowing them “to become infested with external parasites,” and failing to “procure veterinary or other medical treatment” for an ailing animal.

The NSPCA’s case against Steinman is still pending: Under South African law, the police must conduct their own investigation, and the prosecution is now reviewing the case.

Although the number of captive lions in South Africa has been estimated at between 6,000 and 8,000, there may now be as many as 10,000, according to conservationist Ian Michler, the protagonist of the 2015 documentary Blood Lions, which goes behind the scenes to examine the country’s lion-farming industry. At facilities geared to tourists, visitors pay to pet, bottle-feed, and take selfies with cubs and even walk alongside mature lions. Critics say the cub-petting industry leads to abuse, commercial breeding, and discarding of exotic animals. As the lions age, they become too dangerous to pet, and they’re often sold to breeding and hunting ranches like Pienika, which are not open to the public. “It’s this whole macabre, grisly industry with all these little revenue streams, and it’s very, very lucrative,” Michler says.

Here at Akwaaba Predator Park, in Rustenburg, North West Province, and other facilities like it, tourists pay to pet and take selfies with cubs. As the animals age, some petting facilities sell them to breeding and hunting ranches. When those lions die, their bones may be exported, legally (or not), to Asia.

Some ranches may offer “canned” hunts, in which lions are confined to fenced areas. Sport hunters may pay as much as £38,000 to kill lions so they can keep the skins and heads as trophies. The bones and other unwanted parts may be exported to Asia, where they’re used in traditional medicine. South Africa sets a quota for the number of lion skeletons that can be exported legally every year.

At Lion and Safari Park, in North West Province, tourists are invited to get close and “feel the breath of a lion.” In 2014, CBS’s 60 Minutes revealed that the park had been selling lions into the canned hunting industry. At the time, a park representative said that was no longer happening. South Africa’s legal, but controversial, captive-lion industry takes in millions of dollars a year.

For conservationists and animal welfare advocates, Pienika symbolises everything that’s wrong with South Africa’s lion farms. The captive-lion industry has been criticised as being largely unregulated: South Africa’s Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries doesn’t regularly track the number of captive lions, demand for lion bone has grown, and monitoring animal welfare is left to the short-staffed and underfunded NSPCA. What started as a small industry has burgeoned to a size that some, including Karen Trendler, who manages the NSPCA’s wildlife trade and trafficking unit, describe as uncontrollable: “A monster has been created that now has to be fed,” she says.

Steinman, according to his lawyer, Andreas Peens, owns two facilities in North West Province for captive breeding lions, tigers, and other wild animals. Peens says that by allowing hunting at Pienika, Steinman is promoting conservation. “We are providing a lion that’s bred for hunting purposes to prohibit poaching,” Peens says.

This isn’t the first time Steinman has been in trouble. In 2015, he pleaded guilty to hunting four leopards in North West Province without a permit. He was fined 7,500 rand (about £400) by the South African Police Service.

Until May of this year, Jan Steinman was listed as part of the leadership of the South African Predator Association (SAPA), a pro-captive-breeding organisation that requires members to “maintain high ethical standards.” But Deon Swart, the head of SAPA, denies that Steinman was in a leadership role at the time of the NSPCA’s inspection in April. In a press release on May 6, SAPA announced that it would “immediately institute disciplinary action against Mr. Steinman.”

SAPA declined to comment on what that action entailed, but in an email on July 30, Swart confirmed that Steinman is still a member of the organisation. “He cooperated and addressed all the issues that needed attention,” Swart wrote. In August, SAPA released a more detailed statement, saying it had conducted an investigation of the farm, had met with Steinman, and would carry out another round of inspections “after a reasonable interval.”

Peens says the NSPCA’s dire portrayal of the condition of more than a hundred of Pienika’s lions, as reported here in May, amounted to a misunderstanding and caused a “feud” between the NSPCA and Steinman. He says the NSPCA’s inspectors exaggerated the lions’ circumstances. Peens also alleges that the lions in the widely circulated NSPCA pictures, one of which was featured at the top of our story, are not Steinman’s. Wolhuter denies that and says, moreover, that the photos are misleading because they mask the true state of the lions. “Real life was far worse than what our photos could show,” he says.

Through Peens, Steinman invited National Geographic’s Wildlife Watch team to visit his nearly 5,000-acre spread and see what life is like for the lions. Steinman was away when photographer Nichole Sobecki and I arrived, on July 20, and chose to let Peens speak for him on all matters. He and Marius Griesel, Pienika’s manager, hosted us.

‘This is what’s going on really’

Brilliant blue sky, hard-packed dirt, the faint smell of manure, chain-link fencing: Pienika reminds me of a farm in the Midwest. But instead of cows, pigs, and chickens, it’s the king of beasts staring back from behind green wire fencing.

On Pienika Farm, dozens of species—not only lions but also Bengal tigers, Siberian tigers, hyenas, lynx, mountain lions, and leopards—are kept in cages, whereas other animals, such as ostriches, roam more freely.

Danger! a white sign warns. No unauthorised entry! From time to time, a thunderous roar interrupts our conversation. In enclosures consisting of dirt, a few logs, and a wooden platform to climb on, lions lie regally in the sun; others pace back and forth, baring their teeth at me.

To my untrained eye, Pienika’s lions don’t appear to be agitated or sickly. Two cubs near the farm’s entrance have a wooden platform and large branches to climb on, and a yellow ball hangs from a tree for them to play with. The areas I’m shown are clean—no sign of feces, rotting carcasses, muddy enclosures, or dirty water. We visit the lion cages and the game reserve, where various animals wander uncaged, but not some parts of the farm, such as where the frozen food is stored and where employees live. I don’t know what else I’m not shown.

Marius Griesel, Pienika’s manager, gives a tour of the facility. “This is what’s going on really,” he says, alluding to lions seen lounging in clean but bare enclosures with full water basins.

“This is what’s going on really,” Griesel says, as we watch 11 lions lounging in the golden sunlight in a cage measuring about 160 feet by 160.

Lions are only one of the many species kept at Pienika, including other predators in enclosures: Bengal tigers, Siberian tigers, hyenas, lynx, mountain lions, and leopards, as well as ostriches, giraffes, rhinos, and water buffalo that roam more freely. Griesel and Peens are proud to show off this menagerie, and they encourage me to get close to the animals. We spot a Nile crocodile through a wooden fence, sunning itself in the yard behind Griesel’s house.

“What do you do with a crocodile?” I ask.

“It’s for the people,” Peens says. He elaborates: “The Americans that come, the hunters, and so on—it’s just for them to see and experience.”

The lions are fed dead chickens six days a week, except on Sundays, when the slaughterhouse that supplies them is closed. Beef is more expensive, but if a cow dies in the area, “Free meal!” says Andreas Peens, Steinman’s lawyer.

Peens says that the overcrowding of the lions back in April had been unavoidable—just bad timing. It happened because a deal Pienika had to send about 50 lions to Europe had fallen through. Instead, Steinman decided to transfer the animals to another local farm. He says Steinman had been waiting for permission from the provincial government to transport the lions, but the permits didn’t come through until two days after the NSPCA showed up.

Steinman “was stuck with the animals,” Peens says, “so he can’t simply just release them on the farm—he had to keep them in the enclosures,” away from the people and other animals. “That is why there was these overcrowded enclosures. It’s not permanently overcrowded. It was temporarily.”

Cages are cleaned out at least once a week, Griesel says. The water basins are refilled, faeces removed, and remnants of meals—feathers and small bones—picked up.

The animals appeared so filthy, Peens adds, because, exceptionally, more than two and a half inches of rain had fallen the week before, and the enclosures were muddy. In reality, he says, the cages are cleaned at least once a week. The water basins are refilled, the faeces are cleaned out, and the remnants of meals—feathers and small bones—are removed. Griesel says the lions are fed every day except Sunday (when the chicken slaughterhouse is closed), and during the week, they get a powdered vitamin and calcium supplement.

I ride with Peens and Griesel in the back of a pickup truck loaded with dead chickens and a bloody, chopped-up cow. Two farmhands throw the meat to the lions, which run toward us as soon as they see the truck. White feathers rain down as chickens sail over the fences into the enclosures—one chicken per lion on average. Bones snap between powerful jaws.

“Today everyone just gets a snack,” Griesel says. But some days, depending on what’s available from the nearby chicken farm, which sells Pienika birds with bruises or imperfections that make them unsuitable for human consumption, the lions may get as many as five each. Beef, which is more expensive than chicken, is rarer, but “if a cow dies within the area,” Peens says, “free meal!”

This diet, says wildlife veterinarian Peter Caldwell, owner of the Old Chapel Veterinary Clinic, in Pretoria, “is so not sufficient that it makes my skin crawl.” Lions, like humans, need variety in their diet, and each one’s nutritional needs are different, he says. In the wild, lions hunt a variety of animals and eat a variety of their parts—one day a lion may eat antelope meat, the next day it may eat the heart or intestines. Feeding captive lions whole carcasses may not be the best thing. Carcasses have to be very fresh to avoid the risk of bacterial infection from rotting meat, and the internal organs rot first. Frozen meat also poses risks, Caldwell explains. If it’s not defrosted to room temperature, cold-loving bacteria can grow and cause infections that lead to chronic diarrhea. “It is definitely complicated,” Caldwell says. “Not everyone should be doing this.”

We come to two approximately 65-by-65-foot enclosures holding 26 lions. These, Peens says, are the ones that made Pienika “famous.”

He acknowledges that 27 young lions had mange back in April but says they weren’t suffering as severely as was reported. At the time of the inspection, Griesel says, they were being given vitamin supplements, medicinal powder for their skin, and a disinfectant spray, and they’ve been treated in the months since.

One of the lions has died since the NSPCA inspection. No autopsy was done, but Peens believes the cause was liver failure. The rest of them, he says, have recovered from the mange: “According to us, it’s gone now.”

The lions, between 18 months and two years old, seem used to humans—instead of growling or baring their teeth, they come up to the fence to inspect me, meowing plaintively like overgrown cats. Their hair is short and a little patchy, but it’s growing back.

At the time of the NSPCA inspection and confiscations, Peens says, the other Pienika lions—the four cubs—had been under the care of a local veterinarian. He complains that “the SPCA took the cubs while the vets were busy with their diagnosis, and that is where the feud or the crossness comes from.” The interference, he says, prevented Pienika’s veterinarians from seeing if their treatment was working and makes it difficult to know how to treat other cubs in the future if they develop similar problems.

At the end of our tour of the farm, Peens asks: Do I see any lions being mistreated? Starved? Diseased?

“The overall condition of the lions,” he says, “are good.”

‘How did these things die?’

Three days after our visit, in a follow-up inspection, the NSPCA saw a different Pienika. Wolhuter says he found about 20 young lion and tiger carcasses in a freezer in a staff member’s home, a lion cub in a walk-in freezer, and, hidden in a shed, two live cubs with symptoms similar to those affecting the two cubs surrendered during the previous inspection.

Wolhuter, who was checking to see whether the Pienika animals’ food was properly stored, says he was “speechless” when he opened the freezer and saw the bodies. “I’m just thinking, How did these things die? Did they suffer in death?” he says. “It’s that sort of stuff that actually preys on your conscience as well, because, could you have made that difference if you’d known before?”

Wolhuter says the two live cubs had to be euthanised and that the NSPCA is still waiting for the results of postmortems on two of the frozen carcasses.

Peens acknowledges that there were dead lions in the freezer—“not an offence,” he wrote in an email. The lions, he explained, had either been stillborn or had died shortly after birth. The bodies will be taxidermied, he said, to “make trophies or ornaments for Mr. Steinman to use in his collection.”

Pienika Farm is a lion-breeding facility that also offers sport hunts. According to Peens, lions that aren’t hunted are bred for sale or export to zoos or other breeders to prevent inbreeding of their stock.

Permits from the environment department are required to own, breed, sell, transport, hunt, and euthanise lions. Issued at the provincial level, the permits don’t take into consideration animal welfare or humane treatment.

When I asked Eleanor Momberg, a media relations staffer with the environment department, why welfare standards aren’t accounted for in the permitting process, she said it isn’t her department’s responsibility. She referred me to the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, which has jurisdiction over the NSPCA and matters relating to the Animals Protection Act.

When I put the same question to Mercia Smith, a communications officer in the agriculture department, she directed me back to the environment department, saying that it focuses on lion hunting. But an environment department statement says it “currently does not have the mandate” to regulate welfare and that “cruelty to lions is regulated in terms of the Animals Protection Act,” administered by the agriculture department.

Commenting on this buck-passing by the two departments, Blood Lions filmmaker Ian Michler said that when it comes to lion welfare, they “can fob it off and just not deal with it.”

As a result, conservationists and NSPCA officials believe that lions and other animals are languishing every day in subpar conditions on any number of the hundreds of wildlife farms around the country.

“We know that it’s not an isolated incident, and we just hope that we can get to the farms before it becomes so bad,” Karen Trendler says.

Vulnerable lions

Lions in the wild have disappeared from 94 percent of their historic range in Africa, and continent-wide during the past 25 years, their numbers have halved to fewer than an estimated 25,000. They’re listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which establishes the conservation status of species.

A lion skin dries on a rack at Kwa Mai Mai Market in Johannesburg. In 2016, the United States listed lions as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This means that Americans who want to bring home a lion trophy must show how their hunt helps conserve lions in the wild.

In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which regulates imports and exports of wildlife and wildlife products, listed two subspecies of lions as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This means that if a hunter wants to bring home a trophy from a wild lion, he must show how that would help conserve lions in general. (The service evaluates import requests for lion trophies on a case-by-case basis.) The same rule applies to trophies from hunts of captive lions on farms, but because the service determined in 2016 that breeding lions in captivity has no conservation benefit, imports of captive-lion trophies effectively were banned.

From 2005 to 2014, according to a report by the Humane Society, South Africa exported nearly 4,000 lion trophies to the U.S., 1,539 of which were from captive lions. During that time, U.S. hunters accounted for the majority of South Africa’s trophies from captive-bred lions.

“Measured in terms of welfare of lions, has the U.S. ban had a positive effect? Certainly not,” says Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, a South African conservationist and economist who is researching the wildlife trade at the University of Oxford. “The guys are poorer, they’re not feeding their lions as well, some of the animals are being euthanised.” Curbing trophy hunting, he says, leaves lion-farm owners with animals they have no use for, leading some to kill them for their skeletons.

Lions used for tourism or trophy hunting need to appear healthy and properly cared for, Michler says, but if owners are breeding them for the bone trade, “they don’t care what those lions look like … 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.”

South Africa is one of the only countries that exports a legal supply of lion (or any big cat) body parts. The annual lion-bone quota, set by the environment department, nearly doubled from 800 skeletons in 2017 to 1,500 in 2018. Later that year, in response to international opposition to the trade, the quota was reduced back to 800.

Merely issuing a quota, the NSPCA’s Trendler says, leads to animal cruelty. “By saying, yes, you can breed lion, you can have a quota, but not having any regulations to how you can slaughter them, you are directly responsible—or the quota is directly responsible—for welfare problems.”

On September 13, 2018, the NSPCA filed a lawsuit against the environment department, the South African Predator Association, and others in the High Court of South Africa for establishing lion-bone quotas without taking animal welfare into consideration. The quotas usually come into force around the middle of each year, but this year, on August 6, the court ruled in favour of the NSPCA, halting exports of lion bones until welfare is accounted for.

Unlike livestock killed in slaughterhouses that use prescribed, regulated methods, farmed lions are killed in pop-up facilities with little or no oversight, Trendler says. Once the lions have been shot, their carcasses processed, and the bones dried, the operators pack up and move to another farm. The transient nature of these slaughterhouses makes them even more difficult to monitor. “There’s no set structure that you can actually go into and say, These are the standards,” she says. “It’s all underground.”

According to Trendler, intact skulls are worth more than damaged ones, so lions killed for the bone trade are often shot with low-calibre weapons—a method that inflicts less damage but doesn’t guarantee an instant death. “It’s something that gives us gooseflesh every day,” she says.

Last year on Wag-’n-Bietjie farm, in Bloemfontein, in South Africa’s Free State Province, Reinet Meyer, a senior inspector of the SPCA (a local branch of the national organisation, the NSPCA), witnessed the mass slaughter of 26 of the 54 lions that were killed during two days. Lions confined in crates so small they couldn’t turn around were shot through the ear rather than between the eyes, causing less skull damage but leaving them to die a slower, more painful death, according to Meyer. Bloody bones, skinned corpses, and piles of meat and organs lay scattered about.

She was collecting evidence for a court case against André Steyn, the owner of the farm, and Johan van Dyk, his farm manager, who were charged with violating South Africa’s animal cruelty laws, alleging that they’d deprived the lions of food and water and held them in small crates before they were killed, according to Meyer. She wrote in an email that it took the animals “too long” to die. “It was just too terrible to watch,” she wrote. “To see all [these] beautiful creatures die before you was very, very bad.”

The case is pending and hasn’t yet gone to court, Meyer says. An officer from the South African Police Service is still investigating, and things are moving slowly, she says, because there are so many witnesses.

Bone trade

Who can tell the difference between a lion bone and a tiger bone?

Someone asked Sas-Rolfes this question more than a decade ago when he visited a tiger farm in China and saw lions there as well.

It’s the question that explains why a trade in lion bones exists at all.

Lion skeletons hang to dry before being exported. South Africa has an annual lion-bone export quota, but according to the wildlife trade monitoring organisation Traffic, bones aren’t always sent abroad legally. With tiger numbers declining in the wild, demand in China and elsewhere in Asia for traditional medicine and tiger-bone wine is fuelling trade in the bones of lions and other big cats.

Tiger numbers in the wild have dwindled to fewer than 4,000, largely because of poaching and loss of habitat. Tiger bones are coveted in Asia, especially China, for making tiger-bone wine, a status symbol thought to convey strength, or as a paste used to treat ailments such as rheumatism and back pain. China has banned the use of tiger bone since 1993. Subsequent attempts to legalise the trade have been to no avail.

That, Sas-Rolfes says, is when the lion-bone trade started. “We saw people from [Asian] countries showing up in South Africa, saying, We believe you guys hunt lions—what do you do with the skeletons? We’ll buy them.”

Lion bone is sometimes offered as a cheaper substitute for tiger bone, but it’s also sold at full price to unwitting consumers who believe they’re buying tiger bone, which many consider superior, according to a 2018 report by the wildlife trade monitoring organisation Traffic.

Lion bone is sometimes exported in “cake” form: According to Traffic’s report, skeletons are mixed with other animal parts, such as turtle shell, deer antler, and monkey bone, then boiled down into a bricklike bar. As cake, lion bone is not only easier to export but also nearly indistinguishable from tiger bone.

A report in 2018 by two South Africa-based animal activist groups, the EMS Foundation and Ban Animal Trading, alleges that traders are underdeclaring how many lion skeletons they’re exporting. Ten sample outgoing shipments of what were declared to be single lion skeletons, the report says, weighed between 11 and 30 kilograms (about 25 to 65 pounds), rather than the roughly 20-pound average weight of a full skeleton. According to the report, these heavier-than-average skeletons suggest that “the industry is trying to conceal an illegal trade” and that “some of the traders are deliberately under-declaring” how many skeletons they’re exporting.

Alternatively, Sas-Rolfes says, there could be a simple explanation: Traders often export “relatively fresh carcasses, sometimes still with bits of rotting flesh attached,” which are heavier than skeletons that have been dried out properly.

But that doesn’t mean illegal trade isn’t happening: Sas-Rolfes suggests that the U.S. ban on lion-trophy imports may have spurred illegal lion-bone exports from South Africa. A 2019 study he co-authored found that after 2016, while some lion-farm owners scaled down their breeding or sold lions, nearly 30 percent of 86 owners said they’d euthanised more lions because of the ban. Thirty percent said they’d redirected their business to the lion-bone trade.

When I’d asked Andreas Peens if Pienika raises or euthanises lions for the bone trade, he denied it. “Bones? Not that I know of,” he said. According to data from the 2018 report, Steinman is not listed as an exporter of lion bones.

More than 60 percent of survey respondents in Sas-Rolfes’s study said that an export quota of up to 800 lion skeletons a year would restrict their business, and more than half of those said they’d “search for alternative markets for the bones”—which he took as an indication that they’d turn to illegal trading.

“I care a lot about welfare and wildness and all these things, but I care about outcomes,” Sas-Rolfes says. “And what I’ve learned is that the simple solution”—in this case, a trophy import ban—“doesn’t always deliver the outcome you expect it will.”

Not much is known about the market for lion bone, Sas-Rolfes says, but if South Africa were to ban the trade, continuing demand in Asia could lead to illegal hunts of wild lions, fuelling the black market. “We don’t want to now precipitate a lion-poaching crisis,” he says. “The stakes are pretty high here. We don’t want to screw this up.”

Others, including Karen Trendler, of the NSPCA, argue that the lion-bone trade should be outlawed because it only fuels demand for lion bones. According to Traffic, anecdotal evidence points to growing demand for lion-bone products in Vietnam. Furthermore, Traffic says, because lion and tiger bones are so hard to tell apart, the legal lion-bone trade leads to more poaching of both wild tigers and wild lions.

New research by Kristoffer Everatt, Mozambique program manager for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organisation and the recipient of a National Geographic grant to conserve the country’s lions, shows that poaching may be on the rise in Limpopo National Park, which abuts South Africa. The park held 67 lions in 2013, but since then, Everatt says, its lions have been “effectively extirpated” and now number fewer than 10.

He says targeted poaching accounted for more than 60 percent of mortalities, and even in killings of lions by villagers in retaliation for predation on their livestock, 48 percent of those animals had their body parts—in some cases, their entire skeletons—removed.

Everatt says that although there’s no proof of direct links between the bone trade and the uptick in poaching, “it would be too coincidental” for them to be unrelated. This year, he’s heard of lions killed in Namibia and Botswana that “had very suspicious things happen, like either the whole body disappeared or the teeth and claws, or the heads and feet were cut off.”

There’s evidence too that jaguar and leopard poaching has increased in recent years. Trendler says the legal lion-bone trade puts all big cat species at risk. If no one can tell the difference between tiger and lion bone, then who can tell the difference between tiger and jaguar, leopard, or any other big cat bone?

“Where does it stop?” she asks.

Karlos and Ivana

To see the two cubs Pienika Farm surrendered to the NSPCA in April, Sobecki and I travel to Peter Caldwell’s Old Chapel Veterinary Clinic, a nondescript building behind a brick wall in Pretoria’s Villieria neighborhood. Clients mark time in the waiting room cradling dogs and cats on their laps. In holding areas in a courtyard out back, a baboon with a cast on its leg, a cheetah wounded in a trap, and Pienika’s two lion cubs are recuperating.

Jessica Burkhart, a University of Minnesota neurology Ph.D. candidate, is in charge of physical therapy for two cubs, Karlos and Ivana, surrendered from Pienika during the April welfare inspection and taken to the Old Chapel Veterinary Clinic, in Pretoria. The cubs could barely walk when they arrived. Burkhart says that when she’s with them, she crawls on all fours so as not to intimidate them.

Caldwell tells me that at the time of their removal, the cubs “were in severe, excruciating pain … They were screaming like little babies almost.” One of them had been near death—dehydrated, feverish, unable to eat, unable to move, crying out in pain. Caldwell calls it one of the worst cases of neglect he has ever seen.

Caldwell says the cubs had been taken away from their mother too soon and were deprived of essential nutrients from her milk. They were suffering from meningoencephalitis—infection and inflammation of the brain and spinal cord—brought on by malnutrition and poor hygiene. Because they were deficient in vitamin A, their skulls had thickened, putting pressure on their brains, which extruded through the back of their skulls into their spinal cords, preventing the flow of cerebrospinal fluid. They suffered from three different skin conditions—mange, pyoderma (a bacterial infection), and alopecia (an immune disorder causing hair loss)—had high fevers, and were bleeding internally from stress-induced stomach ulcers.

Immediately upon arriving at the clinic, they were fed intravenously and given cortisone to reduce inflammation, antibiotics to treat their infections, and a medication called omeprazole for their stomach ulcers.

They were also given names: Karlos and Ivana.

“These are living little creatures, and they didn’t ask to be born,” Caldwell says. “So we’ve got to give them as much medical attention and care as possible and make them survive.”

I mention to him that Peens had told me that the cubs had been under the care of a veterinarian before the NSPCA inspection.

“Bullshit,” Caldwell says, his mouth in a thin line. “Absolute bullshit.”

He continues: “I can categorically state that those people were lying if they said they were dealing with the situation. If there was a veterinarian involved and he said he was dealing with the situation, I would like to personally speak to him and ask him how he was dealing with the situation. Because in my opinion, he was not at all, and he was neglecting his duties, and he’s an embarrassment to my profession.”

In the courtyard at the clinic, I join Jessica Burkhart, a University of Minnesota neurology Ph.D. candidate who’s in charge of the cubs’ physical therapy. She dangles a piece of hay between the bars of their enclosure. Karlos and Ivana, now six months old, stare at it, mesmerised. They swipe at the back scratcher she uses to gently rub their feet and spine—an action that stimulates their cerebellum, the part of the brain that governs movement.

Months of around-the-clock care have helped Karlos, here playing with a gourd, regain his ability to walk. In October, he and Ivana were moved to Panthera Africa Big Cat Sanctuary, outside Cape Town, where they’ll spend the rest of their lives. The Old Chapel Clinic’s principal veterinarian, Peter Caldwell, says they won’t recover fully: Their balance may be off, and they may tremble slightly and bob their heads.

They gnaw on gourds, lounge under the tree, and try to sneak food—chicken, venison, and vitamin supplements—from each other’s bowls. Suddenly Karlos lunges at a toy that resembles a giant toilet paper tube, smacking it out of Burkhart’s hands. When she tries to use the back scratcher to block his path, he snaps it in half. “This is when you remember you’re dealing with a lion,” she says, smiling.

Three months of around-the-clock care have been helping the cubs recover, but I notice that their heads bob slightly as they move. Karlos’s walk is more of a stagger; his legs give out often, and he crashes to the ground. Ivana’s recovery is even less advanced: She army-crawls around her enclosure, dragging her back legs behind her. But according to Caldwell, the lions feel no pain, and they’ve already been weaned off their medications.

They’ll never heal completely, he adds. Their balance may be off, and they may tremble slightly, or bob their heads, for the rest of their lives. Now that their recoveries have peaked, they’ve been moved to Panthera Africa Big Cat Sanctuary just outside Cape Town, where they’ll live out the rest of their days. Releasing captive-reared, special-needs animals into the wild “is just not going to happen.”

Caldwell believes that Karlos and Ivana have a higher purpose: to raise awareness about South Africa’s captive lions. “These animals will be used as ambassadors for the species to prevent this kind of thing from happening,” he says. “So the whole world can know that you cannot go to a facility and pet a cub, because this is how these cubs are kept.”

The fourth cub

At Pienika with Marius Griesel and Andreas Peens, I watch, under the shade of a karee tree, a six-month-old female cub—Karlos’s and Ivana’s sister—in an approximately 16-by-80-foot enclosure. Back in April, the NSPCA hadn’t thought her sick enough to be removed from the farm. But now, struggling to stand, she wobbles forward and collapses as her back legs give out.

At Pienika, Jacaranda (at right) recently started showing symptoms of the same neurological condition that afflicted her siblings, Karlos and Ivana.

She just started doing this very recently, Griesel says. “Three weeks ago, [she] was walking like the others—nothing’s wrong—and then, just suddenly...”

The next day, I meet Fritz Ras, one of Pienika’s on-call veterinarians, at his home in Lichtenburg, less than 10 miles from Pienika. Ras says he wasn’t called in until after the NSPCA inspection. “I’ve never touched those two cubs,” he says, referring to Karlos and Ivana. “Ever.”

Ras tells me he’s now doing everything he can to care for the lions that remain at Pienika, including giving them vitamin supplements. “I’m a vet,” he says. “I can’t turn my back on these animals.”

According to the norms and standards of the South African Predator Association, which counts Pienika owner Jan Steinman as a member, enclosures should “allow the lions to express normal behaviour,” “provide environmental protection and comfort,” and “provide appropriate stimulation.” Veterinarian Fritz Ras says he was called in to treat the lions after the April inspection and that he’s doing everything he can to care for them. “I’m a vet,” he says. “I can’t turn my back on these animals.”

Jacaranda, as he named the fourth cub, is suffering from the same infection of the nervous system as her two confiscated siblings, he says. He suspects the cause is vitamin A deficiency, a thiamine deficiency, or a genetic problem—or possibly all three. He’s monitoring her and making sure she has daily multivitamins, and he injects her every week or two with a vitamin and mineral supplement.

Ras is concerned that he doesn’t have the time or resources to care for Jacaranda adequately. Caldwell’s clinic has an x-ray machine, an operating theatre for wildlife, and a team of veterinary assistants, but Ras, for the most part, is on his own.

“This is a problem that keeps me up at night,” he says. “What else can we do? Because I need to get to the bottom of this.”

He says his mind sometimes wanders to a darker place.

“I just don’t want to rescue this poor cub, and get it right, just to have—what? Someone else shoot it later on?” Ras says. “But I try not to think about that.”

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 ngwildlife@natgeo.com.
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