They are adorably cute, with grubby brown fur so soft it seems to slip through my fingers like flour. It is only when one of the nine-week-old cubs playfully grabs my arm with its teeth and squeezes with an agonizing grip that I remember — this is a lion, a wild animal.
However, these four cubs are not wild. They are kept in a small pen behind the Lion’s Den, a pub on a ranch in desolate countryside 120km south of Johannesburg. Tourists stop to pet them, but most visitors do not venture over the hill, where the ranch has pens holding nearly 50 juvenile and fully-grown lions, and two tigers.
Moreson ranch is one of more than 160 such farms legally breeding big cats in South Africa. There are now more lions held in captivity (upwards of 5,000) in the country than live wild (about 2,000).
While the owners of this ranch insist they do not hunt and kill their lions, animal welfare groups say most breeders sell their stock to be shot dead by wealthy trophy-hunters from Europe and North America, or for traditional medicine in Asia.
The easy slaughter of animals in fenced areas is called “canned hunting,” perhaps because it is rather like shooting fish in a barrel. A captive-bred lion is taken to an enclosed area where it wanders listlessly before being shot dead by a man with a shotgun, hand gun or even a crossbow, standing safely on the back of a truck. It is all completely legal.
Like other tourists and daytrippers from Johannesburg, I pay a more modest US$5.50 to hug the lions at Moreson, a game ranch which on its Web site invites tourists to come and enjoy the canned hunting of everything from pretty blesbok and springbok to lions and crocodiles. After a cuddle with the cubs, I go on a “game drive” through the 2,000 hectare estate.
Herds of blue wildebeest, red hartebeest and eland run from the truck, then stop and watch us, warily. At the far end of the property is an abandoned farm, surrounded by pens of lethargic-looking big cats. Two healthy looking tigers tear at chicken carcasses.
The animals look well cared for, but Cathleen Benade, a ranch assistant who is studying wildlife photography and is devoted to the cubs, reveals that they were taken away from their mothers just an hour after birth and bottle-fed by humans for the first eight weeks of their life.
After dark, as the lions roar in the cages, Maryke van der Merwe, the manager of Lion’s Den and daughter of the ranch owner, explains that if the cubs were not separated from their mother the young lions would starve to death, because their mother had no milk. She says the mother is not distressed.
“She’s looking for the cubs for a few hours, but it’s not like she’s sad,” Van der Merwe said.
Animal welfare experts disagree.
They say breeders remove the cubs so that the lioness will quickly become fertile again, as they squeeze as many cubs from their adults as possible — five litters every two years. For an animal that is usually weaned at six months, missing out on the crucial colostrum, or first milk, can cause ill-health.
“These breeders tell you they removed the cubs because the mother had no milk; I’ve never seen that in the wild,” said Pieter Kat, an evolutionary biologist who has worked with wild lions in Kenya and Botswana. “The main reason breeders separate the young from their mother is because separation brings the female back into a reproductive position much faster. It’s a conveyor-belt production of animals.”