Rescued Lion Cub Starts New Life Amid Controversy of South African Lion Industry


Freya, a small, six-month-old lion cub, tentatively sniffed the unfamiliar South African air from the confines of her transport crate. With a mixture of apprehension and curious excitement, she stepped outside, marking her first movement towards a newfound life of sanctuary and safety. Once a captive in the illicit wildlife trade of Lebanon, Freya was now miles away, beginning a story of restitution in the wilderness of the Drakenstein Lion Park.

However, Freya’s journey is a bittersweet one. While she will now live securely at Drakenstein, a sanctuary that also hosts other rescued lions, her life will starkly contrast the natural existence of a lion in the wild. From France to Chile and Romania, the lions at Drakenstein come with distressing backgrounds filled with tales of abuse and neglect. For instance, Ares arrived at the sanctuary blind and uncared for, while Brutus bore the physical signs of violence – a broken jaw due to physical assault.

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Even as Freya grows accustomed to her new surroundings, a critical spotlight still shines on South Africa’s contradictory stance concerning the iconic species. Despite the country’s commendable endeavors in conservation and its top-notch ethical sanctuaries like Drakenstein, South Africa simultaneously hosts a flourishing, albeit controversial, captive lion industry. Here, big cats tend to be bred more for human interaction and “canned hunting” – a process involving forced hunts within enclosures – or to feed the illegal lion bone trade than for protection.

Interestingly, South Africa has a unique permission via the endangered plant and animal trade treaty (CITES) to export lion bones and skeletons. A majority of the exports, primarily aimed at traditional medicinal practices, go to Southeast Asia. The allowance of canned hunting where lions are unethically chased and killed within confined spaces is likewise a legal practice.

However, efforts to shut this industry are on the rise, driven majorly by animal welfare organizations. In response, the South African government has recently proposed its plan to end captive lion breeding, a process expected to span two to three years barring any legal impediments. This decision comes in the wake of growing criticism concerning South Africa’s conservation reputation. Audrey Delsink, Africa wildlife director for Humane Society International, remarks on the urgency for people to recognize the audacious journey of cubs who transition from being petting attractions to trophy kills in hunting reserves, only to end as a “bag of bones” in the bone trade.

South Africa currently houses over 7,000 lions across more than 300 captive lion facilities – a figure double the wild lion population. Advocates against the business seek greater transparency about the grim reality of the captive lion industry, in its capacity as the largest worldwide.

Back at Drakenstein, the team is hopeful that Freya will soon adapt and forge a bond with a young male cub, Pi, rescued from Lebanon in April. Suspected to be Freya’s brother, Pi previously led a life of ill-treatment at the hands of his owner who used him as a prop to boost his social status on TikTok.

A disheartening testament to the abuse rife in this industry, Pi would often have to endure a taped mouth for video shoots or selfies and was confined to a small cage during the night. Such treatment served as a symbol of power and wealth for his wealthy owner.

Nowadays, the same Pi – along with Freya – represents just two among the score of big cats saved from a wide array of abusive situations by the animal welfare group, Animals Lebanon. Drakenstein, which prohibits cub petting and other types of close-up interactions, stands as their new life. It welcomes tourists and encourages a first-hand understanding of the lives led by these rescued lions.

Assuredly, both Freya and Pi wouldn’t endure a day in the wild and as such, the sanctuary serves as their best chance at a secure life. It stands as a poignant sight, watching something as simple as a cub experiencing grass under its paws for the first time – even if within a fenced enclosure- knowing that this small mercy is likely one of the only components of a natural existence they may ever encounter in their lives.