Stop the exploitation

Actual Rescues

Lutalo’s Pride

small-cub-peeping-through-fenceLutalo and his sister Aisha arrived at SanWild when they were merely three months old. The two small cubs had been exploited by being displayed at various shopping centers in Johannesburg so that the general public could have their photographs taken with them.

Sadly, in order to keep the cubs calm and easy manageable, drugs were used repeatedly to calm them and as a result, Lutalo developed an allergic reaction to the drugs. His owners’ rushed him to a local veterinarian that took pity on the cubs and phoned SanWild for assistance. He informed us that should any further drugs be used on the small male cub, he would most certainly die. This particular veterinarian did not support the commercialization of lions held in the many captive breeding projects and expressed his wish to work with SanWild to try to ensure a better future for the two small cubs.

An urgent email was sent to our list of dedicated donors and soon afterwards we received the response we were hoping for, someone who was willing to supply the funding which would enable SanWild to purchase the two cubs.

The two young cubs quickly settled at SanWild in their own large outdoor natural habitat enclosure.  From day one a decision was made to not try and tame down the cubs anymore, but to allow them the freedom they needed to get over the traumatic experiences they had while being intensively handled by humans all of the time.  Within days they both lapped up milk and started eating the chopped up meat that was provided for them at regular intervals.  At night they chose to snuggle up in a built up sleeping pen and if it became necessary for us to capture them it was as easy as to simply close the sleeping pen’s door.lioncubs

Lutalo and his sister grew up pretty wild and soon the two cubs instinctively started “hunting” in the large enclosure.  Their prey items started with rats and mice and it was quite cute to see Aisha running away from her brother with a large rat she caught.  As they grew older a larger enclosure was constructed adjoining their camp and the two lions were eventually allowed to cross over into the 6 hectare enclosure.  The pair’s hunting instincts improved and Lutalo perfected a technique to catch guinea fowl under thicket.  He would wait patiently for the birds to move under the thick layer of branches to feed and then he would strike with lightning speed when they could not get airborne.  He killed numerous birds in this manner and it was his developed taste for the birds’ meat that caused his accident we believe.

A report that Lutalo was nowhere to be seen came in early that morning.  His sister Aisha could be seen some distance away sitting down in the bush softly moaning.  She would get up walk halfway to the camps fence and dash off back again to the same spot in the camp repeatedly.  Something was wrong and thinking back now at the very close emotional bond shared by this brother and sister still make my skin crawl.  This is when I first realized the very strong ties that existed between members of a lion pride.

With great difficultly Aisha was lured into the adjoining smaller camp and at great risk to our own safety we entered the camp on foot to look for Lutalo as the thick bush made it impossible to navigate with a vehicle.  He was spotted at the exact spot where Aisha held up for some hours.  He was injured, but still able to walk, but at that point he was in such obvious pain that the last thing he was interested in was to even try to attack us.  He could put any weight on one of his back legs but it did not seem broken at the time. A veterinarian was called to dart the lion after which he was transported to a veterinary clinic 60 kilometers away to do the necessary X-rays to determine the extent of his injury.

In the meantime we inspected the site where he was lying to try to find out how he got injured.  Broken branches and scratch marks showed that the almost fully grown lion had climbed into a tree and had lost his balance to come crushing down to the ground breaking branches as he fell.

The x-rays revealed that Lutalo had shattered the femur head in his one hip.  This in my opinion spelled disaster and I was convinced that this lion, of which I had grown so fond, would have to be put down.  Our local veterinarian scheduled an appointment with a veterinary orthopedic surgeon at the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute – South Africa’s primary veterinary training facility in Pretoria.

Early the next morning shortly after 05h00am Lutalo, myself and our veterinarian were all packed into the small aircraft with a very nervous pilot who did not quite trust the sleeping lion lying next to him in the passenger seat of the small aircraft.  Fortunately his nerves lasted until we landed at the Wonderboom airport from where the veterinary orthopedic surgeon collected his patient.

Waiting for aircraft to be cleared for take off.
Sedated Lutalo loaded on passenger seat next to the pilot
On arrival at Wonderboom Lutalo is removed from the small plane

X-rays were done again, but this time with a specialist machine that also gave 3D impressions.  When I looked at the surgeon’s face while he was studying the x-rays he smiled to himself and for me desperately searching for any sign that Lutalo would be okay a small ray of light went up.  The good news was that a femur head amputation would be attempted on the adult lion, but nobody knew exactly how successful the operation would prove to be or if the lion would be able to live a normal life afterwards. Only time would tell.

In an amazingly high tech and almost bloodless operation 3 hour operation the femur head was removed and the wound stitched closed using internal stitches so that the lion would not bite at the wound to pull out stitches.

Lutalo in the theater
Louise and Lutalo

We arrived back at Wonderboom shortly before sunset for our return flight to Phalaborwa airport.  By this time our pilot were feeling a lot more comfortable with the sleeping lions, but insisted every 10 minutes or so that I checked in the torch-light to see if he was still sleeping okay.  At this stage Lutalo had been kept under sedation for close on 14 hours and I knew I would only relaxed when we got back to SanWild.

By the next morning Lutalo was up on his feet and although he still did not put weight on his leg, he moved around with his sister seemingly without any pain. The distress he was in the morning after he broke his femur was not observed anymore and I felt quite relieved.  Maybe this lion did stand a chance to make a full recovery after-all?

Six months later Lutalo was back to his old normal self.  Walking on his leg as if nothing had ever gone wrong, as if he had never broken a femur at all.  His recovery superseded all my expectations.

When Jespha’s pride arrived at SanWild, the three sisters were placed in an adjoining enclosure to Jespha and Aisha and soon the lions were socializing on the common fence. Tension filled the air as the date approached to allow the five lions to mingle with each other seeing as they had been held in separate facilities (with an adjoining fence). We were extremely relieved to see the almost fully grown lions accepted each other and formed a new pride

Today Lutalo and his sister are two stunning adult lions and we are so proud to know that we were instrumental in giving them a safe and secure life with others of their own kind.


Jespha’s Pride

In 2003 canned lion breeding and hunting was still in its infant shoes.  Our country’s conservation departments seemed ill prepared for this highly unethical and rapidly growing industry.  Most newly appointed officials seemed to care little about the welfare of the animals they were suppose to protect and conserve; those that did care found themselves ostracised by their peers and soon it would be a situation of either supporting the captive breeding and hunting of large predators of packing your bags or finding yourself a new job.

It was with this political background that the SanWild Wildlife Trust became more and more informed about the many unethical activities that were taking place in the South Africa’s wildlife industry and we started working closely with the law enforcement branch of the Limpopo Nature Conservation Departments – supply information about the many illegal and irregular activities.

One of the many frustrations the department had at the time was that they did not have the facilities or the funding to construct a holding facility where confiscated large predators could be held pending the outcome of criminal proceedings.  If an individual therefore committed a crime by transporting, breeding or holding large predators illegally they were not in a position to confiscate such predators.

The SanWild Wildlife Trust raised the necessary funding from a UK-based charity to construct this holding facility and offered our help to the conservation departments to assist them with their law enforcement duties. The Cats’ Rescue Centre was completed in October 2003 and the first group of lions rescued from the canned lion breeding and hunting industry arrived in November 2003.

Construction of predator camps.
Construction of sleeping pens
Gates and pipes for water supply being off loaded

Jespha’s pride was confiscated by the conservation authorities from the Shelanti Lion Breeding Project in Limpopo Province.  Edwin Claasens owned another lion breeding farm in the Free State and applied on a number of occasions to the Limpopo Nature Conservation Department to set up a similar project in Limpopo Province.  Despite his permit applications being turned down on a number of occasions he decided to go ahead and imported lions from the Free State into Limpopo Province to set up a breeding project to supply captive bred lions to trophy hunters


A wildlife veterinarian, an assistant and SanWild’s founder trustee set off with the conservation departments in the early hours of the morning to be at the Shelanti Lion Breeding Project at daybreak.  The veterinarian was there to immobilize the lions and oversee their transportation to SanWild.

On arrival at Shelanti the conservation department and police criminal investigations division proceeded to inform the farm manager that they had a warrant to confiscate, seize and remove the lions and while legal attempts to retain and overturn the said warrant were executed by both sides the lions were darted and loaded into a dilapidated truck – the only transportation the conservation officials was authorized to use.  We knew then it was going to be a difficult, uncomfortable and emotionally challenging 8 hour return trip to SanWild.

Executing the warrant
Loading of lions in progress
Darting of cubs completed, adult male next
Organizing lions inside truck; all animals on intravenous drips in order to top up immobilizing drugs when necessary.

The truck and some very emotionally and physically weary people arrived at SanWild that night at 23h50.

The off-loading of the animals proceeded without any problems and by 04h30 the next morning all the lions had recovered from the anesthetic and we could return to the camp for breakfast and a hot shower.  Little did I know that for the first time now I would soon be exposed to the ugly side and politics of the animal welfare industry.

Off loading the 3 young cubs
The adult male’s weight proved to be quite a challenge

Jespha’s pride included two adult lionesses named Ntombi and Nikana and her three cubs. Unfortunately the three cubs had already been removed from their mother for some time and we were unable to reintroduce them safely back into the pride.

In captive breeding projects, it is standard practice to remove newborn cubs from their mothers to ensure that the lioness comes into estrus again so that she can be mated (again) to produce even more cubs. In short, it is akin to a lion breeding factory.

Nikana conceived again after her cubs had been removed and Rongo and Aroha were born shortly after the pride arrived at SanWild. They have grown into two beautiful young lions that remain with their pride.

The other three young cubs known as the “Three Sisters” were kept in a separate enclosure and were later introduced to another pride of lions.

In July 2005 the owner of the lions, was found guilty of the illegal importation and breeding of lions in the Limpopo Province. He received a suspended sentence and his lions were all forfeited to the Limpopo Department of Environmental Affairs, Economic Development and Tourism.


Fanie Coetzee and the three cubs

As with most stories I guess there are the heroes and the villains in each story.

The story of the successful prosecution and confiscation of the 1st ever group of illegally held lions rest squarely with individuals in the Department of Environmental Affairs and the South African police services criminal investigations unit. The respective individuals on that particular morning was overjoyed that this group of lions arrived at SanWild and that the individual animals were safe for now.  They also knew that it was now up to them to ensure the long-term welfare of these animals because if their investigations and criminal proceedings failed the animals would be returned to their owner.

When SanWild raised the funds to construct the large predator rescue center we knew that the only role animal welfare would play in the matter was to facilitate an intermediate and possible long-term holding facility and sanctuary were confiscated and rescued animals may find a new safe home and we understood the role we would play clearly and that the prosecutions and executing of the criminal proceedings were best left in the hands of the authorities.  At the time we conveyed this understanding to our donors and sponsors who we believed also understood the sensitive nature of the criminal proceedings that was to follow.  How wrong we were and for the 1st time we were confronted with the hidden agendas and political strategies of some of the large international animal welfare charities.

Despite the agreement reached between the SanWild Wildlife Trust and the conservation department in October 2003 that SanWild would be given the opportunity to ensure the lions’ long-term welfare by being party to the decision made as to the end destination for the pride, this did not occur.

In November 2005 the department put the lions up for sale on a public tender along with some other lions, wild dogs and a Bengal tiger held at another facility.

We here at SanWild were informed by a member of the public and immediately instituted legal proceedings to prevent the tender proceeding. We were appalled that Jespha’s pride, which had been supported by donors’ funding since their arrival in November 2003, was to be sold to hunters and breeders. After pressure from their legal team and wide media reports, the Department of Environmental Affairs, Economic Development and Tourism agreed to remove “the Claasens lions” from the tender documents, but chose to go ahead with the tender process on the rest of the animals that included other confiscated lions as well as a single Bengal tiger.

Inquiries in January 2006 showed that no tender had been submitted and the department received no formal offer for any of the other lions or the wild dogs. The only formal tender submitted was for the Bengal tiger by a private zoo close to Johannesburg. In 2006 the lions were once again placed on a public tender, but this time the Department offered to “donate” them to a suitable applicant. Their whereabouts and fate remains unknown.

Bombi and Matsumi

                                                                                                Matsumi and Andre

Matsumi was born in South Africa’s North West Province at one of the many captive lion breeding projects that breed lions for the trophy hunting industry.  She as purchased as a very small cub by a film producer, Daniel Radziej who intended to train her as a “film star”. Matsumi had been with her owner for a short while when he was killed in a motor vehicle accident and Matsumi was left with his wife. Catherine Radziej was desperate to return Matsumi to the wild and via Karen Trendler of the Wild Care Africa Trust approached us to take Matsumi for possible release back to the wild.

                                                                                                             Daniel Radziej

While we were negotiating with Catherine to move Matsumi to SanWild, we were asked by Liezel Mortimer of the Wildlife Action Group to accept Bombi all the way from Hungary. Dr. Gabriella Kiss, a Hungarian Veterinarian working for Phizer who was trying to find a suitable new home for the young lion cub, had approached her.

Her request came just at the right time. We were eager to find a companion for Matsumi, as the only way to break her dependency on human company would be to introduce her to another young lion ASAP. When Liezel therefore requested that we accept a small lion cub from the Budapest Zoo, we immediately agreed and negotiations started to bring the cub from Hungary.

Produced for Hungarian National Television the story of Bombi’s relocation to Africa starts at the Budapest Zoo before his departure and during the long flight with KLM to

Amsterdam and then to Johannesburg International Airport. In Amsterdam Bombi spent the evening at the zoo before boarding a flight to South Africa. He cleared through customs in Johannesburg late in the evening and then set off on the final 7-hour road trip to SanWild where he and his entourage arrived in the early hours of the morning – all very exhausted. The program recorded the first introduction of the two lions to each other as well as Bombi’s first footsteps on African soil.

                                                                                              Bombi in his travel box.

A very special twist of fate brought two young lions together to start a new life at SanWild.

Three weeks after Matsumi, Bombi arrived at SanWild with an entire film crew from Hungary that was to film the arrival and introduction of the two young lion cubs. This introduction was not without problems and initially Matsumi tried her best to ignore Bombi and there were a few nasty incidents, but on their regular walks into the wild African bush, she could not resist the temptation to make close contact with the strange little creature that arrived from far away. Within three days the two cubs were happy and absolutely delighted to spend their time together. The bond between them has grown over the last couple of months and they have become inseparable.

                                                                                             Bombi’s surrogate mother
A shelter dog and a lion cub – the best of friends

Bombi is very well-known in Hungary and the little immigrant from the Budapest Zoo has grown into somewhat of a celebrity in his own country and two books have been published about this young lion’s return to the continent of his ancestors, they are available from Dr. Gabrielle Kiss – his grandparents were wild captured in Tanzania.

                                                                                               Bombi at the Budapest Zoo
                                                                       Dr. Gabriella Kiss and a Masai tribesman in Kenya

The television documentary was screened in Hungary and to this day the Hungarian people send cards and well wishes on a regular basis.

Sadly, a bite from a black mamba towards the end of last year killed Matsumi while she and Bombi shared a large enclosure adjoining another lion pride. Within days Bombi was successfully introduced to Lutalo’s pride and has been fully accepted by his new pride members.

During 2006 one of the most loved young lions at SanWild died as a result of an encounter with a black mamba. Everybody at SanWild was heartbroken over Matsumi’s unexpected death.

                                                                                           Andre, Bombi and Matsumi
                            Bombi and his keeper from the Budapest Zoo that accompanied the young lion cub to South Africa
                                                                          Bombi and Matsumi’s 1st taste of the African bush

Despite our sorrow, our focus had to remain with Matsumi’s companion, young Bombi. This beautiful young lion arrived at SanWild all the way from the Budapest Zoo in Hungary in order to socialise with Matsumi and be weaned off humans. Both lion cubs had been hand raised and were therefore heavily imprinted on humans. Our introduction program worked extremely well and within days the two cubs were inseparable.

Matsumi’s death left Bombi devastated and for many days the young male mourned; his haunting calls breaking our hearts.

It was crucial that Bombi come to terms with his loss and the team at SanWild considered whether to introduce Bombi to the larger pride. One concern of ours was that the pride had formed very strong bonds which may preclude the young male from integrating. Fortunately all our fears were not realised and the pride accepted the young male.

                                            The two lion cubs soon became best friends, but Matsumi was always in the lead.

It has been months since Bombi joined the pride and he has assured a place for himself in this group, which in turn has helped him come to terms with the death of his companion Matsumi.

In remembrance of the very much-loved young lioness, four sausage trees were planted at SanWild at the location where Matsumi was cremated. Her spirit will continue to live in the SanWild sanctuary – wild and finally free.

                                                                  The cubs have grown into two stunning young lions.
                                     Matsumi developed a very special relationship with a hand raised blue wildebeest.
                                                             She also loved some attention from SanWild staff members
                        A lonely Bombi photographed the morning after Matsumi died after being bitten by a black mamba

The Royal Pride

The Royal Pride (consisting of 2 males and 2 females) arrived at SanWild’s Cat’s Rescue Centre on the 3rd of September 2004 on very short notice. As a result of this they were saved from certain death from being hunted. The police had been busy investigating the illegal capture of some white rhinos and giraffe from one of the Provincial Game Reserves close to Hoedspruit when they discovered that some lions had also been stolen by the same offender.

                                                                                                           The Royal Pride

The lions that were stolen were brought to a private game farm and the owner claimed that “some wild lions” had arrived on his farm of their own volition. He notified the conservation department and informed them that he was happy for them to stay. Some time later, one of the lionesses had cubs and they grew up as wild lions on this private farm. However, these lions disappeared and only the young sub-adult lions remained along with one of the adult females. It is believed that the original lions stolen were hunted.

During June 2004 this group of lions were captured on the private game farm and placed in captivity. They were then offered for sale at the Hoedspruit live game auction. When the owner was not satisfied with the bids offered, he decided to have them hunted instead.

The Assets Forfeiture Unit (AFU) of the South African Police Services stepped in and confiscated the animals as it was evident that the individual concerned was using the opportunity to make a profit. This action by the Police Services saved the lions’ lives and ensured they could be brought to SanWild for safekeeping.

In 2005 the court case was finalized and the animals were forfeited to the state. The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Limpopo informed the SanWild Wildlife Trust that the animals would be put up for sale. The SanWild Wildlife Trust put in an offer to purchase the lions using donor funding obtained from a group of private individuals and the Bill Jordan Foundation for Wildlife. The offer was accepted by the AFU in July 2005.

The sales agreement also made provision for yet another injured lioness to be moved to SanWild from a Rehabilitation facility in Hoedspruit. This lioness could not be moved at the same time as the other lions as she was injured. As she had bonded with other lions at the rehab facility we agreed that it would be in her best interest to remain at this facility.

                                                                                                     Royal Pride Males
                                                                                             Princess and her cubs

Soon after the Royal Pride arrived at SanWild, it was discovered that one of the lionesses was pregnant. In order to prevent over-crowding, a decision was made to give all male lions vasectomies to prevent any further breeding.