Cubs at a squalid breeding centre were too ill to walk and lions were so badly neglected that many had gone bald from mange.
They were kept in filthy enclosures where parasites spread easily.
Photos show many of the animals – destined to be either shot by hunters for money or slaughtered for their bones in the country’s lucrative industry – were almost entirely bald because of parasitic infections.
Animal-welfare officials have charged the man suspected of running the centre with breaking animal-protection law.
The big cats were part of the country’s “snuggle scam” industry that takes money from tourists who pay to pet, feed and take selfies with hand-reared lions, unaware the farms are businesses that sell the animals into their deaths – as The Independent revealed last year.
Officers from South Africa’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals discovered 108 neglected animals living in conditions they described as “horrendous” at Pienika Farm in the North West Province.
“Other issues such as small enclosures and inadequate shelter, no provision of water, overcrowding, and filthy and parasitic conditions were noted in the camps that contained the lions, caracals, tigers, and leopards,” said NSPCA senior inspector Douglas Wolhuter.
“Twenty-seven of the lions had mange, and the caracals were obese and unable to properly groom themselves.”
Two cubs that appeared to have a neurological condition were unable to walk, he said. They were confiscated and taken for specialist treatment.
It’s estimated up to 12,000 lions are raised on South Africa’s 260 captive breeding facilities. The country’s quota for exporting lion bones is 1,500 skeletons a year.
The trade in lion bones for Asian medicine grew out of the hunting of captive-bred lions.
After the squalid farm was discovered, conservation group Humane Society International/Africa called for the South African government to shut down the captive breeding industry.
Audrey Delsink, wildlife director of HSI/Africa, said: “Lion cubs are ripped from their mothers at just a few days old to be hand-reared by paying volunteers from countries such as the UK, who are misled into believing the cubs are orphans.
“The cubs are exploited their whole lives, first as props by paying tourists, then later as part of ‘walking with lion’ safaris. Once too big and dangerous for this, they are killed for their bones which are exported to Asia for traditional medicines or sold to be killed by trophy hunters largely from the United States in ‘canned’ hunts in which hand-reared lions are shot in a fenced area.”
The fate of the lions will depend on the outcome of the legal process, Ms Delsink said.
Pienika Farm is reportedly owned by Jan Steinman, a member of the council of the South African Predator Association (Sapa), which says it does not support canned lion hunting but stands for “responsible hunting”.
A statement to The Independent by Sapa said: “Sapa is aware of the complaints. It will now be dealt with in terms of the Sapa code of conduct and disciplinary process. Corrective measures will be enforced once the Sapa council processed all the facts at hand.”
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