A surge in demand for big cat body parts on South Africa’s black market is endangering the future of the country’s captive lion population, conservationists have warned.
A series of recent attacks on predator parks, where hand-reared big cats are kept overnight in zoo-like enclosures, has raised fears that the safety of lions held in captivity can no longer be guaranteed.
Six lions died over the weekend when pesticide-laced chicken meat is believed to have been thrown into their enclosure at a wildlife park north of Pretoria over the weekend, the third known mass poisoning in three months.
A keeper at the Mystic Monkeys and Feathers Wildlife Park discovered the mutilated carcasses of four adult lions and two cubs after a raid in the early hours of Saturday.
The heads and some of the paws of the lions had been cut off and removed, usually an indication that the perpetrators behind the attack were intending to sell the parts to criminal gangs feeding a growing demand for black magic.
“We are so sad to announce that we have lost six lions from poaching, three white lions and three brown lions,” Christa Saayman, the park’s owner, wrote in a Facebook post.
“Senseless and heartless people have robbed us of these beautiful animals. It’s such a pitiful disgrace.
“Just as we though that we are playing our part in conservation, awareness and protection of these animals, people come and do this.”
At least 15 lions have been poisoned in predator parks in South Africa since April, although conservationists believe the number could be considerably higher. The deaths of the 15 lions were all disclosed by their owners on Facebook, but other proprietors of wildlife parks may have kept quiet about similar attacks, the conservationists say.
South Africa licences the slaughter of 800 lions a year at predator farms to feed demand from South East Asia, where parts are used in traditional medicine.
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But conservationists believe most poaching attacks feed growing demand from local medicine men who sell the parts to clients who believe they will be imbued with leonine strength from the spells and potions they buy.
Some criminals also coat themselves in lion fat before carrying out robberies, believing it will protect them from being caught.
Conservationists say captive lions are increasingly becoming a target because they are so easy to poison.
“Hand-reared lions in an enclosure are easy prey,” one conservationist who frequently works in South Africa said. “It is easier to poison a lion that is regularly fed meat than to kill lions in the wild, although this does happen too.”
“Unless predator park owners are prepared to dig into their own pockets to dramatically improve security, we are rapidly approaching a crisis situation where the sustainability of holding lions in captivity is increasingly in doubt.”
Lions across Africa are increasingly in danger, with numbers falling by as much as 80 per cent in three decades to roughly 20,000 today, according to the Big Life Foundation, a Kenya-based conservation group.