If you have already been following my blog, it is probably quite apparent that I truly love the amazing wildlife we have here in South Africa. I am also a big supporter of the idea of keeping the wildlife wild. I absolutely do not support the numerous animal interaction activities that are found all over the country such as lion cub petting and walking, elephant back safaris, ostrich riding or cheetah cuddling. Most times these types of places will claim that what they are doing is all for conservation reasons but most true conservationists agree it is anything but conservation. Lion cub petting probably tops my list of the worst of the bunch due to the connection to canned lion hunting. There is a lot of information out there on this topic if you just seek it out but if you need a start you can read here and here.
One of the rescued male lions at Lionsrock
Fortunately there are also many organizations here in South Africa doing true conservation and/or rescue work. We had the opportunity to visit one such place a few weekends ago, Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary, located in the Free State about 3 hours south of Joburg near Bethleham. Lionsrock is a sanctuary for big cats rescued from horrific conditions in zoos, circuses and canned hunting situations from all over the globe.
Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary
Lionsrock was opened in 2007 by Four Paws, an international animal welfare organisation headquartered in Vienna, Austria. The site was previously a breeding farm for lions destined for canned hunting and when Lionsrock took over, 25 cats from the farm were transferred to the care of Lionsrock as well. Currently Lionsrock is home to 85 lions, 13 tigers (6 arrived the week after our visit and I am not sure if they were counted already in the 13), 2 leopards, 2 caracals, 1 cheetah and 1 wild dog (and I am sure I am forgetting someone).
View of Lionsrock Sanctuary from the Lodge
Lionsrock also operates a lodge where you can stay at a very reasonable price and then take game drives to learn about the history and care of the cats they have rescued. We stayed 2 nights, giving us time to do one general game drive as well as a feeding drive. The stories of how these magnificent animals have suffered truly broke my heart and had me in tears several times over the weekend, but our visit also left me filled with feelings of hope and gratefulness that these creatures could finally be at peace.
This is little Gipsy. She is 15 years old and has suffered so much. She was rescued from a horrific zoo in Romania and due to malnutrition she has rickets and can barely walk. A male lion was rescued along with her but died before making the journey to Lionsrock.
Meet Sasha, a 3 legged cheetah. Sasha lost his mother when he was 6 months old. He was taken in and raised by a vet before being successfully returned to the wild. Unfortunately Sasha was injured by a wildebeest and had to have one of his back legs amputated. He could no longer live in the wild on his own and was lucky to find a home at Lionsrock.
Coda is a 10 year old Bengal tiger. He was rescued from a zoo after its closure.
Female leopard. Her male companion stayed well hidden but this girl was not shy at all.
On both game drives we had a wonderful guide named Alvin. He has been at the sanctuary for over 5 years and is so enthusiastic to share his knowledge, love and passion of the animals at Lionsrock. Our first drive was what is called a general game drive. We were driven out to the area of the enclosures in a jeep. Our first stop was at the adaption enclosures. These are where the cats will live when they first arrive at Lionsrock. The adaption enclosures are rectangular in shape in order for the cat to feel safe and secure within its new boundaries. A new cat usually remains here for 5-8 months, but sometimes a year or 2 of adaption may be needed.
Alvin explaining the adaption enclosures while Andy looks on. Andy is a 2 year old female lion who had previously been with a private owner.
Next we were taken to the permanent enclosures. There are 5 of these and they are arranged in the shape of a lion paw. Each is home to a pride of lions, the largest being 6.1 hectares for a pride of 11.
Largest of the permanent enclosures, home to 11 lions. You can see it is quite roomy, stretching all the way down to the trees in the background. The fenced-in area to the right is their feeding enclosure.
Here all enclosures are rounded/oval shapes as this gives the lions the impression that there are not boundaries (they don’t find themselves blocked into a corner). Alvin shared more about the history of the different lion prides as well as the special care that is required as far as medical treatments and feeding. The animals are never fed live animals because, due to their captivity, the cats’ hunting abilities have been compromised. It was explained that while some of the cats could probably still hunt, they wouldn’t be very efficient hunters and would cause much distress and trauma to the hunted. About half of the needed meat is donated by neighboring farmers and the rest must be purchased.
Observation walkway to the enclosures
As Lionsrock is a rescue organization, there is absolutely no breeding of the animals. Male lions receive a vasectomy instead of being castrated as this allows the prides to still carry on with their natural activities. An additional side effect that occurs when a lion is castrated is that they lose their beautiful mane as well.
Still the King
The general drive also included a visit to the tiger, leopard and caracal enclosures to learn about the care of some of the other animals now living at the sanctuary. Lionsrock also tries to provide what they term Enrichment to the animals so that they don’t get too bored. For example, tigers love water so they are provided with a plunge pool and we were lucky to see one take a dip.
Bengal Tiger in his plunge pool
Bengal Tiger chillin’ on his deck
Caracal, one of a pair.
The following day we had the chance to participate in a feeding drive. The lions are only fed twice a week so I was just thrilled that we had the opportunity to do this. Male lions need about 46 kg of meat per week and the females approximately 36 kg. As we pulled up in the safari truck the lions were already running along the fence as they had already seen and heard the meat truck coming.
Waiting for the meat truck
Each enclosure has a separate feeding area locked off from the rest of the enclosure. This allows the food to be safely placed without the need to enter the enclosure with the lions. Only once the feeders are out of the feeding area and the door is relocked, the adjoining gate is opened and the lions enter and select their preferred morsel.
Meat truck. The feeders count the cats to make sure all are present and accounted for. They then spread the pieces of meat around the feeding area.
Here they come
Just give me one bite of that I said !
Not everyone was satisfied with their own morsel and a few minor squabbles broke out.
What, beef again?
Anyone got a toothpick?
Besides participating in the game drives, we also did a short hike around the area (not allowed near the enclosures) for some great views looking down on the sanctuary. Lionsrock is also home to several species of plains animals that roam freely throughout the sanctuary including zebras, wildebeest, blesbok and several fallow deer rescued from Robben Island providing for even more photo ops. Sunsets at Lionsrock are also an event not to be missed. As the sky transforms into a colorful array of reds, oranges and purples, grab a sundowner and listen to the lions’ ferocious roars warmly welcoming in the night.
View of the sanctuary from above
Fallows Deer. These are not native to South Africa but were brought to Robben Island from Europe. Lionsrock was able to save many of these magnificient animals from a cull on the island.
Our long weekend at Lionsrock will be one that I cherish for many years to come. While I was deeply saddened by the unforgivable abuse some of these glorious animals have endured, I was also filled with an immense appreciation for the people who are so completely dedicated to providing a safe haven for these animals so that they can live out their remaining years in peace. If you want to support an organization that truly cares about the ethical treatment of animals, consider a visit to Lionsrock, it surely will be one you won’t soon forget.
Sunset at Lionsrock