Barbara Merolli: close-up of a lion

Lions in wildlife rehabilitation projects - no blood on our hands

The recent release of the documentary Blood Lions has put the spotlight on breeding predators for the sake of trophy hunting. Its timing couldn't have been better: Public sentiments were already stirred up in the wake of the shooting of Cecil, so a documentary that highlights the ugliest aspects of the trophy hunting industry would find fertile ground.

While the exposure around Cecil focused on one majestic individual, Blood Lions looks at the bigger picture and goes further behind the scenes, looking at the whole trophy hunting industry. What has been a real shock to many people is the extent of the commodification of wildlife. To most people in the hunting industry, this is no news, and they are likely to shrug and quote the adage "nature pays so nature stays" to outraged conservationists about the vast amount of money charged for trophy hunts, which supposedly trickles down into financing wildlife reserves.

Yes, wildlife conservation requires money. But it does not require the systematic "production" and slaughter of any species. Where there are people who commit resources, time, and passion to preserve wildlife and its habitat, there are alternative ways to fund conservation.

Which brings us to ecotourism and voluntourism. Volunteering gets quite a bad rap in Blood Lions, which exposes some unscrupulous projects where international volunteers participate in the hand-rearing of lion cubs – with the best intentions on the side of the volunteers but a decidedly less ideological agenda on the side of the breeders.

ACE proudly work with international volunteers and wildlife sanctuaries alike, and we are grateful that Blood Lions has raised the lid on unscrupulous practices and is encouraging people worldwide to ask questions – we certainly have. We have asked the wildlife rehabilitation projects we partner with to share details of their work with predator species and the background information on the predators in their care.

We would like to share their stories and principles regarding working with predators. We hope this will illustrate the complex and challenging environment where conservationists work while creating complete transparency.

Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre

Moholoholo is a well-established wildlife sanctuary and rehabilitation centre in South Africa. The centre gives permanent sanctuary to a large number and wide variety of African species, including several predator species. Moholoholo is also active in trapping, quarantining and relocating "problem" leopards hunting livestock in surrounding farming communities.

This is only made possible through Moholoholo's many years of community outreach and education: The centre is open to the public for guided educational tours and has built relationships and created awareness for conservation with the local community. Farmers are now more likely to call Moholoholo for assistance with "problem" leopards instead of shooting them, as often happens in other parts of South Africa. Moholoholo has, at present, a significant number of large predators in their care.


There are currently nine lions at Moholoholo. Four of them were confiscated by the state and awarded to Moholoholo by the court; one animal came in from the Bela Bela area and was legally donated to Moholoholo by a private individual; two cubs were given to Moholoholo by Tshukudu. Both cubs were in a terrible physical state when they came in; one had broken ribs.

All female lions have contraceptive implants to prevent breeding. Moholoholo has a strict policy not to breed or sell any of its lions. No volunteer interaction with the lions is allowed except in preparing food and cleaning enclosures.


There are also currently nine leopards at Moholoholo. Seven of the animals are "wild" leopards that have either been trapped by Moholoholo on behalf of the Department of Nature Conservation or by the department itself due to them being problem animals. All are kept in quarantine, which means they have minimal human contact and none by volunteers.

The quarantine area is also out of bounds for the tours at Moholoholo. These animals are fitted with collars and released back into the wild. They are kept at Moholoholo for at least three months to reduce their homing instinct. If they went straight back to the area they came from, they would likely be shot since they have been removed for hunting livestock.

Moholoholo has been instrumental in relocating such "problem" leopards to a reserve in Malawi, where leopards had become extinct. Six leopards were relocated a few years ago, and the population is now reported to have increased to 10.

Predator breeding

Moholoholo has run a very successful breeding programme for several cats. Servals had become endangered in the wild in several areas of South Africa. Over the years, Moholoholohase bred and released 170 servals.

Care for Wild Africa Rhino Sanctuary

Care for Wild Africa Rhino Sanctuary is a wildlife rehabilitation centre in South Africa specialising in infant rhino care. The centre also cares for other wildlife species, including three adult lions. These are their stories.

Figa, a three-year-old female tawny lioness

Figa came to Care for Wild at three months of age and was brought to the centre by the Department of Nature Conservation after confiscating her from a private individual that was keeping her illegally.

Figa, therefore, remains the state's property but is fed and cared for by Care for Wild. Figa has been sterilised to prevent accidental captive breeding.

Bear, a two 1/2-year-old male white lion

Bear came into the centre with three other siblings at only ten days of age. The litter of cubs had severe diarrhoea and were not expected to survive. They survived, but the owner, a private individual, took Bear back.

Petronel Niewoudt convinced the owner to donate Bear to Care for Wild in return for saving all four cubs. Being a male white lion, she had a strong suspicion that he was otherwise likely to be sold to canned hunting by the owner.

Tuscan, a two 1/2-year-old tawny male lion

Tuscan has a unique history. Petronel received a call early in the morning from an unknown person who told her they were leaving a cage with an animal for her at her main gate, a long way from her house. Petronel drove down to the entrance to fetch the mystery animal. She could not believe her eyes at the door when she saw that the animal concerned was a two-month-old male lion cub!

Tuscan was highly tame, which led to the assumption that he had been somebody's house pet, and due to it being illegal and him getting more prominent, the said person decided to get rid of him.