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. It’s 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 of the trophy hunting industry. What has been a real shock to many people is the extent of commodification of wildlife. To most people in the hunting industry, this is no news and they are likely to shrug and quote the old adage “nature pays so nature stays” to outraged conservationists, in reference to 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 as well as time and passion to preserving 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 of intentions on the side of the volunteers, but a decidedly less idealistic 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 that 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 with regards to working with predators. We hope that this will illustrate the complex and challenging environment in which conservationists work, while creating complete transparency.

Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre

Moholoholo is a very 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 which have been 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 thereby 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 resorting to 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 9 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 very bad 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 the preparation of food and cleaning of enclosures.


There are also currently 9 leopards at Moholoholo. 7 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 very limited human contact, and none by volunteers. The quarantine area is also out of bounds for the tours at Moholoholo. All of these animals are fitted with collars and released back into the wild. They are kept at Moholoholo for a minimum of 3 months so as 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 have been instrumental in a relocation programme of such “problem” leopards to a reserve in Malawi, where leopards had become extinct. 6 leopards were relocated a few years ago, and the population is now reported to have increased to 10.

Predator Breeding

Moholoholo have run a very successful breeding programme for serval cats. Servals had become endangered in the wild in several areas of South Africa. Over the years Moholoholo have 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 on infant rhino care. Nonetheless the centre also cares for a variety of other wildlife species, amongst them 3 adult lions. These are their stories.

Figa, a 3 year old female tawny lioness

Figa came to Care for Wild at 3 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 property of the state but is is fed and cared for by Care for Wild. Figa has been sterilised to prevent accidental captive breeding.

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

Bear came into the centre with 3 other siblings at only 10 days of age. The litter of cubs had severe diarrhoea and were not expected to survive. They did survive and all but Bear were taken back by the owner, who is a private individual. Petronel Niewoudt was able to convince the owner to donate Bear to Care for Wild in return for saving all four cubs. Being a male white lion, she had the strong suspicion that he was otherwise likely to be sold to canned hunting by the owner.

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

Tuscan has a unique history. Petronel received a call early in the morning by an unknown person that told her that they were leaving a cage with an animal for her at her main gate, which was a long way from her house. Petronel drove down to the gate to fetch the mystery animal. When at the gate she could not believe her eyes when she saw that the animal concerned was a two month old male lion cub! Tuscan was extremely tame which led to the assumption that he had been somebody’s house pet and due to it being illegal and him getting bigger the said person decided to get rid of him.