Captive lions kept in ‘stressful conditions’ create perfect recipe for disease, experts say

  • Researchers have identified that captive and wild lions carry 63 pathogens that could result in about 83 diseases and clinical symptoms.
  • Drawing on this research, conservationists have named five diseases that have the potential to spill over into the human population and impact public health: human ehrlichiosis, human babesiosis, toxocariasis, trichinosis, and African sleeping sickness.
  • Animal welfare advocates say that captive lion facilities in South Africa tend to keep lions in unsanitary, stressful conditions that provide the perfect environment for disease.
  • With this in mind, conservationists are advocating for the South African government to shut down the captive lion industry.

In 2019, animal welfare inspectors visited Pienika Farm, a captive-lion facility in the North West province of South Africa. They found sick lion after sick lion living in conditions inspectors described as “horrific.” Twenty-seven animals were severely infected with mange, a condition caused by parasitic mites, while cubs twitched in the dirt, suffering from neurological disorders. Dozens of lions were crammed into cages meant only to hold a few. Rotting food and feces littered the ground.

These are the ideal conditions for pathogens to grow and spread, resulting in disease, says Louise de Waal, a wildlife conservationist and one of the directors of Blood Lions, a nonprofit organization launched after the release of the 2015 film Blood Lions. The spread of disease is not only dangerous for the lions (Panthera leo) themselves, she said, but there is a possibility that disease could spill over into the human population, threatening human health and even triggering future epidemics.

According to a recent peer-reviewed paper co-authored by De Waal and other experts from Blood Lions and World Animal Protection, captive and wild lions are known to carry a total of 63 pathogens — including parasites, bacteria and viruses — and these can result in about 83 diseases and clinical symptoms. Some of these pathogens can be transmitted from lions to other species, including humans, the research says.

A captive lion with no fur on its nose due to mange. Image by Louise de Waal.

The Blood Lions team has identified five diseases as being the most dangerous ones to humans: human ehrlichiosis, human babesiosis, toxocariasis, trichinosis, and African sleeping sickness.

The first two are tick-borne diseases and can spread to humans if an infected tick jumps from a lion to a person. The second two are spread through parasitic roundworms, and transmission can occur if a human comes into contact with contaminated soil or ingests raw and undercooked meat. The last disease, African sleeping sickness, also known as trypanosomiasis, is transmitted through tsetse flies. It’s also listed as a “Neglected Tropical Disease” by the World Health Organization, which means that it isn’t necessarily viewed as a health priority even though it’s caused several epidemics across Africa, primarily among economically disadvantaged populations.

While none of these diseases have been known to transfer from lions to humans, De Waal says there’s always a chance it can happen, especially given the proximity between lions and humans at farms such as Pienika Farm.

“It’s an industry that promotes very close contact between animals and people,” De Waal told Mongabay in an interview.

Many captive-lion facilities cater to tourists who want to experience “lion petting” or “walking with lions.” Others are set up as “canned” hunting parks, creating artificial conditions that pretty much guarantee that visitors can kill a lion and take home a trophy. Then there are breeding or holding facilities where lions are raised for tourism purposes, and killed for their skins, meat and other body parts, including skeletons, which are prized in the traditional Chinese medicine market.

There are many possible points of contact, De Waal says, from the people who clean the camps, feed the lions, and provide veterinary care, to those who slaughter the lions and prepare their skins, meat and skeletons for export. Then there are the tourists themselves.

At some farms, lions are kept close to other animals, such as leopards, tigers and jaguars, De Waal says.

The Lion Coalition, an alliance of several animal welfare and conservation groups, including Blood Lions, says that bovine tuberculosis, documented in both captive and wild lions, could also transfer between lions and humans. In an open letter to the WHO published last year, the coalition recommends shutting down captive-lion farms, as well as wildlife markets and other wild animal facilities, to minimize the risk of disease.

Lions in a small enclosure with unhygienic conditions. Image by Blood Lions.

“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we should not underestimate these zoonotic diseases, especially with viruses — they can so easily mutate,” De Waal said.

Around 366 facilities are holding 8,000 lions in South Africa, according to official government estimates. But De Waal says there are probably closer to 450 facilities, holding up to 12,000 lions across the country.

“There’s never been a full audit of the industry,” De Waal said. “And those numbers are in a continuous state of flux, because these animals are being transferred from one breeder to the next. They are being killed in a hunt, they are killed for their bones.”

While conditions vary from facility to facility, animal welfare tends not to be a top concern at many places, De Waal says. Between 2016 and 2017, the NSPCA Wildlife Protection Unit inspected 95 lion breeding and holding facilities across the country, and found nearly half of them to be keeping lions in substandard conditions, according to a confidential report. The primary concerns were inadequate enclosures, hygiene, diets, enrichment activities, and a lack of veterinary care for injured or sick lions. Inspectors issued 32 of these facilities with non-compliance welfare notices, and another 18 got warnings related to the Animal Protection Act.

De Waal says it’s also common for cubs to be immediately taken away from their mothers and fed cow’s milk or formula, which isn’t suitable for lions and sets them up for a lifetime of poor health.

“The conditions are very stressful,” she said. “We’re dealing with animals with compromised immune systems, and those are the ideal conditions [in which] pathogens can jump. That is what we’ve seen with the COVID situation as well, where a pathogen was transmitted from a bat to another mammal.”

A captive lion with untreated mange, a parasitic skin disease. Image courtesy of Blood Lions.

On March 30, the WHO released a highly anticipated report that identifies wildlife farms in China as the likely origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that started the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s a genuinely existential threat posed to us by the way we currently treat wildlife, especially through the trade,” Niall McCann, director of conservation for National Park Rescue and rotating chair of EndPandemics, an alliance of groups working together to reduce future pandemic risk, told Mongabay in an interview.

Transmission risk between lions and humans is perceived to be lower than it would be between humans and species like minks, pigs, wildfowl and other primates, but it’s not negligible, McCann said.

“In my opinion, the risk is low, but the risk is there,” he said. “The conditions under which many of these lions are kept are precisely the types of conditions that encourage the shedding of virus, and therefore, the spillover of zoonotic disease.

“What we do know is that keeping animals in unnaturally cramped conditions that are unsanitary and highly stressful situations encourages immunosuppression, so you’re encouraging disease in those individuals,” he added.

De Waal says she thinks it’s the right time for South Africa to reassess its captive-lion industry, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has brought captive-lion tourism to a standstill. For the last couple of years, there has also been no lion bone quota after South Africa’s High Court ruled that the 2017 quota of 800 lion bones and the 2018 quota of 1,500 lion bones were unlawful and unconstitutional.

“This industry is pretty much on their knees,” De Waal said. “So if ever there was a good time to put an end to this industry, it’s now, rather than allowing for this industry to recover.”

Citation:

Green, J., Jakins, C., Asfaw, E., Bruschi, N., Parker, A., De Waal, L., & D’Cruze, N. (2020). African lions and zoonotic diseases: Implications for commercial lion farms in South Africa. Animals, 10(9), 1692. doi:10.3390/ani10091692

Banner image caption: Same age cubs at breeding farm in South Africa. Image by Blood Lions.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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