Killing with cuddles: How lion cub petting in South Africa puts lions in danger!

On World Lion Day, the world focuses on these creatures in all their beauty and majesty. These animals, however, are facing a crisis


Due to lions’ must-see appeal, many tourists flock to lion farms in Africa offering the opportunity to interact with a cub or walk with lions; but if you truly love animals, you need to avoid this disturbing industry, explains FOUR PAWS South Africa’s country director, Fiona Miles.

Not everyone has the best interests of iconic African big cats at heart, and unsuspecting animal lovers could be contributing to the decimation of the lion population through engaging in animal interactions, Miles says.

FOUR PAWS is one of the largest animal protection organisations in the world, with a presence in South Africa fighting to stop the captive breeding and keeping of lions and other big cats for commercial purposes. Through its lion rescues and sanctuaries, FOUR PAWS has witnessed first hand the traumatic treatment of lions.

These cubs are not orphans

Most of the facilities that offer cub petting activities claim that their cubs were orphaned, abandoned or even rejected by their mother and that the facility has rescued them.

“This is not true. These cubs are bred on demand in captivity to feed these petting establishments with a continuous stream of lion cubs."

Fiona Miles, FOUR PAWS South Africa Country Director

There are around 300 farms on which lions are bred and kept for commercial purposes in South Africa. While there are about 3,000 wild lions living in national parks and reserves in South Africa, there are between 8,000 and 10,000 lions living in captivity.

Petting cubs has a negative impact on their health

Big cats sleep for hours per day – especially young cubs. These lion cubs are forced to interact with the paying public for up to 8 to 10 hours a day, resulting in exhaustion.

For these big cats to ‘safely’ interact with people during cub petting and lion walks, they need to be habituated. This involves removing cubs from the care of their mothers within hours to days of birth, to be hand-reared by people.

“This is not only incredibly stressful for the mothers and her cubs. As these cubs are not raised by their natural mothers, and often live without adults of their own kind teaching them how to behave, hunt and interact with their peers, they don’t know how to be a big cat."

Fiona Miles, FOUR PAWS South Africa Country Director

Cub petting feeds the lion trade

Once the lions used in animal interactions, such as cub petting and lion walks, are too big and dangerous to interact with people, they end up in either the canned hunting industry or killed for their bones to be sold as ingredients of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Southeast Asia

About 600 to 700 captive lions are killed in trophy hunts each year and those that are not killed in canned lion hunts are slaughtered for their bones.

This trade stimulates demand for lion bones and incentivises poachers to target lions and sell their bones into these markets.

South Africa is the largest legal exporter of lion bones and skeletons for use in Southeast Asia, with an annual export quota of 800 lion skeletons approved in 2018 by the then Department of Environmental Affairs.

Cub petting farms are not sanctuaries

Many petting facilities justify the activity by telling their visitors that the cubs used in these interactions will be reintroduced in the wild, and that the interactions are actually benefitting conservation.

Reintroductions of captive-bred and hand-reared lions, however, are virtually impossible to achieve.

The rise in responsible tourism

Encouragingly, more travellers and tourists are becoming aware of the animal suffering behind that selfie photo opportunity.

For those who still want to experience the majesty of lions, but in a way that respect them rather than exploits them, Miles suggests people support a true sanctuary where animal welfare is the number one priority.

Sanctuaries are captive wildlife facilities that don’t breed, trade, or offer interactions with the animals. They provide a forever home to animals who can’t be returned to the wild.

“Alternatively, visit one of South Africa’s beautiful national parks or private game reserves, where you can see these animals in their natural habitat. If we reduce the demand for big cat petting farms, these facilities will eventually cease to exist,” says Miles.

What can you do to avoid supporting animal cruelty? 

  • Refuse to visit any breeding or hunting farms.
  • Avoid tourist attractions in which young animals are exposed to direct contact with humans.
  • Be careful in the choice of volunteering or work experience in South Africa. It is not just tourists who fall victim to such scams. Volunteers from all over the world love a hands-on experience with lions and are attracted to the breeding farms to help raising the lions.
  • Look for any sign of animal breeding, handling or animals who are put on show for visitors. These are signs that any ‘sanctuary’ may not be what it seems, and may actually support the captive lion breeding and canned hunting industry.

FOUR PAWS Australia on social media

Stay up to date on this topic and follow all FOUR PAWS activities on our social media channels:


FOUR PAWS press contact

Elise Burgess

Elise Burgess

Head of Communications

M: 0423 873 382

FOUR PAWS Australia
GPO Box 2845 

Main Phone: 1800 454 228

FOUR PAWS is the global animal welfare organisation for animals under direct human influence, which reveals suffering, rescues animals in need and protects them.

Founded in 1988 in Vienna by Heli Dungler and friends, the organisation advocates for a world where humans treat animals with respect, empathy and understanding. The sustainable campaigns and projects of FOUR PAWS focus on companion animals including stray dogs and cats, animals in fashion, farm animals, and wild animals – such as bears, big cats, and orangutans – kept in inappropriate conditions as well as in disaster and conflict zones.

With offices in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Kosovo, the Netherlands, Switzerland, South Africa, Thailand, Ukraine, the UK, the USA, and Vietnam as well as sanctuaries for rescued animals in eleven countries, FOUR PAWS provides rapid help and long-term solutions.

Share now!