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Ex-volunteers expose cruelty in the name of big-cat conservation

Two women thought they were helping by hand-rearing cubs, until they learnt some sinister truths. Now their Panthera Africa is a sanctuary for big cats born victim to an exploitative industry

20 December 2020 - 00:01 By Dawn Jorgensen
Oliver and Obi were both rescued from terrible conditions in captive-breeding facilities.
Oliver and Obi were both rescued from terrible conditions in captive-breeding facilities.
Image: Supplied

Thousands of lions, tigers, leopards and other species of big cats live out their lives in squalor, but a fortunate few have found sanctuary at Panthera Africa outside the quiet village of Stanford in the Cape.

Lizaene Cornwall and Cathrine Nyquist spent years unknowingly volunteering on the dark side of captive-lion breeding. Like many volunteers, they believed they were contributing to the wildlife populations in SA — but they were wrong. Uncovering the truth behind the exploitative industry altered their future path.

Nyquist had often travelled from Norway to volunteer at a breeding facility that hand-reared cheetah, leopard, servals and caracal under the guise of conservation. Her role was to care for the cubs. She developed a bond with them, fundraising to support the efforts, and buying into the false narrative that captive breeding facilities spin — that she was "helping the animals".

At the same time, Cornwall was taking a break from corporate life to work at a big cat project in the Free State. She raised at least 30 lions by hand before she started to question the process.

Cornwall was assured that the cubs she was receiving had been rejected by their mothers at birth, or were orphaned. Instead, they'd been forcefully removed and given to paying volunteers tasked with bottle-feeding and nurturing them. Many cubs didn't survive. The practice ensures females can be bred more regularly; that the cubs become accustomed to being handled, and that there is endless opportunity to fuel the illicit million-dollar "voluntourism" side of the business.

But where do these cats go when they're full-grown adults? After investigating, Nyquist and Cornwall discovered the conditions that many lions were living in: crowded cages, minimal shelter, lack of water and food. These are conditions that have become synonymous with captive-lion breeding. Most of the cubs have served their purpose by the time they're one year old and are destined for the lion bone or canned-lion hunting industry.

Obi was removed from his mother a few hours after birth, and destined to be a money-making prop at a cub-petting facility

Nyquist and Cornwall established Panthera Africa to provide a haven for the big cats they had raised, where the animals would be nurtured back to health and allowed to live out their remaining years.

The sanctuary currently homes 17 lions, two tigers, two leopards, three caracals, a cheetah and a jackal. All have traumatic stories.

Obi the lion, for example, was removed from his mother a few hours after birth, and destined to be a money-making prop at a cub-petting facility. He and his half-brother, Oliver, were hand-raised from birth at the project where Nyquist and Cornwall worked.

At the age of 10 months, the siblings had grown too big and were sent to a breeding farm. They were subjected to horrific conditions in a small enclosure with nine other lions. Obi was skeletal and clinging to life when he was brought to Panthera Africa along with Oliver. 

The pair are the sanctuary's pioneer success stories, but not every story has a happy ending.

Another of Obi and Olivier's siblings, Shani, was marked to join them at Panthera Africa in 2015. However, she was traded illegally between breeding facilities across SA for years.

As Nyquist and Cornwall searched for her, they witnessed the cruelty behind the cub-petting, breeding and canned-hunting industry. They found out Shani had been slaughtered for the bone trade in June 2016.

Panthera Africa has undertaken to educate the public, share each individual animal's story and create awareness around the conditions that big cats face in captivity.


In August 2019, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries indicated that there were 7,979 captive lions in 366 facilities in SA.

However, research by Bloodlions.org has estimated that there are 10,000 to 12,000 lions in 450 facilities, as well as 800-1,000 cheetahs; 1,000-1,500 tigers, hundreds of leopards, caracals, servals and exotic species like jaguars, pumas and tigers. 


  • Say no to selfies with big cats, cub petting, walking with lions, or any physical interaction with wild animals.
  • Help to spread the truth about this cruel industry.
  • Stand up to governments, organisations and the general public as part of a unified voice that will bring change.
  • Do extensive research before visiting a facility. Ensure they are not trading, breeding or offering interactions. A true sanctuary provides a home and takes all precautions to avoid breeding; it does not buy, sell, lend, exchange animals in their care; and only allows human interaction for veterinary care.
  • Visit, volunteer or adopt one of the cats at Panthera Africa.