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

This is an excerpt from an article written by Elizabeth Claire Alberts and published online by Mongabay on 08 April, 2021

  • 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.