By Joanna Della-Ragione
The lion cub in my arms is just two months old. His dappled yellow fur is cotton-wool soft and his long lashed eyes glow gold. He is calendar-cute, picture perfect, but when he scrambles out of my arms razor-sharp claws scrape my skin and I'm jolted back to reality, reminded that he's a wild animal. That I'm able to cradle him at all is paradoxical.
This isn't nature or the expansive wilderness of the Kruger National Park - if it were the pride would have torn me limb from limb by now - rather I'm standing in a large cage, home to eight cubs including two baby tigers and two white lions who playfully nip my ankles. The pungent scent of cat urine rising from the dusty ground permeates the air.
I've driven three hours from Johannesburg across vast expanses of bleak farmland which constitute South Africa's Orange Free State, down a nausea-inducing dirt track to the Moreson Ranch, which markets itself as a "holiday and game farm" where rich hunters both amateur and professional come to shoot animals for sport. It is just one of many lionbreeding farms in South Africa where tourists can pay a mere 50 rand (about £3.50) to cuddle a cub.
What the tourists aren't told is that these cubs have been snatched from their mothers at just an hour old and come adulthood they're likely to die at the hands of wealthy trophy hunters, just like the rest of the 5,000 captive bred lions in South Africa.
South Africa has long been a country of great contrasts and contradictions, corruption is rife and apartheid is over but not forgotten. Casual, latent racism is ingrained; black Africans, as a generalisation, are still the ones carrying out the menial lowpaid jobs while the white population are the businessmen, the CEOs and high rollers. Most of the population is poor and crime rates are high, a combination which means anything and everything - even the wildest and rarest of animals - has a price. In the case of captive bred lions, expect to pay £10,000 to £30,000 for a male trophy and from £5,000 for a lioness.
Canned hunting - where lions are bred in captivity then released into bigger fenced areas and hunted as trophies - is on the rise. Figures show that between 2007-2011 the total number of lions killed by hunting in South Africa rose to 4,032 from 1,830 in 2002-2006, an astonishing increase. More....