Big cat sanctuary opens

2008-02-28 00:00

Lionsrock, a sanctuary for big cats near Bethlehem in the Free State was officially opened on February 16. The sanctuary is the brainchild of the international animal welfare organisation Vier Pfoten (Four Paws) Foundation based in Vienna, Austria and initially will provide a refuge for big cats from circuses and zoos in Europe.

Four Paws was founded in Austria in 1988 by veterinarian Helmut Dungler.

“He was an animal welfare activist for many years and wanted to create a big welfare organisation for animals,” says Amir Khalil, project manager of the Lionsrock venture. The Four Paws Foundation now has branches in nine European countries.

“And we’ve just opened the 10th branch in South Africa,” says Khalil.

Lionsrock, which has the endorsement of the Free State’s Department of Tourism, Environment and Economic Affairs, is currently home to 36 lions, a Bengal tiger, two leopards, two caracals, two wild dogs and a variety of antelope species.

The first phase of the Lionsrock project consists of the first unit of five lion enclosures, leopard, tiger and caracal enclosures as well as a tourist lodge and research centre. The total extent of the new habitat for the lions is about 20 hectares. The total area of the farm is 1 242 hectares.

The Four Paws Foundation made international news with the Belitsa Bear Park in Bulgaria, a joint project between Four Paws and the Brigitte Bardot Foundation which was created to provide a home for “dancing” bears from Eastern Europe. It lies in a mountainous area near Bansko, a popular Bulgarian ski resort. The park is now home to around 25 bears.

Ivan Tonchev, architect for the bear park, is also the architect for Lionsrock.

“The location for the park was steep and in the forest,” says Tonchev. “It was a difficult job to define the shape of the park. I wanted to avoid felling big trees, so we followed existing paths to blend in with the fencing as much as possible.”

“The park design was a great challenge. I found solutions to problems and later used many of these with Lionsrock.

“At Lionsrock I walked every corner of the land to get the feel of it,” says Tonchev. “I don’t force something on to the landscape. I wanted to create something that harmonises with the site.”

As well as the animal enclosures there is also a tourist lodge and other leisure facilities.

Tonchev has an architectural practice in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia where, among other projects, he designed the building that houses the South African Embassy. He is no stranger to Africa having worked on buildings in Algeria, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. He also lived and worked in Cape Town in the early nineties.

Lionsrock is intended to provide a sanctuary for big cats from Europe, from circuses and zoos where the animals are not properly cared for. Ten of the Lionsrock lions are from a bankrupt safari park in Austria, another is from Romania.

Khalil looked at various possible sites for the sanctuary in Europe as well as Egypt and Kenya.

“But here is ideal as this was once the home of lions, this was their natural habitat,” he says. Though not of the Bengal tiger. “He was already on the property. We have created an area with the right conditions for him in which to swim and hunt.”

The creation of Lionsrock has not been without controversy. The land was previously known as Camorhi Game Lodge where its owner Marius Prinsloo bred lions for the canned hunting industry. When Four Paws bought the property they bought 25 of the original lions, the tiger, two wild dogs, two leopards as well as assorted plains antelope.

Prinsloo’s activities have been featured in a BBC documentary and on M-Net’s Carte Blanche. In March last year Carte Blanche aired an item titled Frida the Lion Cub about a tug- of-war over the lion cub from Romania. Khalil says this matter has now been resolved.

Hhalil says that Lionsrock will also provide a home for lions that were bred for canned hunting. He says that new legislation relating to the keeping of animals in captivity will ban this activity although this legislation is currently frozen pending an appeal against it by the canned hunting industry.

“There are more than 4 000 lions in captivity in South Africa intended for canned hunting,” he says. “It will be difficult to know what to do with them all. We want to be part of the solution.”

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