The family of 70-year-old Leon van Biljon, who was mauled to death by three lions he had raised since they were cubs, is "at peace" and say he "left the Earth because of his children", Pretoria News reported.
Van Biljon was killed at the Mahala View Lion Game Lodge near Cullinan on Tuesday, News24 reported.
He was inside the lions' enclosure fixing a fence when the attack took place. Following the attack, the lions were shot dead by staff members.
Van Biljon's daughter, Leonette van Wyk, 46, told the Pretoria News that she knew her father had lived a full life and had answered his calling from God to raise lions and teach people more about them. She reportedly said she and her sister, Vicky, never felt jealous or overshadowed by Rambo, Nikita and Catharina - the three lions. "No not really; he also loved me and my sister equally, if not more," she said.
Netwerk24 reported that Van Biljon's entire family had gathered at the farm on Wednesday.
A memorial service will be held on Wednesday, August 28, at the Ewige Lig church in Montana, Pretoria, Van Biljon's son-in-law Jan van Wyk told the publication.
Family at peace
Van Wyk told Netwerk24 that, while they were sad, the family was coping and had found peace.
According to Pretoria News, Van Biljon and his family moved to Mahala View Lion Lodge in 1985, which was just a piece of open veld at the time.
Van Biljon reportedly got the three lion cubs in 2006 and raised them himself, often even sleeping in their enclosure, according to his daughter.
"We built that farm from nothing, grew up there. My dad raised the lions. He would sleep with them. He taught educational groups about lions and the relationship between God and these animals for school groups," she told Pretoria News.
According to Mahala View's website, Van Biljon offered lion lectures, feedings and game drives for guests.
Criticism from animal rights groups
The incident drew criticism from animal rights activists.
Fiona Miles, director of FOUR PAWS in South Africa, said all loss of life was tragic and their deepest sympathy went out to his family.
"However, these attacks can be avoided by not allowing any unnecessary human-wildlife interaction. The fact remains that lions are wild animals and no matter how habituated or tame they might seem, they remain unpredictable and instinctive," she said.
"The predator’s instinct will seek out certain characteristics and identify easy prey, i.e. the small, weak, slow and sick."
Miles said what seemed to be happening with captive animals in facilities where interaction was a regular occurrence, was that they reached a "breaking point" where they lashed out.
"About 60% of all the reported attacks on human due to predator interaction, involved captive-bred lions, rather than cheetahs or tigers."
The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) said in a statement it was saddened at the news of Van Biljon's death.
"In previous media statements, the EWT has brought to light the numerous human safety, animal welfare, and conservation concerns presented by captive carnivore facilities. This latest tragic incident once again highlights the serious human safety issues associated with these facilities. From open-source records, we have recorded that there have been over 40 incidents, with 13 of these fatal, in South African captive carnivore facilities since 1996. The most recent incident prior to yesterday’s fatal attack was a serious attack on a child in May 2019," its statement read.
Van Biljon is survived by two daughters, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Compiled by Riaan Grobler