Tucked away along the Western Cape’s famed Whale Coast Route lies an unexpected treasure: a big cat sanctuary. Here, on a peaceful farm near the picture-perfect village of Stanford, you can add beautiful Bengal tigers, rare black leopard and massive-maned white lions to your shark and whale sightings. And you can discover the unethical and inhumane industries that these magnificent animals expose.

 Panthera Africa has three steadfast rules: don’t breed, don’t trade, don’t touch. This makes the non-profit organisation, founded by Cathrine Nyquist and Lizaene Cornwall, a ‘true’ sanctuary. Although Cat and Lizaene met on a cheetah breeding project upcountry, it’s no accident that they’ve chosen to set up their sanctuary in the Western Cape. Where Cat and Lizaene pull out all the stops for the health and happiness of their cats, unscrupulous breeders are rearing them in captivity for their own financial gain. And very few big cat owners have the same philanthropic motives of the couple and legislation to protect these voiceless animals is severely lacking. The Western Cape is the only province in South Africa where breeding big cats in captivity (which we soon learn on our tour is an abhorrent practice) is prohibited by law.

At Panthera Africa, each animal’s enclosure is 2.5 times the size required by law. However, even these comfortable camps are not particularly large for the beautiful cats that should be free roaming the limitless African plains. But what we learn from our guide is that all the cats in the sanctuary have been bred in captivity elsewhere and cannot be successfully rehabilitated into the wild. Instead, here, on this 40-hectare estate with panoramic mountain views, they’re able to live out the rest of their lives in peace and with dignity. That’s because not only does Panthera Africa condemn breeding animals in captivity, the sanctuary also does not believe that captive animals should be subject to the stress of tourists touching them on a daily basis. Their sole purpose is to raise awareness through each of the characterful and charismatic cats we meet on our educational visit.

Panthera Pardus

When Pardus (the latin name for leopard) moves in the light, her black coat reveals the underlying rosette patterns that are the fingerprint of her species. Today, she is on heat and she runs eagerly towards our small approaching group, leads us to a shady part of her enclosure, and plonks herself down on the other side of the fence. Here, she rolls about like a playful house cat, grunting at the top of her voice, seemingly happy for the attention.  There is not much known about the black leopard, except that it is the melanistic colour variant of the normal leopard and it is rarely seen in the wild. Where a normal leopard fetches around R40,000 (£2,200), black leopards are bred purely because they are worth about R120,000 (£6,600) – three times the price. Half the size of a normal leopard, Pardus is similar in stature to the rare and elusive Cape Leopard that live a ghostly existence in the mountains surrounding the sanctuary.

Pardus used to share her enclosure with a fully grown male leopard called Zorro, whose image is immortalised on a signboard next to the enclosure. As Panthera Africa do not breed, it was necessary for Zorro to have a vasectomy. During his operation, the local vet made the disastrous mistake of cutting his urethra. Zorro became increasingly unwell until Cat and Lizaene made the drastic decision to fly him upcountry to a trusted vet for treatment. As there were no scheduled flights that could accommodate an ailing leopard at such short notice, they had to charter his own private jet to ensure he got the veterinary attention he needed. Sadly, the huge price tag of R90,000 for his rescue flight was only one-way, as Zorro passed away shortly after his third birthday. This touching story, along with others we hear on our visit, shows how Cat and Lizaene are as dedicated to their cats as if they were their own children.

Panthera Leo

The next five enclosures we visit all contain the most iconic and mesmerising of the big cats: lion. And each of the animals we meet has a different story to tell.

In the central enclosure, a white lioness sleeps peacefully on the wooden platform over her earth-covered shelter, built to shield the animals from inclement weather. Lei-ah is Panthera Africa’s latest addition to their big cat family. As the young lioness does not as yet have her own camp, she was placed in the central playground around which the other enclosures have been cleverly designed. Each enclosure has a corridor that can be connected to the playpen, allowing the cats to move through voluntarily to get a change of scenery. Here, they can entertain themselves with the balancing walkways, moving apparatus, and other toys that stimulate their inquisitive minds, including balls, tires, and boxes filled with different smells. A pulley system can be rigged to drag their food, which not only gives the animals some exercise, but also mimics the natural hunting scenario in the wild.

Powder-white Lei-ah struggles to see in bright sunlight, like the glorious sun-splashed afternoon we’re enjoying, and often bumps into things in her enclosure. Her bad eyesight is caused by a thiamine deficiency that could be linked to incorrect feeding. But Lei-ha is not alone. In the next-door enclosure, two massive male lions easily reaching waist height come to greet us. Jubatus swaggers towards us like he’s three pints down and we learn he has a bad leg due to a vitamin-A deficiency he developed as a young cub. While incorrect feeding and care can cause deformities, the severity of these abnormalities tends to increase through multi-generational inbreeding. In order to produce a white lion, breeders need to breed two white lions (or split lions) that carry the rare, recessive gene together. This inbreeding creates cubs that are plagued by a plethora of health problems and high mortality rates.

These animals are Frankenstein freaks of nature,” says hunter and conservationist Peter Flack. “This has nothing to do with conservation and everything to do with profit.

But it’s not until we meet Obi and Oliver, two magnificent male lions, that the real horrors of breeding these commanding cats for profit rears its heinous head. Like true kings of the jungle, Obi lays sphinx-like on his raised platform while heavyset Oliver parades proudly around his enclosure, sniffing the air with confidence. But both lion did not always look like the thriving animals we see today. The board in front of us entitled, “Obi and Oliver before” is an impactful visual comparison of what a healthy, happy lion should look like and one that is clearly malnourished and has been neglected in the hands of their owners. South Africa is one of only two countries on the continent to allow ownership of wild animals. Where this ownership is motivated by profit and not conservation, the animals suffer as a result.

Oliver and Obi’s story reveals the shocking lifecycle of most captive-bred lion in the country. Firstly, cubs are taken away from their mothers days after birth and hand-raised with bottles. Unwitting tourists pay to fondle the fluffy, toy-like babies and take selfies with them sprawled across their knees. Passing the cubs from person to person causes them a great deal of stress, resulting in behavioural problems and even physical symptoms like diarrhoea. Volunteers from around the globe pay to work at South African wildlife ‘sanctuaries’, particularly if they have lion cubs to hand rear. Most volunteers have no idea of the true fate waiting for the adorable animals that they bond with so intensely. When a lion reaches adolescence, they are usually involved in interactive programmes such as ‘Walking with Lions.’ But it’s not until they are fully-grown with an impressive mane that their ghastly fate is sealed: they are sold off over the internet or through auctions to farms where the unforgivably abhorrent activity of canned lion hunting takes place.

International hunters, 60% of whom are from the States, pay blood money to shoot captive-bred lions and hang their lifeless remains on their wall in what can only be a display of their sick and psychopathic megalomania. Not only are these lions raised lovingly by humans, so they’re not scared of them, but the hunters are often placed on the back of the pick-up truck that feeds them, causing the lion to come running for what they think is their food. Instead, they get a bullet between their eyes… if they’re lucky. Others are wounded by incompetent shots and live out the last moments of their lives in terror and agony until the hunter manages to end their misery. What astounds me the most, is not the monsters who orchestrate this horrific activity, but the fact that it is completely legal. The South African government has not only failed spectacularly in looking after its people, but also in protecting the animals that roam the land.

One-shot kills with the .375 cannot always be guaranteed,” reads the sadistic copy on canned lion hunting website African Sky. “First shot placement is all important, as the follow-up on a wounded cat can be extremely exciting if not downright dangerous.

About eight years ago, the South African government stated that an animal had to roam free for two years before it could be hunted, effectively bringing the canned hunting industry to a halt. However, the people who stood to lose financially, the lion breeders, challenged the policy in court and a high-court judge eventually caved to the pressure. It’s not only the South African government that is responsible; much of the demand comes from overseas. Trophy-hunters are attracted by the guarantee of success – and the price: a wild lion shot on a safari in Tanzania costs around £50,000, compared with only £5,000 for a captive-bred animal in South Africa. The number of lion trophies exported from South Africa has since soared by a staggering 122 per cent, the vast majority from captive-bred lion.

Fortunately, Obi and Oliver were spared their lives by two strong women’s determination to make a difference and educate the world about what is happening to the demonstrative cats that they love so much. Originally a commercial real estate broker in Norway, Cat was living an enviable jet-set lifestyle until her volunteer work in South Africa changed the course of her life forever. During her trip, Cat helped Lizaene out with her duties caring for cubs on a cheetah-breeding farm and bonded with a ten-month-old lion cub, Oliver. Lion are emotionally intelligent animals that develop strong human ties with the people who rear them – ties that are often remembered many years later.

When Oliver was sent to live with his owner, Cat had a bad feeling and was concerned about his welfare. Acting on her instincts, she went to check on him at the breeding farm and discovered lions kept in appalling conditions in small, overcrowded pens where they didn’t receive the individual care that they needed. Cat was devastated and promised Oliver that she would return one day to rescue him. Two years later, Cat and Lizaene decided to create a sanctuary and they went out in search for Oliver and the other lions that they had raised. At the breeding farm, Cat couldn’t recognise Oliver anywhere and, in a last ditch attempt before leaving, she called his name out loudly. Suddenly, over 500 metres away, a white head popped up from the pride and came running towards her. After two years had passed, Oliver had never forgotten the person who had cared for him during his childhood.

In 1990, there were between 800 and 1,000 lions in cages. Today, a shocking 8,000 lions are living out a prisoner’s existence in South Africa. This number is even more astounding when compared to the only 2,700 to 3,200 free-roaming wild animals in the country. The captive-bred lion industry is growing only because it is proving very lucrative for the limited number of permit holders. These unconscionable breeders claim that their facilities exist for conservation and education purposes. However, there is no truth in this claim as lion are extremely difficult to rehabilitate into the wild once they have been bred in captivity. What’s more, there is hardly any suitable wilderness left in South Africa in which to release them.

Just days after they’re born, breeders remove the cubs from their distressed mothers (which search for their children in vain) and bottle-feed them for the first three months of their lives. According to animal welfare experts, breeders do this to ensure the lioness quickly becomes fertile again, so that they can squeeze as many cubs from her as possible. It’s not only the interbreeding and lack of care that affects the health and development of these captive-bred lion. Lion cubs are usually weaned at six months and missing out on the crucial colostrum, or first milk, results in further health issues. In addition, the mothers are left mentally distraught after having their cubs taken away from them and physically strained after being forced to constantly produce one litter after another.

It’s factory farming lions, a conveyor-belt production of cubs,” says Cat. “There is absolutely no conservation reason for breeding lions in captivity as it’s virtually impossible to rehabilitate them into a wild. The breeding has to be stopped.

In the next enclosure, we meet Jade and Zakara, who confirm this sad story. Lionesses have a gestation period of just 3.5 months but, in the wild, they only have one litter every two years. Jade’s breeders pushed seven litters out of her in less than three years: almost seven times more than she would have had naturally. When she arrived at Panthera Africa, her stomach was distended and she was physically drained, a far cry from the healthy lioness we see in front of us today. Instead of the boisterous and playful Zakara, Panthera Africa was supposed to be sheltering Jade’s sister, Je T’aime. But before she could be rescued, Je T’aime was tragically killed by a male lion on the breeding farm, further demonstrating how captive breeding can go horribly wrong

Panthera Tigris

Standing above waist height, with a mighty head that reaches to my shoulder, the most impressive animal in the sanctuary has to be Raise. The massive seven-year-old male Bengal tiger is normally solitary in the wild, but at Panthera Africa he is paired with a smaller example of the species in four-year-old female, Bella. Exceptionally loving and affectionate towards one another, the couple seem pleased with our company too, making affectionate ‘chuffing’ noises as they pass (the tiger’s way of purring). As Bengal tigers are naturally occurring on the Indian sub-continent, their enclosure features alien vegetation, creating a more jungle-like environment. Tigers love to swim and Cat and Lizaene raised extra funds to build Raise and Bella a concrete ‘swimming pool’ so they can spend summer days splashing around.

With only an estimated 3,890 tigers left in the world, according to the WWF, panthera tigris is classified as one of the most critically endangered animals on the IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species. Tigers once ranged widely across Asia. Today they inhabit less than 6% of their historic range and over the past 100 years, the species has been so persecuted by farmers, hunters and poachers alike, that the world population has seen a 95% decline – with 42% in the past twenty years alone. Fortunately, for the first time this century, numbers are on the rise, up from an estimated 3,200 in 2010. Raise is the only cat in the sanctuary not to have an actual birth date, so his birthday is celebrated on 29 July, which is Global Tiger Day. He was named accordingly for two reasons: to raise awareness for his species as well as the tiger bone and wildlife trade to the Asian market.

Lizaene raised Bella and her brother Aries as cubs and when the owner could no longer keep the tigers due to a lack of permits, they were sent to a breeding facility. After Panthera Africa was born, Lizaene offered them a home at the sanctuary. Lizaene flew upcountry to identify her two tigers as the other eight had reportedly been sold to a zoo in the USA. She found Bella but there was another tiger in her enclosure, Raise, who the owner tried to pass of as Aries. After further questioning, the owner claimed that Aries had been sent to the States. Lizaene had a bad feeling, and trusting her instincts, she returned to the farm to chat to the workers. What she discovered shocked her to the core. The owner had illegally shot all the tigers and sold their bones on the Asian black market, where they reach up to $10 000 (£8,200) per kilogram.

Panthera Africa was born when I realised that protecting and caring for big cats is my calling in life, says Lizaene. “Your calling is something that moves you like nothing else… It’s something you’re passionate about, something that fills you with joy and sets your heart on fire when you do it!

Farming tigers violates a 2007 CITES decision that “tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and derivatives,” yet the Environmental Investigation Agency believes that at least one tiger is killed daily for its use in traditional Chinese medicine. Because of the tiger’s strength and mythical power, the Chinese believe that their body parts have medicinal qualities. These are used in wine and other products to treat a host of ailments from erectile dysfunction to malaria and meningitis. As with the perceived benefits of ground rhino horn, Western medicine proves that there is no truth and no medical benefit to these beliefs. A big healthy tiger like Raise would have at least 10 kilograms of bones, which would reach around $100,000 on the black market – a lifetime’s earnings for some people in countries like Russia and India.

Raise walks past, chuffing contentedly and rubbing his huge head lovingly on Bella. What could bring a human being to shoot an animal with this immense spirit and mesmerising beauty is completely beyond my comprehension. Combined with the other tragic tales we’ve discovered at the sanctuary today, it has strengthened my resolve to reveal the truth about what mankind is doing to these helpless animals. Thankfully, there are a few people in the world who are prepared to dedicate their lives to the noble cause. After our educational tour, I chat to our panthera heroines, Cat and Lizaene, and by the time we say our goodbyes, the autumnal sun is nearing the craggy horizon. As I slip out the gate, Cat leaves me with a beautiful parting thought: “We will never be wealthy, but we will always be rich in our hearts.”