Restoring pride to captive kings

 
 
 

Lions aren’t meant for captivity. But around the world, thousands are stripped of their pride and forced to endure horrific conditions behind bars, kept for sport or novelty. If Paul Hart had it his way, none of this would happen. He’s just one person – he knows that he can’t rescue them all – but for more than two decades, he has been hell-bent on saving as many as possible. Hart’s journey with lions began in 1998, when a man alerted him to six big cats in need of a home – a place where they would genuinely be safe and not one day become victims of the canned hunting industry. After realising that no such haven existed at the time, Hart used his experience working at a zoo and in the game translocation industry to create a home for rescued lions.

After fighting through bureaucratic restrictions, Hart managed to establish the Drakenstein Lion Park that same year. To this day, he takes in lions that have previously been abused or bred for hunting. The animals can’t be rehabilitated into the wild after being in captivity or hand-reared, and they can’t be kept together as they come from different prides. Because of this, the park covers 50 acres in the Cape Winelands, allowing each lion between 6 000 and 10 000 square metres to roam free. Since opening the sanctuary, Hart has had to deal with more than just issues of space. Rehoming a lion isn’t simple. After months, even years of negotiation to rescue them, many end up never making it to a better place – dying in captivity or at the hands of hunters. When Hart does secure an animal, it costs thousands to bring it home and sustain its life on the park. But it’s a price he’s willing to pay.

Hart cares for lions from locations as removed as Romania and Chile. Some of them come from confined spaces, experiencing the freedom to roam with real grass underfoot for the first time in their lives. After suffering extensive cruelty, the change is overwhelming. It takes time to make them feel safe again. But South Africans are leading the way for conservation. And with Hart’s wisdom, compassion, and the deep respect he has for these lions, they’re in good hands.