Vier Pfoten buys South African game lodge to turn into sanctuary
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2007:
BETHLEHEM, South Africa––What will become of lions reared
in captivity by South African ranchers to be shot as trophies, who
after June 1, 2007 may no longer be killed before enjoying two years of
a semi-natural life?
Racing to complete a new sanctuary called Lionsrock by
mid-summer, projected as the world s largest, the Vienna-based
international animal charity Vier Pfoten anticipates taking in at least
some of the lions.
Best known for operating mobile dog and cat sterilization
clinics in Bulgaria, Romania, and other former Communist nations of
eastern Europe, Vier Pfoten has gradually expanded into many other
animal welfare activities, including disaster relief and wildlife
Managing Lionsrock will be a new focal project, but Vier Pfoten
anticipates that visitor revenue will eventually fully support it. Two
for-profit subsidiaries will operate lodging and a restaurant.
How many lions from canned hunts will Lionsrock accept? How
many will be offered to sanctuaries is still anyone s guess but
Lionsrock will have a considerable animal population whether or not any
canned hunt lions are available. Vier Pfoten acquired 25 lions, a
pair of leopards, and other mammals of at least 16 species when it
bought the former Camorhi Game Lodge near Bethlehem, South Africa.
In addition, Vier Pfoten already had responsibility for many
other lions in need of homes.
The future Lionsrock sanctuary consists of five square miles of
former asparagus and corn plantation, surrounding a volcanic
outcropping that resembles Pride Rock in the Walt Disney Productions
film The Lion King.
The site will be “adapted according to the latest standards of
animal welfare,” Vier Pfoten announced on February 1, 2007, to
provide lions as well as other big cats such as tigers and leopards with
a new home appropriate to the species. Lionsrock architect Ivan
Tonchev previously designed the Vier Pfoten sanctuary for former dancing
bears at Belitza, Bulgaria.
Vier Pfoten president Helmut Dungler pledged that Lionsrock
would take in lions from around Africa as well as Europe but the
sanctuary plans were unveiled nearly three weeks before South African
environment minister Marthinus van Schalwyk on February 20, 2007
introduced the regulations against so-called canned hunts.
The South African Predator Breeders Association warned after van
Schalwyk’s announcement that from 3,000 to 5,000 lions may be killed as
unmarketable surplus, whom no one can afford to feed.
The new South African regulations require that each
captive-reared lion must be released at least two years before being
hunted into a system large enough and suitable for the management of
self-sustaining wildlife populations in a natural environment which
requires minimal human intervention.
“Once the new regulations come into effect, there will
literally be thousands of lions wanting homes,” predicted Drakenstein
Lion Park proprietor Paul Hart, in a March 21, 2007 e-mail to ANIMAL
The new regulations also for the first time recognize the
existence of private wildlife sanctuaries, like Lionsrock and the
Drakenstein Lion Park, but make no provision for funding the
sanctuaries to accommodate cast-off lions, or otherwise helping them to
handle the anticipated lion dumping.
Many South African wildlife facilities call themselves
sanctuaries, but until now the term has had no legal meaning. All
sanctuaries in South Africa, along with other wildlife facilities,
have had to register with the government as either game farms, involved
in breeding and selling animals; wildlife rehabilitation centers,
whose intent is to return animals to the wild; or exhibition sites,
open to the public and run as businesses.
“Sanctuary” also has no legal meaning in the U.S., at the
federal level, but many states have defined sanctuary in terms that
distinguish sanctuarians from other animal keepers.
The lack of a South African legal definition has meant that some
South African sanctuaries-in-name scarcely resemble the care-for-life,
not-open-to-the-public modus operandi recommended by the American
Sanctuary Association and The Association of Sanctuaries. Relatively
few South African sanctuaries are nonprofit. Many sanctuaries-by-intent
incorporate aspects of game farming, wildlife rehab, and/or
exhibition, to support themselves like the Drakenstein Lion Park,
which is a for-profit wildlife viewing venue.
“Drakenstein Lion Park was established in 1998 as a lifetime
care facility,” Hart told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “Once the law allows, we
will register our facility as a sanctuary.”
But that step by itself will not enable rapid expansion to
handle all the lions Hart expects game ranchers to try to unload.
Already, Hart said, “I receive regular requests for homes for lions,
an average of 30 per annum. Sadly I cannot take all of these animals,
let alone the numbers who may soon be in limbo.”
Logically, Hart and other South African sanctuarians might have
been expected to welcome Vier Pfoten, to accept at Lionsrock some of
the animals the others must refuse.
Even more, opponents of hunting might have been expected to
welcome Vier Pfoten, whose investment in Lionsrock is among the largest
commitments to South Africa ever made by an anti-hunting organization.
The only comparable investment was made more than a decade ago by the
International Fund for Animal Welfare, to buy elephant habitat so that
elephants would not be shot in allegedly overcrowded national parks.
Yet Lionsrock and Vier Pfoten received a hostile reception, not
only from hunters, as anticipated, but also from South African animal
Vier Pfoten began looking for an African sanctuary location in
November 2004, 10 months after the Gaenserndorf Safari Park closed, not
far from the Vier Pfoten headquarters in Vienna, Austria.
As the Vier Pfoten web site explains, “The animals became a
living bankrupt’s estate. Some animals could be quickly placed
elsewhere. Some were sold. The large lion pride, however,” 14 lions
in all,” remained in Gaenserndorf, “and were in reported danger of
being killed due to lack of placement options. Vier Pfoten at last
bought the lions to protect them from death.”
For more than two years Vier Pfoten continued to feed and care
for the lions in the former safari park. One elderly lioness died, but
that still left 13 to place.
The initial Vier Pfoten plan was to transport the Gaenserndorf
lions to an African facility willing to give them sanctuary care, as
Vier Pfoten did in 2002 with four lions born at the Tecuci Zoo in
Recounted Mihai Vasile of the Romanian Center for Investigative
Journalism, “In the winter of 2002, Vier Pfoten discovered four lion
cubs with some photographers in Brasov. The animals had been bought from
Mircea Nicu, the manager of the Tecuci Zoo. The cubs were only three
weeks old. They were suffering from malnutrition. They were exploited
nonstop, during daytime on the ski slopes and at night in bars and
discos, most of the time under sedation. After working hours they
slept in tight cages in a car trunk. The Vier Pfoten team succeeded in
confiscating and repatriating the four cubs, Shiba, Alex, Tommy and
Jack, although the exhibitors soon obtained two more lion cubs and
went back into business.”
“Those four lions,” Vier Pfoten president Helmut Dungler told
ANIMAL PEOPLE, were delivered to the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve, “a
wildlife viewing venue at Kromdraai, northwest of Johannesburg.
“Shiba, Alex and Jack are still at Rhino & Lion, and are in
good condition,” Dungler said. “To Tommy happened a tragic accident.
In January 2006, he was killed in a fight between male lions.”
But placing those four lions exhausted the capacity of the Rhino
& Lion Park. “Despite extensive research, it was impossible to
immediately find a new area” in Africa that could accommodate the entire
pride, Vier Pfoten explained to donors.
Meanwhile more lions from substandard European captive venues
needed help, including Lutu and Frida, two young lions born in
decrepit Romanian zoos whose fate ANIMAL PEOPLE explored in March 2006.
While Vier Pfoten was trying to decide what to do about the
Gaenserndorf Safari Park pride, actress Amanda Holden raised $250,000
to enable the Born Free Foundation to send Lutu to the Shamwari private
wildlife viewing reserve in South Africa.
Instead, Lutu disappeared in August 2004, only days before the
planned move. Born Free eventually bought a lioness named Achee from a
Bucharest car dealer and sent her to Shamwari in Lutu’s place.
As the Lutu mystery simmered, Bogdan Popescu, general manager
of Radio Total in Bucharest, on June 25, 2005 bought Frida. His
girlfriend, Gabriela Savu, raised Frida for months in an apartment.
“We did that,” Savu explained in January 2006, “in hope of
providing the baby lion a life in the wild, free, instead of in a cage
not much bigger than her. We thought Africa could be an ideal place for
Eventually Popescu and Savu asked both the Born Free Foundation
and Vier Pfoten to try to find an African sanctuary for Frida.
Neither organization had any immediate placement possibilities,
but Vier Pfoten introduced Popescu to South African wildlife transporter
Ken Heuer, who had flown the four lions rescued in 2002 to the Rhino &
Lion Nature Reserve.
Heuer had formed an entity called Great Cats of South Africa on
land near the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve. According to the African
Conservation Foundation web site, which promotes ecotourism throughout
Africa, Great Cats of South Africa (is) a division of (the) Millbank
Lion Sanctuary and Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve Great Cats of South
Africa is an affiliated member of Great Cats in Crisis.
Great Cats in Crisis, formed by Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge
founder Brian Werner, of Tyler, Texas, in 2001-2002 raised funds in
the name of helping a lion named Marjan, at the Kabul Zoo in
Afghanistan, including in one mailing sent out after Marjan died.
However, as ANIMAL PEOPLE pointed out in March 2002, Great Cats in
Crisis had no connection with the official Kabul Zoo relief effort
headed by North Carolina Zoo director David Jones.
Heuer apparently became involved with Great Cats in Crisis
somewhat later, as part of a scheme Werner pushed to link sanctuaries
into a chain of co-promoted ecotourism destination resorts. Although
search engines still provide links to the Great Cats in Crisis web site,
ANIMAL PEOPLE was unable to get the links to open.
Heuer meanwhile was embroiled in a long dispute with Enkosini
Wildlife Sanctuary founders Greg Mitchell and Kelsey Grimm over
possession of 10 lions who were boarded for some time at the Camorhi
Game Lodge, then owned by Marius and Maryn Prinsloo.
Before the Enkosini case started, Mitchell testified in a court
case that Prinsloo and Heuer “organized for wild cheetahs to be
captured in Namibia and flown into South Africa,” according to
www.Cannedlion.com founder Chris Mercer. Mercer helped Mitchell and
Grimm in their conflict with Heuer. In recent years Mercer has also been
a frequent book reviewer for ANIMAL PEOPLE.
The Prinsloos were in the business of raising animals to be
hunted, including lions and still are, at a much more remote site
called Ingulule, with a Bethlehem business office. When the Prinsloos
vacated Camorhi after selling it, they left most of the animals, but
took as many as 23 lions with them, believed to have been their most
valued breeding stock.
This appears to have been a gamble that breeding lions to be
hunted could remain profitable at remote locations. While the new
regulations had not yet been announced, they had been discussed and
rumored for nearly 10 years, and van Schalwyk had made clear that they
would soon be coming.
Vier Pfoten president Dungler, spokesperson Josep Pfabigan,
and veterinarian Amir Khalil separately told ANIMAL PEOPLE at different
times in 2006 and 2007 that they knew nothing of Heuer s involvement
with the Prinsloos and hunting when they put Popescu and Savu in touch
Heuer arranged to send Frida the lion cub to Camorhi.
“Eventually, after five months, we got all the papers we
needed, Savu wrote in a January 2006 appeal to Mercer for help. Her
departure was approved both by Romanian and South African authorities.
Unfortunately we couldn t go with her but we got her plane ticket for
December 5th, 2005.
“In the meantime,” Savu said, “we found horrible things on
the Internet about Camorhi Game Lodge, the reservation where we sent
her. We strongly disagree and disapprove of canned hunting and captive
breeding! Considering that leaving Frida at Camorhi would not respect
the CITES permit conditions, which stipulated that Frida was being sent
to South Africa for introduction into the wild, we found a new place
for Frida, free of any suspicions the Drakenstein Lion Park. But the
owners of Camorhi refuse to let Frida go to Drakenstein,” Savu
continued. “At least so says Ken Heuer, an associate/partner of
Marius Prinsloo. We cannot get in touch with Marius or Maryn Prinsloo,
the owners of Camorhi Game Lodge.”
Elaborated Dungler, “The official CITES permit says that Mr.
Prinsloo was the owner of Frida, until she was sold to Lionsrock, in
November 2006. The transport was organized and done by Radio Total from
Bucharest to Johannesburg. From Johannesburg to Camorhi, the
transport was organized and done by Heuer.
“On December 4, 2005, Dungler told ANIMAL PEOPLE, “I was
informed by my colleague Ioana Tomescu from Bucharest, who represents
Vier Pfoten in Romania, that she was informed by a telephone call from
Tricia Holford of the Born Free Foundation that Camorhi was not clean
and might be involved in the hunting industry. I told Tomescu to
immediately inform Radio Total and to discuss the new situation. Tomescu
informed Radio Total about this new information. Radio Total decided to
go on with the transport of Frida on the following day, and to look for
a better place for her in the following months.”
How Vier Pfoten got blamed
Savu, in her initial e-mail to Mercer, never mentioned Vier
Pfoten. But Mercer, in his response to her, blamed the transaction on
Vier Pfoten, apparently because of Vier Pfoten’s prior association with
Heuer in relocating the four lions to the Rhino & Lion Park in 2002.
Mercer also outlined a strategy for pressuring Vier Pfoten to
rectify their mistake, and drafted a press release for Savu to
distribute to European media toward that end.
Following up the 2002 lion transfer, earlier in 2005, Mihai
Vasile of the Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism had obtained
a photo of the remains of Tommy, the young lion who was killed by
another male lion.
Ioana Tomescu in February 2006 showed this photo to Paul Hart,
Dungler said, “who asked for a copy. At this time we were in close
contact with Hart, because Drakenstein was a possible opportunity for
Frida. Therefore Tomescu sent the photo to Hart. Some weeks later this
photo was published on websites with slogans ‘this can happen to
Frida,’ and other stupid sentences. And of course this was done
without asking the photographer, without any right to publish it, and
without any copyright.”
By that time Mercer, Savu, and others had racheted up an
electronic campaign accusing Vier Pfoten of having delivered Frida to a
canned hunt supplier, despite warnings.
While aware of the Camorhi association with hunting, Vier
Pfoten was apparently still unaware of Heuer’s involvement. ANIMAL
PEOPLE forwarded particulars to Josep Pfabgian of Vier Pfoten on
February 16, 2006, but the information and an accompanying inquiry
brought no response until they were retransmitted to Amir Khalil on
March 30, 2006, and to Johanna Jirka, the Vier Pfoten head of
international marketing and communication, on April 6, 2006.
Meanwhile, ANIMAL PEOPLE in March and April 2006 reportage
mistook the Vier Pfoten non-response for “no comment.” Unknown to
ANIMAL PEOPLE, Vier Pfoten was trying to straighten out the situation.
Soon after the April 2006 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE went to
press, Khalil on March 29, 2006 acknowledged that “The Drakenstein
Lion Park is a good place for Frida, but due to communication errors
lately,” meaning the allegations against Vier Pfoten, “the Vier Pfoten
board and Radio Total decided to find a neutral place for this lion.
Vier Pfoten and Radio Total agreed to move Frida to a third place,
which will be advised and accepted by the local animal welfare
[community]. I plan to be in South Africa in the next days,” Khalil
said, “to undertake the necessary steps for moving Frida to a place
which is accepted by everyone involved.”
Johanna Jirka on April 6, 2006 denied the “rumors and
misunderstandings concerning Frida that had been going around” in
many e-mails and petitions, and requested retransmission of the
background sent on February 16, 2006.
By then, according to Dungler, “Heuer, our former consultant
in South Africa, presented to us few possible areas for a sanctuary,
“After extensive research in various countries,” the Vier
Pfoten web site later explained, “we decided to invest in an already
existing park in South Africa. In the center there is a prominent rock
called Lionsrock, after which the new big cats’ hideaway will be named.
On this approximately 1,250 hectare area, close to the city of
Bethlehem, north of Lesotho, some lions and a tiger are living beside
zebras, gnus, horses and antelope. Although the park offers ideal
conditions concerning its location, as well as a water supply, its
current standard does not meet by far the requirements of Vier Pfoten
regarding appropriate big cat husbandry. Before the first new animals
can be moved to Lionsrock, the infrastructure of the park has to be
brought to a standard which corresponds to other Vier Pfoten projects,
as at the Baerenwald Arbesbach in Austria, and the dancing bear park at
“The new sanctuary will provide the young lioness Frida with
optimal living conditions,” Vier Pfoten said.
Heuer brokered the original purchase agreement.
“The first draft of the contract was for about 7.8 million rand,
Dungler told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “But this pre-contract had a lot of
failures. This was the reason we stopped our cooperation with Heuer,
who did these negotiations. We had to negotiate again. Vier Pfoten
began negotiations about Camorhi [directly] with Mr. Prinsloo in August
2006. The final amount paid was 8.8 million rand. Because of the
development of the exchange rate of the currencies, we paid less” in
euros, the currency in which Vier Pfoten raises funds.
Between April and November 2006, when the sale closed, the
South African rand plummeted 20% in value against the euro. Thus, even
though the final purchase price of 8.8 million rand was more than a
million above the initial agreed price, Vier Pfoten ended up paying
approximately 941,600 euros instead of 1,045,200.
Heuer, excluded from the deal, reignited Mercer and Savu in
amplifying concerns about Frida, plus a variety of other allegations
against Vier Pfoten, most apparently originating from statements Heuer
made in an affidavit to Mercer.
One charge was that there was something irregular about Khalil s
role as registered agent for Vier Pfoten in incorporating Lionsrock and
completing the purchase.
“Khalil did his work in South Africa on behalf of Vier Pfoten,”
affirmed Dungler. “Khalil is not the personal owner of Lionsrock, and
all rumors that he can go on with this for personal interests are just
Of particular concern to Mercer and others was that the sale of
Camorhi did not include the animals whom the Prinsloos kept and
A further complication was that Frida reportedly mauled a young
woman visitor to Camorhi in October 2006, about a month before the sale
closed. Liability for the injury is reportedly unresolved.
Articles paralleling the March 2006 ANIMAL PEOPLE coverage of
the Frida case, by then thoroughly outdated, were published by
several South African and European newspapers in early 2007.
“The project of Lionsrock is proving that the dirty campaign
that was initiated against Vier Pfoten during the last months is based
on totally unfounded allegations,” responded Vier Pfoten in a prepared
statement. “Vier Pfoten is by no means involved in the breeding and
canned hunting industry in South Africa.”
Dungler is a board member of the World Society for the
Protection of Animals. Visiting Dungler in Vienna recently on WSPA
business, WSPA director general Peter Davies e-mailed to ANIMAL PEOPLE
that he had asked Dungler “why had he not built a similar sanctuary in
Europe to provide a home for lions and other big cats who are
confiscated from European zoos and circuses,” or from exotic
“His answer was pure economics,” Davies told ANIMAL PEOPLE.
It is cheaper to bring them to Africa and look after them with local
staff than to build on land in Europe, even if available, and look
after them there. He also reminded me that the big cats would be much
happier in the climatic and topographical conditions of their natural
homes in Africa.
“Vier Pfoten plans to open the sanctuary to receive big cats
from Europe and Africa in the autumn of this year,” Davies confirmed.
“Dungler assured me,” Davies said, “that his organisation
would not have any contacts whatsoever with those exploiting big cats
for hunting or canned shooting. He personally abhors such use of big
cats, and was clear that even a hint of such connection would totally
destroy Vier Pfoten. From everything he told me,” Davies concluded,
I feel reassured that all is well.”