At last, their lives are worth living

Just two hours’ drive from Cape Town, one of only a handful of true sanctuaries in South Africa is home to rescued lions, tigers and other cats who narrowly escaped being slaughtered for their bones and body parts. They are lucky to be alive and owe their lives to two remarkable women, writes Marisol Gutierrez.

White lion Oliver is lying on top of a raised wooden platform, one enormous front paw dangling over the deck’s edge as his thick blonde mane is gently unsettled by a breeze that breaks the afternoon heat.

Effortlessly regal, he gazes intently into the distance, blinking slowly, capturing the stunning vistas before him that stretch into an endless blue sky. Right here, right now, it’s a good day to be a lion.

Oliver finally has peace – and a life worth living – at Panthera Africa, a 110-hectare not-for-profit big cat true sanctuary in Stanford, just two hours’ drive from Cape Town, South Africa. He’s part of a pride of 26 rescued big cats: 15 lions, two tigers, two leopards (including a black leopard), three caracal and four servals.

He’s also one of many animals at Panthera Africa who suffered a traumatic start in life, caught in the clenches of South Africa’s notorious lion breeding industry* and its aligned exploitative industries including ‘canned’ hunting and cub petting.

Life-changing journey

There are more lions in captivity in South Africa than remain in the wild. With approximately 3 000 wild lions left in the country, it is estimated that between 8 000 and 12 000 lions and other big cats are in commercial breeding facilities – about 360 – across South Africa. A number of these have been exposed for brutal cruelty and neglect.

Ironically, this industry is where Panthera Africa’s co-founders Lizaene Cornwall and Cathrine Cornwall-Nyquist started their life-changing journey as two naïve animal lovers who believed they were saving lions by hand-rearing cubs who had been ‘rejected by their mothers’. Little did they know that the cubs had been ripped from their mothers at birth. Lizaene and Cathrine had been sucked in by deception, pulled into a world that exploited big cats and the well-intentioned animal lovers who paid to volunteer their help or cuddle cubs, thinking they were contributing to ‘conservation’.

“If I knew then what I know now, perhaps more of the lions we reared and loved would still be alive,” says Cathrine, recalling the devastation of discovering the grim reality behind the industry she was haplessly part of. More than a decade later, those memories remain painfully fresh. Those scars run deep.

Magnificent Oliver – now blissfully fast asleep in the shade of a tree – was one of the cubs that Cathrine and Lizaene had reared in 2011, along with his brother, Obi.

Point of no return

“We were told that Oliver and Obi were being returned to their owner, but we were suspicious by then,” explains Catherine. “We tracked them down at a lion breeding facility. That was the point of no return for us.

“What we saw was sickening… deformed lionesses struggling to walk because of inbreeding; a tiny cub alone and panicking in a small cage; and Oliver and Obi, thankfully alive but emaciated, languishing in a small enclosure with their two sisters – all without any shade, proper food or drinking water.”

Driven by their disillusionment and despair – and their combined will to save the lions they had reared – Catherine and Lizanne vowed to create a safe haven for big cats and educate people about the realities of big cats, including tigers, in captivity in South Africa.

Award-winning, sustainable tourism

Not only did they honour their promise to rescue Oliver, Obi and other lions, but they succeeded in founding Panthera Africa – now an internationally recognised, award-winning big cat sanctuary.

As one of only a handful of true sanctuaries in the country, Panthera Africa adheres to the three key tenets of a true sanctuary and responsible, sustainable tourism: no breeding, no trading in wildlife and no hands-on interaction with the animals.

Their work is important and impressive, and is made possible by funding from educational tours, volunteering and sponsoring (guardianship) opportunities.

Panthera Africa has won sustainable tourism awards including:

• 2016 to date: Top attraction in Stanford on TripAdvisor

• 2016 to 2020: TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Award

• 2017 and 2022: Skål International Sustainable Tourism Award

• 2019: World Trade Market Responsible Tourism Award Africa recognised Panthera Africa as the Best Responsible Attraction – One to Watch

The gift of life – and peace

“We’re proud to offer the chance for guardianship to people who want to help us continue our work,” adds Cathrine. “Contributing toward or sponsoring a big cat’s care – as a symbol of business or personal support, or as a gift for someone special – is a meaningful way to help us continue to protect animals like Oliver.”

*South Africa’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment announced in May 2021 that it intended to end the captive lion breeding industry, but the wheels of change are turning slowly.

For more information, email: or tel: +27 (0)71 182 8368

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