JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — For many tourists, the Lion Park near Johannesburg is a must-visit destination, a chance to pet lion cubs and drive through animal enclosures with "super up-close views guaranteed."
But a visit to the Lion Park ended in tragedy Monday when an American woman was attacked by a lion and mauled to death. Her tour guide was injured as he tried to fight the lion off. Their car windows were reportedly rolled down, despite many posted signs warning to keep them closed.
This wasn't the first such incident at the Lion Park. In March, an Australian tourist who had his window down was chomped by a lion. In December 2013, the father of a former South African rugby player was bitten on the shoulder.
The attacks are tragic, though park management is quick to point out that the victims failed to obey clearly posted rules.
But there are other controversies swirling around the Lion Park, a top area tourist site that has in recent years faced criticism from conservationists. The concern is over the "cub-petting" part of the operation, and what happens to the park's lion cubs as they grow older and less cuddly.
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A group called the Campaign Against Canned Hunting has accused the Lion Park of aiding in the "canned hunting" of lions — meaning, the animals are released into relatively small enclosures before being shot and killed by trophy hunters, many of them Americans.
The group argues that this is the fate of cubs bred to be petted by tourists, once they reach maturity and become costly and more difficult to keep.
An investigation by CBS's "60 Minutes" in late 2014 reported that older lions from the Lion Park have ended up sold to canned hunting operations. The park, responding to CBS, admitted that some of its lions had previously ended up with hunters, but said this is not current practice.
Other conservationists have linked canned hunting to the "spin-off trade" in lion bones. South African lion bones are increasingly being sold to Vietnam and China where they are used in traditional Chinese medicine, sometimes to replace tiger bones, which are in short supply.
Africa's wild lion population (as opposed to captive-bred lions) is under serious threat, shrinking from 450,000 to as few as 20,000 or 30,000 over the last half-century. Conservationists say this is mainly due to habitat destruction, trade in lion parts, trophy hunting, diseases and “retaliatory killings” from human-lion conflict.
Some experts say lions could be extinct in the wild in as few as 10 years.
According to the Lion Park, the lioness that killed the American woman will not be euthanized, but rather moved to an isolated enclosure during an investigation into the incident. Meanwhile the Lion Park is still open to visitors.