Hybrid cats defy nature in lust for profit

Many cubs will be born with terrible defects.

LIONS and tigers are being cross¬bred in captivity in a sickening bid to squeeze even greater profits from South Africa’s barbaric bone trade, conservationists claim.

My undercover investigators have learned that bizarre hybrid animals are being created that are even bigger and more imposing than the big cats found naturally in the wild.

This makes them even more valuable when they are slaughtered and their skeletons sold to South East Asia and China to satisfy the huge demand for medicines made from lion and tiger bones.

In a sinister twist to South Africa’s ‘lion farming’ trade, some operators have imported tigers, which have no place on the African continent, to breed with lions and produce ‘ligers’ (when the father is a lion) or ‘tigons’ (when the father is a tiger).

Remarkably, a three-year-old liger or tigon can be the same size of a nine-year-old lion, thereby producing more bone weight – and greater profits – once slaughtered.

Ligers have the greatest financial value: they weigh an average of 71 stone and would stand nearly 12ft tall on their hind legs.

Experts say the abusive breeding process often results in birth defects and the early death of cubs, as well as complications for mothers because they have to give birth to super-sized cubs.

A report four years ago estimated that there were 280 tigers in South Africa at 44 sites. My investigation, however, suggests this is a dramatic underestimate, with around 50 tigers believed to be at just one location.

At another wildlife facility in Free State Province, my investigators made a disturbing discovery. In a fenced enclosure a group of three tigers and five lions were laying down together in the shade. In the same enclosure, another lion and tiger were found together near the perimeter fence.

One of the investigators described the experience as ‘unsettling’, adding: ‘It’s not something you expect to see. We were thinking, “what are they here for, where are they going to go?”’

Staff at the park told my investigators that the lions and tigers were only kept together until they reached breeding age at around two years old. The park last week did not respond when asked whether it was cross-breeding.

At another wildlife park near Johannesburg, one of my team found a large tiger that was pregnant and expecting a litter of cubs.

Without carrying out DNA tests, my investigators were unable to prove cross-breeding at any individual centre but conservationists believe inbreeding in South Africa is ‘rampant’. Meanwhile, tourists are unwittingly fuelling both the bone trade and trophy hunting by paying to either pet lion cubs or for ‘walking with lions’ experiences.

Ukutula game reserve, about 50 miles north-west of Pretoria, charges visitors £46 for a one hour ‘enrichment walk’ with lions. Visitors must sign an agreement that any photographs taken there are for ‘private use only’.

Spokesman Willi Jacobs said: ‘Ukutula conducts these walks to enrich the lives of animals who would otherwise be confined to their enclosures. The revenue generated allows us to support research projects that contribute meaningfully to conservation.’