Resting in the sweltering midday African heat, Shaka, a 5-month-old lion, was oblivious to the $45,000 price tag on his head, or the shaggy-haired farmers bidding on his fate.
Anel Rous, a game warden at a small private reserve who hand raised Shaka, brought the lion to last Friday's predator auction, the first of its kind in several years, at the Groenvlei farm. When too many lions are born for the reserve to handle, Ms. Rous sells the extra cubs at auctions or privately arranged sales.
Afterward, as she sat picking ticks off the growing cub's back, Ms. Rous said she was relieved that no one ended up buying Shaka. None of the three lions she brought to the auction sold, and that was fine by her. She admits to becoming emotionally attached to them.
Although most animals sold at auctions end up on game farms, others are destined for the gun. Animal welfare organizations say that many of the animals raised in South Africa's growing predator industry end up being part of "canned" hunts - hunting expeditions where wealthy tourists shoot domesticated game in small, fenced-in areas. Defenders deny these charges, and say that the hunting of these animals is legitimate, and can even be beneficial to conservation efforts.
Friday's auction has focused new attention on predator breeding and hunting in South Africa.
"We're very concerned about the end use of these animals," says Rick Allan, manager of the national wildlife unit for the South African Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Although we can't prove it, there's a very good possibility that many of these animals will ultimately end up being used for hunting."
Standing in front of the striped green and red auction tent, Shorty Durand, one of the auction's organizers, brushes back a sweaty ringlet of hair and launches into a passionate defense of his industry. He says that most of the animals will end up in private game reserves until they are too old to breed. After that, he admits, many may fall to the rifles of rich American and European hunters. But the thousands of dollars earned from such hunts, he says, goes straight back into conservation and breeding efforts. And he rejects the accusation that the animals are put in situations that make them easy targets for hunters.
"If you paid 150,000 Rand [about $15,000] to hunt a lion, would you want to kill a lion in the size of this tent?" he asks. "These are experienced hunters. They don't want to shoot a tame lion in a small enclosure."
But it has happened. In 1998, a BBC report showed video footage of a South safari operator allowing hunters to shoot lions from close range. A lioness was shot next to a fence, her three cubs watching from close by. Stung by the bad publicity, the South African government put a moratorium on new breeding permits, and breeders stopped holding public auctions. The government is now in the process of rewriting its predator hunting laws.
But animal welfare groups say they are not happy with the potential results. Chris Mercer, a director at the Kalahari Raptor Center and one of the main opponents of predator sales, says that the new regulations will do little to stop the practice of canned hunting. The law says that the hunting of lions raised in captivity will still be allowed, as long as they are in enclosures of at least 2,500 acres at the time of the hunt - a space much too small, he says.
Ultimately, however, Pierre de Villiers, assistant director of the Free State Department of Environment and Tourism, says that the problem may not be with the hunting regulations, but with the laws regarding care of the animals. One step could be a law preventing breeders from taking cubs away from their mothers.
The hand-reared cubs, while cute and cuddly and a big hit with kids, never learn how to be wild lions. The hunting of bred lions, predicts de Villiers, is not likely to end anytime soon. Nor, he says, would it necessarily be a good thing if it did.
"There are a lot of people who just don't want hunting," he says. "But there's always going to be a market for it, and it's far better if the animals that are hunted are these animals than the few remaining ones we have in the wild, because often then it's the strongest, most important animals in the pride that are killed."
Mr. Durand's auction was not successful. Only four of the more than 50 animals up for sale - mostly lions, but also jaguars and tigers - went home from Groenvlei with different owners. Durand says that bad publicity hurt, and that most of the animals will ultimately be sold through private agreements. Even Rous admits that Shaka could eventually be hunted.