Johannesburg — Thirty captive-bred lions have been euthanized after they were found starving and untreated for serious injuries sustained when a wildfire swept through their compound in South Africa. One animal welfare charity called it "one of the worst cases of animal abuse" they'd ever seen.
Inspectors working for a South African branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) say the horrific abuse of 59 lions was discovered on a farm just outside Bloemfontein, the provincial capital of the Free State province in the heart of the country.
"The owner knew the lions got injured by the fires. For 5 days they didn't administer any medical treatment. We had no option, but to obtain a warrant to enter the property," the group said in a post on Facebook. "What we found shocked us to the bone."
The lions had been unable to escape the flames.
"They all laid in one spot with their paws turned upwards," reads the post, which included images of the wounded animals. "Their fragile bodies were burnt and their faces carried the devastating scars of the flames just days ago."
Some of the lions were so weak they couldn't stand up, and they were so famished that three of them turned on one of their own, killing and eating it.
Officers got a court order to search the property after reports of suspected abuse at the farm. Vets from the SPCA have been treating the injured animals for days now, but 30 of them were beyond help and had to be put down.
"The owner wasn't bothered to be present during any time of the inspection of the injuries nor during the euthanasia," the SPCA said on Facebook. "He was laughing when he was issued a warning and we didn't see him again. We issued multiple warnings for lack of water and shelter as we conduct daily inspections at the farm. The owner refuses to comply with any one of our warnings. He refuses to spend any money on these lions."
The property owner has been charged with animal abuse for failing to provide the lions with medical attention.
Inspectors continue to visit the farm regularly and they're making sure the animals get food and water and tending to their wounds. Senior SPCA Inspector Reniet Meyer told CBS News that the organization would continue to monitor the lions until the court hearing, and take further legal action if the abuse continues.
This latest incident has once again raised the issue of the legality of captive lion breeding in South Africa. At least 12,000 lions are kept in captivity in the country, four times more than its wild population. Every stage of a captive lion's life can be used, legally, to make money.
Cubs are separated from their mothers and kept in petting zoos for tourists. Adult lions are used for breeding and— where they're released into enclosed areas so hunters are guaranteed a kill. And when the lions die, their bones are sold through a quota system for use primarily in Asian medicines and ornaments.
It's believed that the owner of the farm in Bloemfontein may have neglected to get the lions medical attention after the fire so that they would die "naturally," and he could then sell their bones for a profit, which wouldn't have been legal in a case of neglect.
"I have never been this angry in my 30 years at the Bloemfontein SPCA," Meyer wrote in the Facebook post. "The lion has huge status and as a country, we are supposed to be proud of our indigenous animals, but we have failed them. We cultivated an industry, legal or illegal, that misuses our animals for entertainment like hunting, bone trade, poaching, circus tricks, cub petting or keeping them in zoos or as pets. This must stop."
Born in captivity, unable to escape a devastating fire and now battling to overcome serious injuries — even the lions who survive this tragedy have never known freedom, and they likely never will.
CBS News' Nicky Parkin and Sarah Carter contributed to this report.