A pride of starved lions turned on themselves for food in what has been dubbed the 'worst animal cruelty case ever seen'.

59 lions and three tigers were kept in squalor at a breeding centre in South Africa's Free State province, with 30 lions left to die of starvation after a fire broke out at the facility.

Welfare officers who gained a court order to enter the property said that the animals had been without food for a while before the blaze.

They also found one of the lions eaten by three of its brothers, and other emancipated animals covered in burn marks and barely able to stand.

Reinet Meyer, an officer from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), told The Times: "What we found shocked us to the bone. As we entered the lion camps, we could only see the destruction left behind by the torturing flames.

"We saw that the lions couldn’t escape the blazing fires and the inhalation of smothering fumes were evident. The lions didn’t move.

"They all laid in one spot with their paws turned upwards. Their fragile bodies were burnt, and their faces carried the devastating scars of the flames just days ago.

"Three male lions in one of the camps couldn’t stand at all. As they attempted to get up, they simply collapsed over and over. One cannot begin to comprehend the pain these lions were in."

Despite the best efforts of the welfare officers 30 lions sadly had to be euthanised.

The issue of big cat welfare in South Africa is a growing one, with around 12,000 lions kept behind bars and monetised. Reports of animal cruelty there rarely lead to convictions.

Adult lions are often separated from their cubs, with the young being used as tourist attractions and the adults for "canned hunting", locked inside small enclosures and killed.

Their bones are regularly sold to Asian countries to be used as ornaments or in medicine.

There are now less than 20,000 African lions left, meaning that they are classified as a "vulnerable" species, and the problem isn't South Africa's alone.

In 2020 sickening images were released from a zoo in Sudan at a time when the country was ravaged by an economic crisis. Bones could be seen through the skin of the neglected lions, many of them having died.

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