The government's proposed clampdown on the raising of predators in captivity to be targets for hunters could result in an animal welfare crisis if breeders are forced to surrender their animals.
There are an estimated 2 500 to 3 000 lions, 500 cheetahs and smaller numbers of other predators, including tigers, in at least 110 captive breeding facilities, the bulk of which are in Limpopo, North West and Free State.
Animal welfare groups have said that, while the proposed National Norms and Standards for the Regulation of the Hunting Industry and Threatened and Protected Species Regulations published last week are intended to save predators from canned hunting, they could result in authorities having to destroy hundreds, even thousands, of animals on breeding farms.
Jason Leask-Bell, director the International Fund for Animal Welfare SA, said "There are simply not enough sanctuaries to handle the large numbers of predators that could be taken from these places.
"The government needs to clean up the mess it has allowed to develop but if animals must be destroyed it must be done humanely.
"The industry must be closed down but it has been allowed to grow so big that we now have another animal welfare issue to deal with."
Existing wildlife rehabilitation centres are unable to handle more than a handful of animals. There are also few examples of hand-raised predators being successfully released into the wild and most large wildlife areas in South Africa have reached their carrying capacity for lions and other predators.
The African Lion Working Group estimated that in 2002 there were about 2 800 free-ranging lions in South Africa - more than 2000 of them in the Kruger Park and neighbouring private game reserves.
The regulations published last week by Marthinus van Schalkwyk, minister of environmental affairs and tourism, have been generally welcomed as a positive step towards tightening up hunting regulations.
"The days of captive breeding of listed species for any purpose except science and conservation are over," Van Schalkwyk said of the regulations.
Many captive-breeding operations supply animals to the "canned" hunting industry. Canned hunting entails the shooting of hand-raised trophy animals in relatively small areas where they have no chance of escape.
The enforcement of hunting regulations has been notoriously shoddy and inconsistent in some provinces but Van Schalkwyk recently strengthened the inspectorate of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism in an attempt to improve the situation.
Although welcoming steps to end canned hunting, Louise Joubert of the SanWild Wildlife Sanctuary in Limpopo said environmental affairs officials had no way to deal with the large numbers of predators that would most likely be confiscated.
"It's a looming animal welfare disaster," she said this week. "If the government is really serious about taking these animals out of the system and shutting down the canned hunting industry, I can't see how they can handle all these animals - there is no space for them."
There are no animal rehabilitation centres run by provincial or central government in South Africa and only a few of the private operations have any expertise in dealing with lions.
"I had one breeder who called and said that if the regulations forced him to close down his operation he would dump 80 lions between the ages of a month and a year at my gate," Joubert said.
"I'm not sure if he was joking but it shows just how big the problem is."
Dr Pieter Botha, director of biodiversity at the environmental affairs department, said "We encourage the public to contribute to the process, which is open for comment until June.
"We would like suggestions as to how the issue could be handled and are eager to consult as widely as possible."
Dr Nick King, director of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, said "The first aim is to stop breeding of predators for hunting.
"It may be possible to place some of the animal in sanctuaries or zoos but killing them should be considered only as a last resort."
According to the environmental affairs department, 209 lions were legally hunted in 2004. A lion with a large dark mane can fetch R180 000. South Africa is Africa's second-largest lion-hunting destination after Tanzania.