For the up-and-coming businessman or celebrity wanting to signal their status, a flash car, trophy spouse or huge house are no longer enough. The standout possession of today is a pet lion, claims the wealthy entrepreneur as he washes his playful cub with the jet from a hose pipe.“If one lives in Pakistan and wants to be famous, he must have a lion, which can earn him the top level of fame,” says the man at his home in an affluent area of Karachi.A fashion that arrived a few years ago in the Punjabi capital of Lahore has now gripped Pakistan’s commercial hub, he claims.“The wealthy people in Karachi took inspiration and today there are several farmhouses and big villas where one may find lions,” said the owner, who declined to be named.“The lions have taken the place of other pet animals. I have seen a major surge and several people I know have purchased lions.”Such a passion for big cats as pets is not new, and far from restricted to Pakistan. But conservationists warn that the trend appears to be growing across the Middle East and Europe, with the fashion partly driven by owners showing off their big pets and ostentatious lifestyles on social media.Earlier this month Russian social media users shared a clip apparently showing a tiger padding through a traffic jam after his fashionable young owner let go of its lead. Police in Paris late last year arrested a man driving a lion cub in his Lamborghini along the Champs Elysees. One Karachi lion-owner recently estimated that there were as many as 300 pet lions in the port city alone.“You’re almost certainly dealing with thousands, if not tens of thousands of animals,” said Dr Chris Draper, head of animal welfare and captivity at Born Free, the international wildlife charity.The lions have taken the place of other pet animals
Dr Draper said that beyond the Instagram selfies, the phenomenon is driving a ruthless trade of trafficking that threatens the animals in the wild.Moreover, the pets are often poorly cared for, and abandoned or worse if their owners no longer care for them.He said the majority “will have their roots in the wild, either directly, or perhaps one generation away. It’s a vast trade, it’s a cruel trade.”Conservationists suspect the phenomenon is being driven by owners showing off their pets on social media and also high-end fashion brands using big cats as symbols of opulence in advertising.“It’s a global phenomenon,” he said. “It is in my opinion being spurred on not just by these viral videos, but also, whether it’s a cause or effect, I think there’s a genuine concern that some of these luxury brands, may be either causing this or certainly reflecting these things.”Lions can be easily found for 1.5m rupees (pounds 7,500), the businessman says, with the price having risen recently due to demand. Pakistani laws make it easy to import exotic animals, but once inside the country regulation is almost non-existent. They can be declawed by Karachi vets for around pounds 250“To train a lion is a Herculean task, especially for the new owners,” Dr Draper says. “But people with the passage of time have learnt to train them.”He said that keeping big cats as pets was “detrimental on every level”.“It needs to be ended and not be seen as the slightly comical thing that you might see on YouTube or Instagram of somebody with a pet lion at a birthday party,” he told The Telegraph.Although maulings are rare, big cats can be aggressive if not kept properly; even when playing, their size and strength can lead to injuries.Natural predators like lions, tigers and leopards need spacious outdoor cages to thrive and require a lot of raw meat as well as expensive vitamins and supplements.Big cats that are neglected or provoked have been known to lash out, but reliable data on fatalities in the Middle East and Pakistan are hard to come by.With an increase in big cats as pets also comes a heightened risk of lions and tigers escaping into urban environments – or being abandoned.The exotic pets need a high level of stimulation as well as physical space when kept as pets and can live up to 20 years.