Rare white lion named Mufasa faces auction block in South Africa

Because Mufasa is infertile and cannot be used for breeding, activists fear the government favors auctioning him as a way to profit off the animal.

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By Keir Simmons and Kalhan Rosenblatt

A white lion named Mufasa could be auctioned off by the South African government, prompting outrage from animal activists around the world amid fears the rare beast could be sold to hunters.

Mufasa was confiscated as a cub from a private owner three years ago and was placed in a wildlife sanctuary in northern South Africa.

Because Mufasa is infertile and cannot be used for breeding, activists fear the government favors auctioning him as a way to profit off the animal.

Dr. Tjitske Schouwstra, a veterinarian in South Africa who was a carer for Mufasa, said she's been told by the government that they plan to auction the rare lion.

"The government told me on three different occasions that Mufasa would be going on auction. It is common practice for the department to auction animals that they have confiscated," she said on NBC's "Today" on Monday.

Schouwstra said "canned hunting," a method of hunting where an animal is kept in a confined area, is common practice in South Africa.

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"A lot of overseas hunters come to South Africa to shoot lions and obviously a canned hunt is an insurance that you can get a trophy," Schouwstra said. "The other possibility is the lion bone trade, which is very prominent at the moment."

Schouwstra and lawyer Carel Zietsman are fighting to allow Mufasa and Soraya, another lion he has bonded with, to live out their lives at a sanctuary. Schouwstra said the government isn't interested in Soraya, however, and only wants Mufasa.

Schouwstra and Zietsman are embroiled in a legal case to send Mufasa and Soraya to a sanctuary together.

Zietsman believes the outcry on social media and from animal activists has helped to delay the seemingly inevitable auction.

"If it hadn't been for the social media, Mufasa's head would have been on somebody's wall already," Zietsman said.

Local authorities did not return a request for comment made by NBC News.

Animal activists have begun raising funds online to defend Mufasa, and at least one online petition to save the lion has nearly 270,000 signatures.

Other activists, like comedian Ricky Gervais, shared their disgust at the prospect of Mufasa being sold to hunters.

"Shame on the pathetic sadist who pays the money to shoot this animal, and shame on the sniveling coward who accepts the money too. Both worthless," Gervais tweeted.

Mufasa's case is reminiscent of the killing of Cecil the lion by American dentist Walter James Palmer in Zimbabwe in 2015. Cecil's killing sparked international backlash and condemnation for Palmer.