SIX tigers being held captive by a circus were shot dead after their cages were left unlocked in an alleged act of sabotage.
Furious animal rights activists are demanding answers over the animals’ escape from the Natal Zoological Gardens and Lion Park in South Africa.
Questions have also been raised as to why the big cats were not shot with tranquilliser darts instead of lethal bullets.
Circus owner Brian Boswell claimed it was a “responsible decision” to shoot the tigers because they posed a danger to staff.
The entrepreneur said: “I am not a canned hunter, nor am I in the business of tiger bones.”
Mr Boswell claimed “foul play” was involved and that the locks had been removed from the cages.
Five of the animals were shot on Monday December 7 as they roamed around staff quarters, he said.
The next morning the sixth big cat was traced and shot by a hunter in thick bush on a neighbouring farm.
The tigers, aged two to three years old, were shot by a professional and a vet was also present, according to Boswell.
He added: “They were two-and-a-half to three years’ old and being held pending documentation to be exported by a dealer. You have to prepare them for export. They need to be dewormed and deparasited.
“The zoo wanted a dozen, but we didn’t have a dozen. The dealers gathered six of them to go.”
Officials are now investigating the killing of the creatures.
Wildlife inspector Arno de Klerk said they had recently visited the facility, and added: “We do not have much information about it, but we are investigating.”
In response to fury over why the tiger was not shot with a tranquilliser dart, the entrepreneur said: “It would not have been safe to dart them and we don’t have the drugs. We are not allowed to keep them here.
“There was nothing else we could do. It would have been a worse loss if somebody had been injured or killed. It was the responsible thing to do.”
The tigers were set to be sent to a new zoo in the Far East before they were killed.