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Big cat permit dodge feared

A Gauteng zoo owner is suspected of laundering permits to import nine old circus and zoo lions from Brazil last week, in the face of a ban on bringing the big cats into the country.

Conservation authorities are investigating whether Pablo Urban, owner of the Animal and Reptile Zoo in Muldersdrif, fooled Free State permit officials into facilitating the deal after Gauteng officials refused to give him permits to import the lions.

The investigation comes at a time when the national government is reviewing legislation regulating the controversial ”canned” lion hunting industry. Critics say the incident highlights loopholes in the system that can be exploited by unscrupulous wildlife dealers.

Early last year the Gauteng department of agriculture, conservation, environment and land affairs rejected an application by Urban for permits to import 16 lions from Brazil. The Mail & Guardian reported at the time that about 60 ”abandoned” lions, casualties of an uncontrolled wildlife trade in South America, were up for sale.

Elizabeth MacGregor, a representative of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPCA) in Brazil, last week raised the alarm that 10 of the lions had been imported into South Africa.

”My contact in Ibama, our environmental agency, told me they had orders to keep the whole thing secret — to avoid the same thing [refusal of permits] happening,” said MacGregor.

Urban used a Free State connection to get Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) permits to import the 10 lions. When the cats arrived at Johannesburg International airport last week, however, only one was sent to the Free State and the other nine allegedly went straight to Urban’s zoo in Muldersdrif, north-west of Johannesburg

Lourens Badenhorst, Gauteng’s director of conservation, said the original reasons for the rejection of Urban’s permits remain. ”One of the many reasons is that he will contaminate the local gene pool.”

Another reason given at the time was that there is ”overproduction” of lions in South Africa, because of the large number of lion-breeding facilities in the country.

The Free State is home to some of the largest of South Africa’s 50-plus lion-breeding facilities. Urban used permits granted to Sarel Wessels, owner of Lechwe Lodge near Kroonstad, to import the lions.

Urban slammed the phone down when the M&G contacted him this week. ”I am not interested in talking to you,” he shouted.

According to the WSPCA’s MacGregor, Urban signed an agreement with Ibama stating that the animals will not be used for hunting. ”He said they will be used for reproduction in a conservation programme.”

Critics of the government’s proposed new regulations on ”canned” hunting point out that the industry depends on captive breeding of predators. Even if the Brazilian lions are not hunted, their offspring would almost certainly fuel the industry in time.

Louise Joubert, a representative of a coalition of conservationists, animal welfare groups and veterinarians critical of the proposed regulations, said Urban’s case highlighted loopholes in the provincial permits system. Public submissions on the proposed regulations close on March 15.

”Although one of the aims behind the proposed policy is to provide a national approach, many clauses refer decision-making to provincial level. This is where a lot of the problems are experienced,” says Joubert.

”For example, despite the fact that a voluntary moratorium on canned lion hunting has been imposed on national level, provincial offices continue to issue permits for new breeding facilities.”

Diana Nel, a Free State permits officer, says one of the conditions attached to the import permits issued to Wessels was that the lions had to be micro-chipped.

Visitors to Urban’s small zoo in Muldersdrif this week were unable to get close enough to the nine lions to check. Although they were told the lions would be ”on display” from this weekend, the cats were being kept in grass-covered enclosures away from the public eye.

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Fiona Macleod
Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod is an environmental writer for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and editor of the M&G Greening the Future and Investing in the Future supplements.

She is also editor of Lowveld Living magazine in Mpumalanga.

An award-winning journalist, she was previously environmental editor of the M&G for 10 years and was awarded the Nick Steele award for environmental conservation.

She is a former editor of Earthyear magazine, chief sub-editor and assistant editor of the M&G, editor-in-chief of HomeGrown magazines, managing editor of True Love and production editor of The Executive.

She served terms on the judging panels of the SANParks Kudu Awards and The Green Trust Awards. She also worked as a freelance writer, editor and producer of several books, including Your Guide to Green Living, A Social Contract: The Way Forward and Fighting for Justice.

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