We (almost) buy a canned cheetah

The Mail & Guardian stopped just short of buying two tame cheetahs for a “canned” hunt this week. The deal came to an end when we refused to fork out about R100 000 and failed to produce a letter from a European embassy approving the export of the cheetahs’ heads.

Our investigation into cheetah hunting started about two months ago, when an overseas contact alerted us to a website offering them for sale. The site prominently features a hunter showing off a dead cheetah.

Cheetahs are on the verge of extinction in South Africa. Conservationists say South Africa does not have a quota for the sport hunting of cheetahs or for the export of cheetah trophies.

Believing the hunt illegal, we contacted the advertiser—Alexander Steyn, of Steyn Safari in Northern Cape. Steyn and his brother set up the outfit near Kimberley in 1994 and claim to “have seen the company grow to one of the leading hunting operations in the region”.

Through an Afrikaans-speaking “agency” in Limpopo, we negotiated with Steyn to buy two cheetahs and two lions. He told us two cheetahs were available costing R45 000 each, permits included.

The prices for the lions ranged from R180 000 for “the biggest lion available in South Africa at the moment” to about R30 000 for lionesses. Various other species, including endangered species such as rhinos and sables, and novelties such as white lions and scimitar oryx, were also on offer.

Using a European passport, we posed as a Greek woman who wanted to hunt the predators and who planned to visit South Africa with her Saudi boyfriend, cheetah breeding and hunting being popular in Saudi Arabia.

Steyn said the cheetahs would come from a tourism project, where they had been captive-bred and “were not suitable for breeding any more”. They would be moved into a hunting area for the shooting party.

He maintained the hunt would be legal because of a provincial regulation allowing for the hunting of captive-bred predators. Realising that this is one of the confusions confronting a panel of experts appointed by the national government to investigate the canned hunting industry, we pressed ahead.

Steyn asked the agent to organise a letter from the Greek embassy saying it would not have objections to the importation of the cheetah trophies. This was necessary for him to organise permits in terms of the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

We went back to the conservationists, who had told us no Cites permits could be issued for cheetahs. However, they added that the system was totally unregulated and hunting outfits were taking advantage of this.

Last year the owner of an outfit in North West province brazenly admitted on TV that he was hunting cheetahs, but no action has been taken against him.

“We know about a lot of cases where people are doing canned cheetah hunts, particularly in the Free State and North West. They are catching wild, free-roaming cheetahs, keeping them in one-hectare camps and then releasing them into larger areas when they have a buyer who wants to ‘hunt’ them,” said one cheetah expert, who did not want to be named. “South Africa’s cheetahs are disappearing and no one does anything about it.”

The Mail & Guardian contacted the “Green Scorpions”, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism’s law enforcement branch. They put us in touch with a police officer operating in the Northern Cape, who said the police had been keeping an eye on Steyn’s cheetah hunting.

But, he added, he could not bust Steyn if the cheetahs he offered us were genuinely captive-bred and if he had a Cites permit to hunt them. If we went to see the cheetahs, we would be able to tell whether they were wild.

At this point we set up a meeting with Steyn, pretending to be a friend of the “hunter” who wanted to check out the animals on offer.

He said the accommodation was about 90km from Kimberley and the location where the cheetahs could be hunted was in another province, about 220km away. The lions were being bred about 150km from Kimberley, but would be hunted about 500km away.

Steyn sent the M&G photographs of the lions on offer, but not of the cheetahs. “I spent hours trying to take photos of the cheetahs, without results,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “They are shy and hid in the long grass about 50 to 100 metres away from me.”

He could not understand why we wanted the cheetah pictures. “I understand if a client wants a lion photo because the mane is important. [But] all cheetahs look the same … A photo in a book tells a client what to expect.”

The M&G’s plans to see the cheetahs on Women’s Day were scuppered when Steyn phoned at the last minute to say he wanted a 30% deposit before he would drive us out to see them.

Because we used a false passport for the “hunter”, we were also unable to get a letter approving the export of the cheetah trophies—and so never saw the Cites permits he promised to get.

When we revealed to Steyn that his cheetah hunting was the subject of a newspaper investigation, he responded furiously: “This was a setup by those green people who want to taint the names of the professional hunters, while we are just good, honest Afrikaans people trying to run an honest business.”

When asked if his business was canned hunting, he replied: “What is canned hunting? Canned hunting takes places in a fenced-off area. Yet the whole of South Africa, the whole of Africa, is fenced. The whole of Africa is canned.”

Running out of time

Cheetahs are South Africa’s second-most endangered predator, after wild dogs. Conservationists say they are on the edge of extinction in this country and that every animal counts in the battle to save them.

There are at most 300 of the sleek, fleet-footed cats in South Africa’s protected areas and less than 250 free-roaming outside protected areas. About 600 are in captivity, but only 200 of these are officially accounted for — implying that about 400 are being kept in canned hunting facilities.

Cheetahs tend to get pushed out of conservation areas because they compete for food with larger predators such as lions and spotted hyenas, and sometimes are preyed on by the larger animals. Outside the conservation areas, they come into conflict with farmers and game ranchers.

Though it is illegal to hunt cheetahs, some provinces issue permits for the removal of damage-causing animals. Hunting outfits, particularly in North West and Free State, are taking advantage of this and are making a lucrative business from catching the wild cats.

They sometimes micro-chip the cheetahs, place them in one-hectare camps, claim they are captive-bred and offer them to hunters. Alexander Steyn offered the M&G cheetahs for R45 000, but the normal asking price is R75 000 to R80 000. Cubs are being offered for sale in the Free State for about R60 000.

The De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Trust, a conservation centre based in North West, estimates that in the past two years alone, at least 200 wild cheetahs have been killed or removed from the wild.

Cheetahs passed through a population bottleneck of a few hundred individuals between 10 000 and 20 000 years ago, reducing their genetic viability. Inbreeding is a significant risk and only about 40% of cubs reach maturity, so each individual is vital for the species’ viability.

Hunting lobby groups are calling for the legalisation of cheetah hunts, but De Wildt is strongly opposed to the move.

At public hearings into the hunting industry convened by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism this week, conservationists argued that cheetahs are a special case, and that they need to be treated differently from other South African predators.

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. Read more from Fiona Macleod

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