/ 20 March 2015

Conservation’s biggest con job

“South Africa does not allow canned lion hunting.” - But is this true?
“South Africa does not allow canned lion hunting.” - But is this true?

Here’s a trick question: Is canned lion hunting legal in South Africa?

According to Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa, the answer is no. “South Africa does not allow canned lion hunting,” she said at a recent parliamentary committee meeting. “The law, the ToPS regulations, clearly prohibit that.”

But is this true?

ToPS, the Threatened or Protected Species Regulations, don’t contain a definition of canned hunting, just a list of prohibited hunting practices. For example, a protected species may not be hunted with traps, snares or poison or trapped against a fence.

Despite this, it is legal for lions to be bred in captivity to be shot by trophy hunters. Depending on the province, hand-reared lions may be released into enclosures for as little as three days before being hunted. Hunters may also use aircraft and vehicles to track them and dead bait to lure them.

So the answer seems to be yes. By standard definitions, canned hunting is legal. And, as this document suggests, “it is a fast-growing business in South Africa”.

There are more than 150 lion breeding facilities in South Africa and the latest figures released by the South African Predators Association, which represents them, estimate they hold between 6 000 and 8 000 lions.

That’s more than double the number of wild lions in South Africa, and the number is growing.

Captive lions can’t be released
Ian Michler, a wildlife writer and conservation consultant who has been working on this issue since 1999, estimates that there were fewer than 1 000 captive lions at that time. By 2005, this had increased to about 3 000.

If nothing is done to halt captive lion breeding and hunting, Michler believes there could be up to 15 000 lions being bred in captivity in South Africa within five years.

Despite claims by lion breeders that they are doing essential work for conservation, none of these lions will ever be released into the wild, because captive-bred lions cannot be rehabilitated – a point the South African Predator Breeders Association made in the Supreme Court of Appeal in 2010.

The greatest threat to lion conservation is not numbers but habitat loss. Even if captive-bred lions could be reintroduced, there would be nowhere for them to go.

Sustainable use or sustained abuse?
Captive lions are “monetised” in a number of ways.

Under the cover of conservation, lion breeders attract tourists to pet cubs and walk with young lions, and volunteers pay to help farm what they understand to be wild animals.

Once lions become too old and dangerous for tourism, they can be used for breeding, shot by trophy hunters and harvested for the booming lion bone trade.

Breeders and hunters argue the benefits of foreign revenue generated by lion hunting, but a quick look at the numbers demonstrates how insignificant this is compared with tourism.

In 2013, South African foreign tourism revenue totalled just over R73.2-billion. According to the Professional Hunter’s Association of South Africa, lion trophies brought in R122.3-million that year. That’s less than a fifth of a percent of foreign tourism revenue.

The negative publicity from canned lion hunting is increasingly hurting tourism according to Michler.

Farming out responsibility
Lions seem to have slipped through the legislative cracks. The department of environmental affairs says captive lions are not their business, but fall under the department of agriculture – who appear to have done nothing.

“We went to the department of agriculture to say, you need to have your regulations in place as soon as possible … because the court has determined it is not our business, it is your business,” Molewa told the parliamentary committee.

According to the Inkatha Freedom Party, a motion to ban canned lion hunting was unanimously accepted and adopted by the National Assembly in March 2014. “And yet, a year down the line, government has failed to respond in any way,” said party MP SJ Nkomo, who repeated the call for a ban in Parliament last Thursday.

Some good news for lions came on Friday morning when the Australian government announced an immediate measure to regard African lions as threatened with extinction. From now on Australian lion hunters won’t be allowed to import trophies or other lion parts.

According to Greg Hunt, Australia’s minister for the environment: “It is part of the global movement and I hope part of a significant movement to end canned hunting. It is a practice that never had a time, but it is a practice whose time has surely come to pass.”

Hunt used the words “barbaric” and “cruel” to describe canned lion hunting.

Relic of colonialism
Chris Mercer, of Campaign Against Canned Hunting, said: “Here is a civilised government revolted by what passes muster for conservation in South Africa. Actually, the Australians are echoing the principles of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s founding father, who banned all sport and trophy hunting 30 years ago for the reason that it was a barbaric relic of colonialism.”

Michler is in Europe this week to meet, among others, the European Union’s minister of the environment, conservationists and lawyers from Finland, Belgium, Holland and the United Kingdom about instituting similar bans.

That foreign governments need to legislate to combat South Africa’s unscrupulous practices is eerily reminiscent of the past. As Terri Stander, DA deputy spokesperson for environmental affairs, asks: “How is it possible that the international community cares more about our wildlife than we do?”

That’s a question South Africans need to keep asking their government.

What can you do?
•Don’t support lion breeders. No genuine conservationist will breed lions or allow human interaction with them. Don’t pet lion cubs or walk with lions and don’t volunteer before doing thorough research.

•Learn more about lions. Visit the real lion sanctuaries and encourage others to visit them. Drakenstein Lion Park near Cape Town and Lion’s Rock in the Free State provide proper care for rescued lions.

•March for lions. If you’re in Johannesburg, show your support by attending the Global March for Lions event this Saturday, March 21, at 11am opposite the Lion Park, on the corner of Malibongwe and the R114, Lanseria.

Alison Westwood is a travel and nature writer and works with Conservation Action Trust