Don Pinnock, Daily Maverick | May 2, 2021
In an unprecedented move to reposition South Africa as a world leader in wildlife conservation, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries has called for the protection of iconic wild animals to be prioritised over the cruelty of commercial exploitation.
The 580-page High-Level Panel (HLP) report is the result of nearly two years of often heated discussion and research by a panel of specialists assembled by Minister Barbara Creecy, with more than 70 written submissions from individuals and organisations.
The minister accepted a panel majority finding that the treatment of, particularly, lions and rhinos was unacceptable and detrimental to the image of South Africa as a prime tourist destination. The report now awaits endorsement by Parliament.
The report will be applauded by a tourism industry battered by Covid-19 and worldwide criticism of canned hunting, and will be hotly contested by those involved in the exploitation of wildlife for reasons other than conservation.
There will be disappointment from NGOs and questions asked about the report’s endorsement of what it calls “responsible and authentic hunting” and the leveraging of the added-value benefit of hunting leopards. In order to get consensus on most issues studied by the panel, it’s clear that concessions had to be made. NGO opposition to trophy hunting will therefore continue.
The appointment of the panel was triggered by a Colloquium on Captive Lion Breeding in 2018 by the Portfolio Committee on Environmental Affairs in which a range of national and international organisations gave evidence.
According to that report, which was later adopted by Parliament in a resolution calling for the introduction of legislation to end captive lion breeding, there was a predominant view that the captive lion breeding industry did not contribute to conservation and was doing damage to South Africa’s conservation and tourism reputation.
The final report of her panel, Creecy said, offers “a reconceptualised wildlife sector that will provide a new deal for people and wildlife in the country”.
The report found that the captive lion industry “posed risks to the sustainability of wild lion conservation resulting from the negative impact on ecotourism which funds lion conservation and conservation more broadly”. The trade in lion parts was also stimulating poaching and illegal trade.
The majority of the panel recommended that South Africa should not breed or keep lions in captivity or use captive lions or their derivatives commercially. It said the government should put in place processes to halt:
- The hunting of captive bred lions;
- The sale of captive lion derivatives; and
- All tourist interactions with captive lions, including “volun-tourism” and cub-petting.
The report said the wildlife sector would be required to meet “the minimum acceptable standards for animal welfare and well-being”.
The chairperson of the panel noted that there would be discussions with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service regarding the hunting of “ranched lions”, which is a uniquely SA definition not accepted by the rest of the world.
With the emphasis on “authentic hunting”, for which there is no definition by the minister, there is concern that the cessation of hunting of captive bred lions may simply be replaced by the hunting of “ranched lions”.
On elephants, the report took the position that South Africa should not submit a proposal to the international wildlife trade body Cites to trade in ivory “as long as current specified circumstances prevail” and that alternative income streams be sought to support elephant management and communities living with elephants.
On rhinos the report was more ambivalent. It would await the implementation of the findings of the Rhino Committee of Inquiry which was tasked to create a Rhino Action Plan, which is yet to be made public. The HLP report recommends that the current trend of increasing intensive management and registration of rhino captive breeding operations be reversed and that a sustainable conservation outcome be sought over a period in which captive rhino breeding is phased out.
Until a Rhino Action Plan is implemented, which will require extensive negotiations internally and with all neighbouring states – which could take many years – the report says trade in captive rhino horn would not be supported, approved or taken to Cites. It is, anyhow, not sanctioned by the United Nations body. Meanwhile, “benefit streams” alternative to attempts to market rhino horn internationally will be developed and implemented.
Creecy announced that work has already begun on a draft Policy Position on implications of the report’s recommendations and her department will initiate a process to develop a draft White Paper on Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Use for consultation.
As there is no official definition of sustainable use – as Creecy admitted in the press conference – this would be the first hurdle to overcome.
Creecy said a draft statement on the definition would be released shortly and opened for public consultation. The report provides specific direction, she said, on “how my department can support the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development in ensuring the welfare and well-being of wildlife”.
On trophy hunting, the report said there was “a need for South Africa to be repositioned and promoted as a destination of choice for legal, regulated and responsible hunting of the five iconic species, recognising that this supports and promotes conservation and rural livelihoods”.
Though this may have been a concession to those hunters not part of the canned hunting industry, it’s guaranteed to invoke pushback from local and international NGOs which have been fighting trophy hunting for years.
At question time, the minister said the report opposed the shooting of lions after being taken out of a cage, but seemed unsure about what would constitute a legitimate area for “authentic” lion hunting.
Response from the NGO sector, which has had its campaigns sidelined for years, was guardedly enthusiastic.
“The report is a significant shift,” said the director of Blood Lions, Ian Michler, who has been campaigning to shut down canned hunting for more than two decades.
“I hope it indicates that science, ecological thinking, expert opinion and responsible tourism will replace the commercial lobby that has been brutally exploiting lions and other predators for decades.
“Given all the setbacks of the past, well done to the minister and her department. All those in support should now back the ministry to get the legislative work done and to rid South Africa of this industry.”
Smaragda Louw, the director of Ban Animal Trading, applauded the HLP on its recommendation to ban the breeding, hunting and sale of body parts of captive bred lions.
“The recommendation that the sale of the Big Five into captivity in other countries will be strictly monitored, is encouraging,” she said, and congratulated Creecy on immediately actioning an Implementation Plan on captive lion breeding.
“We are, however, extremely disappointed in the South African government’s decision to grow the hunting industry, which it now refers to as ‘authentic hunting’ – whatever that may mean. Doing this, increasing the number of leopard to be hunted and ignoring the benefits of destroying ivory and rhino horn stockpiles, will never be in keeping with government’s attempts to position the country as an international leader in conservation. One battle down! Many more to fight.”
Michele Pickover, who heads the EMS Foundation, said her organisation cautiously welcomed the minister’s statement on captive lion breeding.
“But what we want to see is action. The government has been saying it does not want this industry since 2018 when Parliament endorsed the portfolio committee’s report. We are therefore urging the minister to take swift corrective and practical steps so that this abhorrent industry is closed down once and for all and with no loopholes.
“If this is not done as soon as possible it may have massive welfare implications for the many thousands of lions held in captivity in South Africa which could, in the interim, be inhumanely treated and killed for their bones. It could also mean a rise in the illegal bone trade.”
“Minister Creecy has made some brave decisions,” said Will Travers, Born Free’s executive president, “but it is important that she is not alone. We and many others, with decades of experience in captive animal care and international wildlife trade, stand ready to engage with her directly to offer advice and insights as to how to take matters forward, and in particular, bring the dreadful canned lion hunting industry to a compassionate and humane end. South Africa may be standing on the verge of a new, more wildlife-friendly future.”
In launching the report on Sunday, Creecy called it a new deal for people and wildlife in South Africa. Its implementation, she said, “will greatly transform the practices within the wildlife industry, enhance conservation of our environment and these species, invigorate the rural economies where the species occur or can be introduced and empower traditional practices, leadership, and healers”.
Communities living with wildlife, she said, were central to the report’s thinking, with recommendations on improving human-wildlife coexistence and “mechanisms for leveraging their economic, social, and cultural benefits through transformative approaches to access and benefit sharing”.
Implementing these recommendations, she said, will result in protection and enhancement of South Africa’s international reputation, repositioning the country as a competitive destination of choice for ecotourism and responsible hunting.
The report, she said, is evidence of a remarkable accord in a field that has been mined with distrust, anger and name-calling in the past.
“It is hoped that what follows will not reignite old animosities, but issue in a new era of consensus-building.”