Wildlife experts spurn invite to serve on environmental panel, indicating bias and co-option

By July 16, 2020Law & legislation
Don Pinnock, The Daily Maverick | July 15, 2020

Read the original story here.

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Three people have declined to serve on a government panel. That’s not exactly news. But, given who they are and the panel on to which they were invited, their refusal has exposed major fault lines in South Africa’s treatment of wild animals.

The high-level panel was set up by the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Barbara Creecy to review the policies, legislation and management regarding the breeding, hunting, trade and general handling of elephants, lions, rhinos and leopards. It was appointed in 2019 and has to report to Creecy by November 2020. Members were required to sign a confidentiality undertaking – its deliberations are secret.

Shortly after the panel was formed, fault lines began to appear, soon to open into an almost unbridgeable canyon of dislike and distrust. The first shots were from conservationists claiming that the panel was hopelessly biased in its composition.

There are some traditional leaders on the panel, a few biltong farmers, several scientists and (initially) one animal welfare specialist. But most members are either hunters, game farmers and advocates of international wildlife trade. There are no vets, epidemiologists, climate change experts or ecotourism representatives.

Although supposedly serving in their personal capacities, some panel members have publicly proclaimed that they represent their organisations.

How, it was asked, could they possibly come to conclusions that could, for example, close down captive breeding or canned hunting of wildlife and vote against the export of ivory, rhino horn, lion bones or live animals? Who on the panel would propose non-consumptive alternatives or could understand the long-term effects of inbreeding or zoonotic transfer of disease?

Through the panel’s wall of secrecy have filtered whispers of acrimony and personal attacks on dissenting voices. “Greenies” are not tolerated. The only welfare specialist, Karen Trendler, resigned citing “personal reasons”.

The former head of Sanparks, Mavuso Msimang who was the panel’s chair, resigned for health reasons. A progressive environmental lawyer, Aadila Agjee, was selected but never served and was not replaced. The NSPCA, a central animal welfare organisation, was promised representation, then not initially invited (more on this later).

The panel called for external submissions as part of public consultation and received 70 – a considerable number for such processes. However, given the panel’s tight deadlines and the Covid-19 epidemic, it is unlikely that there will be any actual public consultation.

A government adviser let slip that the panel will only see “thumbnail sketches” of the presentations prepared by him. Then – out of the blue and after nearly half a year and something of a media storm around the panel’s composition – a progressive environmental lawyer, the acting CEO of the NSPCA and a respected elephant specialist were sent a “letter of appointment” by Creecy. They declined for reasons which follow.

In inviting them halfway through the process, had the minister realised she’d overplayed her hand in the panel’s lopsided composition and was now trying to rescue its credibility? It’s hard to say. A preliminary report had already been submitted to the minister by the time these appointments were proposed.

Their replies refusing appointment were instructive and came close to suggesting attempted co-option and the panel’s inevitable foregone conclusions.

Cormac Cullinan, the environmental lawyer, wrote: “In my view, the terms of reference and the composition of the panel do not reflect an even-handed approach and make it inevitable that the panel will advise you to intensify the commercial use of wildlife and wildlife body parts.

“The recent publication of the regulations on trade in rhino horn make it crystal clear that the Department is committed to promoting a legal trade in rhino horn. And the Department’s reluctance to give effect to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee’s resolution (subsequently adopted as a resolution of the National Assembly) about phasing out the lion farming industry has been evident for some time.

“In my view the composition and terms of reference of the panel mean that it will not function as a credible or effective means of charting a coherent policy direction that takes account of animal wellbeing and the critical importance of conserving wildlife and ecosystems within the context of a global collapse of species.”

He said he believed that the panel’s recommendations would legitimise measures that will harm global efforts to conserve iconic species, entrench the idea that these animals are commodities, facilitate a small minority to benefit financially from wildlife and support the development of policies based on sustainable use.

Audrey Delsink, who heads Humane Society International-Africa’s wildlife division, refused the appointment, saying there was a “substantial imbalance of representatives favouring the consumptive use framework of these animals – many of whom have direct financial interests in the outcome of the panel’s work”.

The panel’s Terms of Reference, she said, “make no provision for engaged discussions regarding how animal cruelty is implicit in captive breeding, trade and hunting of these species, nor how alternative ways of generating social and economic development from our unique biodiversity could be explored and adopted”.

She added that the terms “have no meaningful conservation value” and “did not make allowance for the reasonable and required reconsideration of current policy”.

Este Kotze, the deputy CEO of the NSPCA, says the organisation was invited on to the panel a few weeks previously (having been ignored earlier), but that its national council did not wish her to serve. The invitation was rejected, she said, “for reasons I cannot discuss”.

The World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), however, accepted the late invitation and will be represented by Theressa Franz, a former employee of the Environment Department who is now head of the WWF’s environmental programmes unit.

The debate about South Africa’s treatment of its wild animals – the core of its tourist industry – is clearly deeply polarised. On the one side are trophy hunters, canned lion operations, intensive commercial breeders of rhinos, lions and other game, the national and international organisations they belong to, pro-trade academics and senior officials in the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment.

On the other side are conservation NGOs, environmental lawyers, owners of private game reserves, ecologists and wildlife tourism operators who support non-consumptive use of wildlife. Also onside are local and international organisations that support ecological sustainability and abhor cruelty and the trade of wild creatures and animal parts. On canned lion hunting and welfare, their views have received the backing of the Constitutional Court, High Court and Parliament’s Environment Portfolio Committee.

At the heart of the great divide between users and protectors of wildlife is the notion of sustainable use. Game farmers and hunters employ the term to describe their operations, which are essentially using wild animals as the raw material with which to accrue income. It’s a business term and about the bottom line.

For breeders of beautiful specimens, long-standing biltong farmers and traditional hunters for the pot that’s perfectly understandable. Why not, it’s their livelihood?

The problem is that, in many cases, using wild species commercially for petting farms, hunting and the lion bone trade has resulted in sordid conditions, with animals kept in small, overcrowded cages. Predators are bred to survive excessive tourist handling and then used for canned hunts, their bones sold for fake tiger wine. Animals are shot to be hung on walls as trophies. Sustainable use (read commodification), can wear a very cruel and ugly face.

To better understand the argument of those who reject “sustainable use”, a position the high-level panel is sure to embrace, let’s widen the frame. There’s no doubt that excessive and unchecked consumption of wildlife on Earth is accelerating biodiversity loss.

A report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released in 2019 found that up to a million species were threatened with extinction and that direct exploitation for trade was the second biggest threat to species survival after habitat loss.

It noted that, in the last century, the global biomass of wild mammals fell by 82% and the overall abundance of naturally present terrestrial species declined by 23%.

Could farming wild animals be a hedge against this loss? A report into sustainable use by the NGO Nature Needs More released in June 2020 doesn’t think so. It says that, in the light of the Biodiversity report, “sustainable use” is “just a convenient story to keep us from questioning the reality of unsustainable over-exploitation of wildlife”.

The term “cannot withstand scrutiny. It’s as elegant in language as it is ineffective in preventing disaster,” exploiting our fondness for wishful thinking over having to make hard choices.

“The notion of sustainable use,” says the report, “was designed to disguise the prioritisation of growth and unlimited exploitation over biodiversity preservation and social justice outcomes.” It calls this magical thinking: Hoping that saying the right words will change reality.

Wildlife farming operations, the report notes, are just large-scale for-profit businesses that both satisfy existing demand and create new demand through marketing. The existence of supply of “farmed” products creates a taste for “wild” products to allow “luxury” consumers to differentiate. It’s an incentive for illegal harvesting.

Well, maybe game farming and hunting brings revenue into the country and creates job opportunities? To assess community benefits, the first question that needs to be asked is where the profits go? The answer, says the report, is that they go to those who hold the requisite private property rights – the shareholders of the businesses involved in wildlife trade, hunting and the landowners or owners of wildlife in the case of farming.

In hunting, the profits are generally made in wealthy countries where the hunts are booked. It’s estimated that only 3% gets back to communities or households where the hunting takes place.

These are issues the high-level panel should be grappling with in charting a path for wildlife management in South Africa. But its composition and terms of reference, according to its critics, suggests that sustainable use is a given, not worthy of debate or alternatives and that decisions will be made how best to operate in terms of its assumptions.

However, several people on the panel might well give thought to the implications. Among them are a number of traditional leaders whose people derive little benefit from game farming and hunting in ways other than as labourers. Many of the wild animals under discussion are also sacred to many cultures and totemic to chieftainship.

Biltong farmers, a mainstay of the venison market, are also being tarred with the same brush as canned hunting operations to their detriment.

Claims that wildlife farming supports conservation is evidently a non-starter – very few captive animals can be reintegrated into the wild. No peer-reviewed studies have documented the successful reintegration of captive-bred predators.

A further problem is that on farms, wild animals are often treated with antibiotics that lower their resistance to illnesses they would normally repel in the wild. They also become habituated to humans to their detriment and never learn essential wild skills of hunting or avoidance of predators.

So where does that leave us? The government clearly fully supports sustainable use – even President Cyril Ramaphosa owns a game farm, Phala Phala. In 2019, 32 wild animals were listed under the Animal Improvement Act, rendering them essentially farm animals. A further 98, including rhinos, hippos, elephants and crocodiles, are presently under consideration for listing under the Meat Safety Act, which deals with slaughter conditions and food safety. South Africa is clearly committed to the use of wild animals for revenue generation among those wealthy enough to farm them.

So the battle for the soul of sustainability continues and the question remains: Is the high-level panel a serious think-tank or a rubber stamp? As its report is likely to be secret and may never see public debate, it’s possible we’ll never know. DM