Nica Richards

By Nica Richards

Journalist


Wildlife panel secrecy leaves lions in limbo

Conservation groups have accused the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries' high-level panel of bias, saying they're putting the lives of both the animals and workers at risk, and exposing them to possible diseases.


It has been over nine months since a high-level panel (HLP) was formed by Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (Deff) minister Barbara Creecy, but since then the validity and efficacy of the panel has been brought into question, amid an extended call for public submissions on topics that are not being communicated. 

The appointment of a 25-member panel, created as an advisory committee tasked with reviewing policies, legislation and practices relating to the mismanagement, breeding, hunting, trade and handling of elephant, rhino, lion and leopard, was gazetted in October 2019. 

It sought to bring together a mixed bag of experts in the fields of conservation, management, and biodiversity policies and legislation. From conservationists and ecologists to scientists and game management representatives, the panel was intended to provide a balanced view of the various issues plaguing animals at risk of becoming extinct, and facilitate widespread, constructive conversation.

The unenviable and momentous task was welcomed by conservation bodies and hunters alike, to formalise policies ensuring the wellbeing of animals, and strategic economic and legislative intervention. 

Regarding lions, Deff spokesperson Albi Modise said the HLP “will inter alia assess and make recommendations on the following: Breeding of lions in captivity, hunting of captive bred lions [and] trade in lion bones.” No further details were provided.

Panel ‘a confusing development’ 

Blood Lions Campaign and World Animal Protection recently submitted recommendations focused on animal welfare issues, the potential for zoonotic disease transmission, and a policy review of South Africa’s legislation.  

Blood Lions described the establishment of the HLP as “a confusing development, particularly in terms of the large captive lion population.” 

South Africa has a disproportionate captive versus wild lion population. There are currently an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 lions in captivity in more than 360 facilities throughout the country. This compared to around 3,000 wild lions left in South Africa.  

Lion cubs in captivity. Photo: Audrey Delsink

The HLP was formed after a colloquium in August 2018 demonstrated overwhelming support to bring an end to captive lion breeding. 

But Blood Lions said that there is growing speculation that Deff is being pressured by the predator breeding industry to continue canned lion hunting and captive breeding practices, interactive tourism experiences, voluntourism (the merging of volunteering and tourism), and the lion bone trade. 

Blood Lions explained that this can be seen in the lack of animal welfare experts, veterinarians, epidemiologists, species ecologist and legal experts on the “conspicuous” HLP. 

A lion cub in captivity. Photo: Audrey Delsink

There have been three resignations since the HLP was formed, including that of the chairperson of the panel at the time, Mavuso Msimang. 

Centre of Environmental Rights wildlife project head Aadila Agjee resigned as well, and in May, SANParks Ethics and Animal Use and Care Committee chairperson Karen Trendler withdrew from the HLP. 

Msimang was replaced by Pamela Yako from Zenande Leadership Consulting. Agjee and Trendler have not been replaced. 

Deff acknowledged the under-representation of welfare experts on the panel to The Citizen, with Modise saying Creecy is “looking into representation of the welfare perspective.”

Blood Lions is concerned that the majority of the HLP is now made up of lion farmers, hunters and traders, and that a strong pro-wildlife utilisation bias could cloud the panel’s judgement in making decisions that would impact the welfare of tens of thousands of animals. 

Blood Lions campaign manager Dr Louise de Waal said rumours point to decisions being made clearer by the HLP in November, but that everyone was being kept in the dark in the interim. This despite numerous Promotion of Access to Information (PAIA) requests.

“It is very odd, and very shrouded in secrecy. What the HLP is doing is not clear. The only thing we know for sure is that breeders and hunters are in the majority,” de Waal lamented. 

She added that in many ways, the HLP has been tasked with “reinventing the wheel,” and despite the 2018 Parliamentary colloquium, Deff has insisted on revisiting this issue. 

Increased threat of disease 

De Waal said the canned lion industry benefits a small number of farmers, and produces a low number of unskilled, poorly paid jobs for abattoir workers and farmhands not trained or informed of the risks involved in handling lions or their carcasses. 

Lion skulls. Photo: Blood Lions

The risk of disease also exists among tourists and volunteers who interact with lions. 

150 peer-reviewed studies identified 63 different pathogens associated with wild and captive lions, including Feline coronavirus. 

“Taking conservation, ethics and economics out of the question, can we afford to justify continuing an industry that has such a small impact on the economy, but could potentially be the source of a new zoonotic disease?” de Waal questioned, warning of a potential disaster looming. 

Lion farm workers are increasingly risking their health, especially if they have compromised immune systems from pre-existing conditions, de Waal explained. Workers are often poor and live in remote areas, which also means limited access to healthcare facilities.

Dr Peter Caldwell was quoted by Blood Lions explaining that Bovine TB, widespread in wild and captive lion populations, puts people handling lion meat and carcasses in danger of contracting the disease. Caldwell said if a worker has HIV and slaughters a lion, they also have a high risk of contracting TB. 

Overwhelming welfare concerns 

De Waal explained that lions, cheetahs, servals, caracals, ligers and other captive-bred predators are “purely bred as commodities that need to make the business as much money as possible”. 

To save costs, nutrition and veterinary care are not prioritised, for fear of affecting their bottom line. 

Captive lions being bred for their cubs to continue the cycle of canned lion hunting and trade. Photo: Audrey Delsink

Commercial breeding farms are not usually easy to access or monitor, and conditions are worse than in zoos. Most lions are ultimately skinned and their bones harvested.

And the authority tasked with monitoring lion farms is the NSPCA – a statutory body devoid of state funding or resources, and wholly dependent on donations. This means its wildlife units have limited staff and capacity. 

De Waal said there has never been a full national audit of the captive lion breeding industry, and even if this is undertaken, only the legal part of the industry would be audited. 

Lion bones are used to satisfy South East Asia’s appetite for tiger bones. Consumers are often duped into purchasing lion bones thinking they are tiger bones. The constant presence of lion bones not only puts endangered tigers around the world at risk of becoming extinct, but harms awareness campaigns aimed at saving what tiger populations remain, de Waal said. 

This is something government has not taken into account or discussed in the HLP, and is one of the many reasons why South Africa’s lion bone export quota should be scrapped, and stockpiles destroyed. 

Photo: Blood Lions

The disturbing thought of South Africa legally confining one of the country’s most powerful predators to a cage to live undignified, unnatural life has made de Waal seriously question the country’s use of wildlife and iconic species as commodities and farmed animals. 

“What does this say about us as a nation?” 

But de Waal and others in favour of ending the canned lion hunting and lion bone trade say there is still a chance to turn our increasingly negative image into a “PR win.”

“If we do ban the captive lion breeding industry and turn it into eco-tourism and conservation, we can show the world that Africa can lead the way in ethical wildlife tourism.”

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