Anyone who has watched the internationally acclaimed documentary Blood Lions will agree that the practice of hunting captive bred lions is cruel, barbaric and macabre. Two years ago the South African government admitted to mounting public concern over canned lion hunting.
After stakeholder consultations in 2015, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) largely ignored the input of conservation groups, and sided with the breeders who raise lions in cages in order to be shot and killed by foreign thrill-seekers.
The irony is that these breeders and hunters from some 200 farms across the country are known for their reactionary views. “In my experience, nearly all of these operators come out of the apartheid era. With a very narrow, conservative and utilitarian approach to wildlife and the environment, they are now making huge profits by charging up to $50000 (R6.8 million) to kill a black-maned lion,” says lead conservationist Ian Michler, who featured in Blood Lions. Michler points out that “most of these characters have never cared for animal rights, nor for human rights for that matter.” It seems this is a fine example of white monopoly capital.
This begs the question: Why is our government pandering to the greed of a handful of right-wing breeders and hunters at the expense of our reputation as a country that promotes ethical and authentic tourism, and engages in the responsible utilisation of wildlife? Why are we prepared to endanger Brand South Africa as well as our lion population that is facing the high risk of extinction, and setting quotas on selling their body parts - all for the financial benefit of a few breeders?
South Africa is left with only around 3000 lions in the wild, while 8000 are being bred in captivity in order to be shot by hunters, the majority of whom come from the US. Currently two to three captive lions are killed every day in South Africa.
The well financed and united front put forward by the breeders has convinced the DEA of the myth that the breeding of captive lions helps to save the wild population. All the conservationists agree there is absolutely no evidence to back that up.
According to a number of experts, captive lion breeding for hunting has increased the cases of wild lion poaching, as breeders need a constant supply of wild lions to stop in-breeding. Last month the DEA set a quota of 800 lion carcasses of captive bred lions that are allowed to be exported annually. All experts agree this is likely to promote the demand in Asia, as lion parts are highly sought after for use in traditional Chinese medicine, as they are being used as a substitute for tiger bones.
During the 2015 stakeholder consultations the DEA focused on the South Africa Predator Association (a private body set up to represent the interests of breeders), the Confederation of Hunters Association of South Africa, SA Hunters and Game Association of SA, and the Professional Hunters Association of SA. According to Karen Trendler, who was involved in the making of Blood Lions, the 2015 consultations were largely one-sided and the input of conservationists was ignored.
There is not one conservation group that supports captive lion breeding for hunting purposes. Among those that have come out strongly against it are the African Lion Working Group (comprising 100 registered scientists), the Endangered Wildlife Trust, Panthera, Wildlands, Wild Cat Conservation Group, International Union for Conservation of Nature (key global conservation leaders), the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Four Paws, Coalition Against Lion Hunting, the NSPCA and the Humane Society International.
When DEA Minister Edna Molewa was invited to attend the screening of Blood Lions at the Durban International Film Festival in 2015, she declined, but Botswana's environment minister flew in for the screening. The Professional Hunters Association of South Africa also attended the screening, and has since come out strongly against predator breeding and hunting saying “It is clear the practices are no longer defensible.” SA Outfitters, a professional hunting body, also put out a strong statement in July opposed to the hunting of captive bred lions.
Unfortunately the DEA has bought into the spurious claim of the breeders that the industry is a source of job creation and contributes to lion conservation. Nothing can be further from the truth. At most the industry creates around 300 direct jobs, and far greater employment would be created if the breeding farms went back to being maize and cattle farmers. According to Trendler, the industry doesn’t benefit local communities, and the working conditions on the breeding farms are some of the worst in terms of labour relations.
Michler explains that captive lions can never be released into the wild as they are genetically contaminated, a danger to humans as they are no longer afraid of them, and they would not survive due to being out-competed by other lions and hyenas. The World Wide Fund for Nature in South Africa has clearly stated that there is no conservation benefit to captive lion breeding and hunting, and it is unethical.
The message being created is that “South Africa is allowing Africa’s most iconic species, a magnificent apex predator, to be bred and confined to cages in order to be killed by rich foreigners”, says Michler. Images of South Africa’s captive lions which are fed and maintained poorly, and rarely receive veterinary care, are being screened around the world. As Derek Hanekom admitted when he was minister of tourism, the industry is damaging Brand South Africa.
The DEA is swimming against the tide. According to a poll conducted by conservation group Four Paws, 76% of South Africans believe that captive lion hunting is unethical.
In 2013, Botswana banned all trophy hunting. In 2015, Australia, France and the Netherlands banned imports of lion trophies from South Africa. And last year, US Fish and Wildlife issued a directive against importing captive-bred-lion trophies, and included lions on its endangered species list.
There needs to be a South African solution to this tragedy. At the end of the day it comes down to an issue of morality, and Brand South Africa is at stake.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's foreign editor.