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South Africa’s notorious captive-bred lion hunting industry was dealt a serious and embarrassing blow “when American hunting colossus, Safari Club International (SCI) finally slammed the door closed on its future at their 46th wildlife sport-hunting expo, a massive annual marketing shindig and award ceremony at the Las Vegas Convention Centre.

While the move was not totally unexpected, the vociferousness of the hunting body’s statement caught many off guard.

Announcing its total rejection of hunting captive-bred lions as having “doubtful conservation value”, the new SCI policy prohibits captive bred lion (CBL) operators and agents from marketing, selling or advertising any CBL hunts through the organisation, or at its regional and international shows.

South Africa’s legion of CBL hunters and outfitters who make the annual pilgrimage to SCI reacted angrily, but the ethical hunting community’s loud response was they had brought it upon themselves after years of unscrupulous behavior tarnished other notable and respected reputations in the hunting industry.

The action also came hard on the heels of a similar policy statement issued in January by Texas-based Dallas Safari Club.

Declared “a barbaric and morally repugnant relic of colonialism that is out of step with 21st century forward thinking” by former Australian minister Greg Hunt, South Africa’s legal/licensed abuse of captive-raised African lions (panther leo) speaks volumes about a nation that appears to have lost its moral compass.

SCI hunters and clients were also notified that hunting trophies bagged from captive-bred lion hunts would automatically be excluded and ineligible for SCI’s macabre Record Books, a hall-of-fame like list of hunters who have scored the highest record-setting measurements and achievements for nearly every kind of species ever hunted around the world.

Bred for the bullet and skinned for their bones, canned or captive bred lion hunts have now been firmly ejected by almost every civilised and ethical hunting institution in the world.

Roy Jankielsohn, Leader of the Opposition, Free State Legislature said: " South Africa, and especially the Free State Province are notorious as legal havens for the captive breeding bred of lions, hunting them and exporting their bones."

“There are, however, serious ethical considerations around the issue of breeding and hunting of captive bred lions. The legalisation, albeit with limitations, of harvesting and export of lion body parts have added to these concerns."
 
“This should not be an economic debate in which brand damage is weighed up against income generated for the province, it remains an ethical debate which should be reflected in government’s decision-making around this issue.

“The problem is that our material society has placed monetary values on all non-human animals and their lives. Instead of finding ways to protect and cherish all life, governments have become custodians of this materialism”.

In a mixed bag response of hot air and denial this week, South Africa’s National Environmental Affairs Minister, Edna Molewa, stubbornly refused to express any form of regret, or environmental concern over her department’s misguided policies and decisions.

She also failed to acknowledge the severe reputational damage/harm the CBL industry has wreaked on South Africa’s once proud conservation record, Brand SA and the responsible tourism sector.

For years, Molewa has been blissfully content to rubber-stamp the battery-breeding farms where lion cubs are ripped from their mothers after two or three days, legitimise unethical captive lion hunts and the export of lion bones to criminal wildlife trade networks in Asia, all under the guise of “sustainable use of a natural resource."

For your information, madame minister, captive-bred predators do not form part of any natural kingdom, except possibly in the afterlife.

The Minister’s reasoning flies in the face of global opinion, as well as the advice of transnational organized crime experts.   

A former crime intelligence officer told IO:  “What concerns me about the CBL industry is the enormous impact it has on transnational organized crime."

“The pseudo-hunting of our rhinos and the smuggling of their horns by Chumlong Lemtongthai began with the export of lion bones to the Laotian-based Keosevang crime syndicate,

“The CBL and bone export industries in South Africa are poorly managed. Furthermore, the hunting of these iconic animals is hardly monitored by conservation officials for compliance with norms and standards and provincial regulations. At present they do not have the human resources or capacity” he said.  

Seasoned wildlife campaigners and conservationists, Ian Michler and Chris Mercer, describe the captive lion industry as both “a sustainability scam” and “unsustainable abuse”.

“The notion of ‘sustainability’ has become the most overused and consequently meaningless phrase within conservation and wildlife circles” writes Michler.

“Used in equal measure by those that manage responsibly and the abusers of our wildlife, it’s hardly surprising that the predator breeding and canned or captive lion hunting industry is also invoking the term as a way of trying to sanitize what they do. But how sustainable will it all be when the ‘wildness’ and the thrill has gone”? he asks.

“This entire industry is based on selling the notion that whatever it is buyers will be doing to, or with the lions, the supplied creature will be a wild one. And government, a rather odd bed-fellow to this constituency, seem to have been seduced by flimsy short-term economic arguments.

“The breeding, killing, skinning and de-boning frenzy in South Africa is about making as much money out of these animals as they possibly can and doing this in the shortest possible time-frame, Michler added.

At the IUCN World Conservation Congress held in Hawaii in 2016, a motion calling on the South African Government to “terminate the hunting and breeding of captive lions and other predators” was unanimously approved.  

But Molewa failed to heed that call, and also ignored two unanimously approved motions to ban CBL hunting that were moved in our own National Assembly by the  Inkatha Freedom Party.

“That our government has been asked to close the captive lion and predator industry down, and ignored sound advice to do so, is a travesty. As a prime conservation destination, we cannot afford this rot on our reputation” said a leading KZN environmental lawyer.

Putting a heavy touch of government spin in his response to IOL questions, Molewa’s department spokesman Albi Modise said:

“The Minister is committed to the conservation of all species, animal and plant, and to a thriving tourism industry in South Africa."

“In light of the fact that South Africa has legislative protection in place for endangered and threatened species and subscribes to the principles of sustainable utilisation of natural resources, there is no reason to prohibit the breeding of lions in captivity for hunting purposes."

“The Department, therefore, has no intention of closing down the captive lion breeding and hunting industries in South Africa in the near future” he said.

But Michler, who featured in the film Blood Lions, cautions fellow campaigners against complacency, and warns of a new threat.

“While canned hunting operators have seen the bottom drop out of the US market as a result of the US government’s ban on captive lion trophies, the operators have started extensive marketing campaigns in other foreign markets, like Eastern Europe, Russia, and China.  With our government’s look east policy firmly entrenched, we expect the industry to solicit clients from these countries to fill the void left by American hunters.

“The next phase of the the Blood Lions campaign is shifting into gear, and we will soon be visible in Asia” Michler added.

* Simon Bloch is a freelance environmental journalist based in Durban.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.