An extraordinary cat and mouse game is being played out in Mpumalanga over the baiting and shooting of what could be a much-loved Umbabat Reserve pride male lion named Skye.
Since the commercial hunt of the lion on 7 June was discovered, attempts to establish full details from the reserve – which neighbours Kruger National Park – and the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) has been like squeezing blood out of a stone.
A day after the hunt, an anonymous source disclosed the name of the hunter, the hunt outfitter, the warden who accompanied them and the taxidermist to which the skin was taken. But being a single source without secondary verification, these names are being withheld by journalists.
I was denied permission to view the skin at Life Form Taxidermy in White River by Riaan De Lange of the MTPA which issued the hunting permit. He had instructed the taxidermist not to let anyone see it. His reasoning was that permission to view it was not his or the MTPA’s to give.
“The moment the client pulled the trigger,” he said, “the lion became his property. Consent [to view] can only be given by the client.” But he refused to name the hunter who could give that permission nor explain why MTPA should interfere in a matter between the client and the taxidermist by instructing the taxidermist not to allow sight of the skin.
Journalists have been told that it was ‘an old lion, older that eight years’ but nobody is being allowed to confirm this. Elise Tempelhof of Die Beeld rightly noted that if it was an old, single male, why the secrecy?
De Lange produced a photocopied image of the face of a dead lion that was clearly not Skye, but would not hand it over for further verification. He admitted that he “could show a picture of any dead lion”.
Skye had half the incisors on his lower jaw missing, a scar under his eye and a two very particular scars on his rump, but De Lange said the hunter only had this one picture to go on which did not show the lion’s teeth or the distinctive scars on his rump.
He said the hunting permit included permission to bait the lion, which is not normally allowed, but that it was done to allow the hunter to make sure he and the accompanying professional hunter could identify the correct lion to shoot.
But he added: “It’s pity we didn’t have more pictures,” De Lange told me. “If the hunter had other pictures, then there would be no excuse, but he only had this one, so one can’t blame him if he did shoot Skye.”
This vagueness flies in the face of the Greater Kruger National Park Hunting Protocol which states that ‘reasonable steps should be taken to gain knowledge of the males with pride affiliations and their ages, thereby ensuring that pride males under the age of 8 years are not selected.’ Skye was under eight, so if he was shot it would constitute a permit violation.
De Lange confirmed that the hunting permit was for a single male lion that was not part of a pride, so if the lion was Skye it constitutes another permit violation.
It is completely unclear how baiting and shooting a lion from a hide complies with these Hunting Protocols also state that “hunting should be conducted according to set rules to ensure that the spirit of fair chase is honoured” and “ A fair hunt may be defined as a competition in which the tracking and shooting skills of the hunter are pitched against the evasive abilities of the hunted.”
On the 27th May, before the hunt, the MTPA along with the Brian Haveman, the Umbabat warden, met with the Ingwelala Board to address their concerns that the lion targeted could be Skye. As a pride male, there were fears that his offspring would be killed by a rival male lion should he be killed. The Board was assured they would make every effort not to hunt Skye.
However, the Skye has not been seen since the hunt and one of his cubs was found dead. The Ingwelala Board initially demanded sight of the trophy skin and was refused.
Amid subsequent fall-out over the issue, the chairman and vice-chairman resigned. The new chairman, in a letter to the Ingwelala members, has assured them that the matter will be fully investigated however it is unclear how this is being undertaken, resulting in extreme disatisfaction among members.
In another twist, Umbabat’s warden, Bryan Haveman, as well as the reserve’s vice chairman, Theo Van Wyk, have insisted the lion shot was not Skye but “an elderly male lion that often encroached into the north-eastern section of the Umbabat from the Kruger”.
This means that, even if the dead lion is not Skye, it could be a protected Kruger Park animal. As the senior authority along with the MTPA in the Greater Kruger Hunting Protocol, the Kruger Park has a responsibility to provide a safe haven for South Africa’s iconic wild animals since they are deemed a national heritage.
Dr Paul Funston of the Lion and Cheetah Programme and a director of Panthera, has written that “to be sustainable (achieve stable lion populations and maximum harvests), trophy hunting should harvest lions in southern Africa older than eight years.
The social nature of lions and common use of infanticide means that lion populations are greatly impacted by the loss of males. This may be going on in Umbabat right now.