File image. (AP Photo/dpa, Marc Tirl)

Support for an online campaign calling for an end to the trade in lion bones has surged to a new record.

In an incredible leap of faith that speaks volumes for worldwide concern over the future and fate of African lions, the global online Avaaz advocacy campaign that calls for South Africa to end the trade, announced this week that its campaign support had virtually surged overnight, mushrooming to a record new high of more than a million signatures.

And now Avaaz, which has the backing of more than 27 million members globally, is asking for another tidal wave of support to reach 1.25 million voices.

This firmly puts the heat on the South African government to end the much reviled canned lion hunting industry and clarify its national position on conservation which currently allows the export of lion bones and carcasses to Asia where they are ground into powder as a cake mix.

The surge in momentum comes after the Johannesburg High Court ruled in Avaaz’s favour recently on controversial campaign posters.

The court ruling injected new life into the campaign, which collected more than 250 000 additional signatures in less than a week.

In August last year, Airports Company SA, worried about a political backlash that would turn into a public relations nightmare, demanded that the advertising arm of media giant Primedia pull down the Avaaz posters at OR Tambo Airport within 24 hours.

The posters show a lioness looking down the barrel of a gun with an image of a thoughtful President Jacob Zuma superimposed in the background.

The caption reads, “President Zuma Can Save Her Life”.

Underneath the poster the campaign sponsor’s name is printed with the message: “Our lions are being slaughtered to make bogus sex potions for Asia. Will President Zuma save them? Urge him to stop the deadly trade now.”

Avaaz executive director Ricken Patel fired back saying Acsa’s decision to remove the posters appeared to be politically motivated “and goes against the most central of free speech rights”.

“Ripping down these ads smacks of censorship and silences the voices of 700 000 people who care deeply about saving South Africa’s lions.

“Instead of worrying about bad PR at the baggage carousel, government authorities should be acting to stop the brutal trade in lion bones,” Patel said.

Avaaz filed a legal challenge arguing that Acsa violated the constitution’s guarantee of freedom of expression when it censored the ads, as well as the constitution’s guarantee of fair administrative process.

Judge Frank Bashall ruled that Acsa had violated the public’s constitutional right to freedom of expression, and prejudiced Avaaz by denying them fair administrative procedure.

 

Ian Bassin campaign director for Avaaz, welcomed the decision.

“Acsa has kept these posters down long enough, while the fate of South Africa’s lions is hanging in the balance.

“They tried to exercise the kind of censorship that has no place in democracies, and it backfired, as it always does when you attempt censorship.”

Acsa studied the court ruling for a week before taking the decision not to oppose the court’s order to reinstate the posters.

Spokeswoman Unathi Batyashe-Fillis said: “We certainly regret how the matter was handled in as far as not having had clear standards to guide not only our concessionaires, but more importantly our employees as well, when it came to evaluating potentially objectionable/offensive or factually incorrect advertising content without necessarily infringing upon rights to free speech.

“We will certainly ensure that the court order is adhered to and that the posters, as per the verdict, are reinstated.

“Acsa will abide by the decision of the court regarding the removal of the anti-lion trade campaign posters in August 2012 from its arrival terminal at OR Tambo International Airport.

“In line with the ruling, the company will allow Avaaz to place the anti-lion trade campaign posters for the remainder of the contract period,” she added.

The company says it is currently reviewing its advertising content approval processes and procedures to prevent such incidences from reoccurring.

Primedia did not oppose the Avaaz court action, and Acsa was ordered to pay legal costs.

 

The rhino poaching crisis, also orchestrated by Asian organised crime syndicates who sell the horns as a cure-all potion, mainly in China and Vietnam, has plunged South African wildlife conservation into the abyss with over 800 rhino slaughtered so far in 2013. - Sunday Independent