By Marleen Smith
Lion breeder Marius Prinsloo believes he and his fellow predator breeders are doing important conservation work by boosting animal numbers through captive breeding.
"Ten years ago there were almost no lions left in the Free State. Today, thanks to us, there are more than 500, of which ten are white lions.
"Some of our lions are eventually hunted, yes, but only after they have become too old to breed with and have to die anyway. Look at the way livestock is slaughtered at an abattoir N that is far more cruel than killing a lion in a camp of 1000 hectares with one shot."
Prinsloo is arguing the case for the defence of lion breeders accused by animal rights organisations of promoting the "cruelty" of so-called canned hunting.
Prinsloo and the journalists he is speaking to are following an official from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) from cage to cage as he inspects a large number of captive-bred big cats soon to be put on auction.
The auction, condemned over the previous two weeks by animal welfare groups, including the national council of the SPCA, is to take place on the farm belonging to Prinsloo's fellow predator breeder Shorty Durand.
Durand and Prinsloo are two of the four sellers. Prices ranging from R10 000 for cubs and R150 000 for breeding males are expected.
The SPCA inspector, Rick Allan, still has a bloodied mouth from a brief skirmish with two lion breeders a few minutes earlier at the entrance gate to the caged animals.
Prinsloo says he "completely fails" to understand why "the greens", including the SPCA, are targeting them for criticism.
"Just look at our animals. They are superior thanks to breeding. You don't easily see such beautiful lions in the wild. Look at their condition and the set-up. It was not cheap to put up these excellent facilities. We do it because we love our animals. We are proud of them. We would never maltreat them.
"The SPCA should rather look at things such as the way cattle and sheep are transported. Why victimise us?
"We do important work. For some people it is the ultimate experience to pick up these (hand-raised) cubs and to bottle-feed them.
"We are extremely frustrated with the way in which animal rights organisations are continuously attacking us in the media. We do not have the time or means to properly respond and state our case," Prinsloo says.
He and other proponents of the hunting of captive-bred predators believe that for every captive-bred animal hunted, a free-ranging one is saved the bullet. Prinsloo and Durand also believe their lions are not "canned" when they are hunted, because they are not tranquilised and they are hunted in a large area.
Current provincial environmental regulations require them to be hunted in a camp not smaller than 1000 hectares and to be set free in the camp at least six months before the hunt.
Allan says this makes no real difference: The hunted lions would still be "canned" as they were hand-raised and fed by the breeders, and have thus lost their fear of humans.
"In my experience lions that are captive-bred approach when they see a bakkie with humans appear, as they are used to getting their food from them."
According to the NSPCA's definition a lion is "canned" (a practice the organisation opposes) when it has no fair chance to escape the hunter's bullet. All captive-bred predators are thus, in the NSPCA's view, necessarily "canned" hunting prey.
The same argument does not apply to non-predator species that are captive bred, such as springbok, as they do not tend to develop the same bond with humans. This was mainly because captive-bred predators are at a far greater measure dependent on their human caretakers for food, Allan says.
Head of the Kalahari Raptor Centre, Chris Mercer, who says he represents the greater majority of animal welfare organisations (excluding the NSPCA) in South Africa, says a lion is canned when it cannot escape a hunter due to constraints, whether this was a physical fence or the mental barrier of habituation to humans.
Mercer, who intially tried to stop the Hoopstad auction by applying for an urgent interdict in the Bloemfontein High Court, says nature conservation authorities are "dismissing us as bunny huggers" because their officials do not have sufficient experience of animal behaviour.
"We base our definition of canned hunting on our experience of animal behaviour. A lion cannot become wild again in six months (the period before the hunt required for the lions to be freed in the hunting camp)."
Mercer says he will be filing court papers against environmental authorities in a bid to ban the captive breeding of predators and the hunting of captive-bred animals in South Africa. He dreams of the day when "we shall effectively kill the captive-breeding industry" by getting government to prohibit the export of trophies unless it can be proven that the hunted animals were wild.
Mercer, who reportedly received large foreign donations to finance this planned legal action, says the canned hunting industry would then be replaced by "canned tourism" as eco-tourism reserves such as his own near Kuruman in the Kalahari would buy up all captive-bred predators auctioned off.
For Free State nature conservationist Pierre de Villiers there is a less drastic solution.
He wants to ban the raising by hand of young cubs, so that they are raised by their mothers in the camps. This would make them less habituated to humans.
De Villiers fears that wild predator populations may be endangered in a world where all captive breeding is banned, especially of the hunting of wild animals should is allowed.
"Of course I do not like seeing these animals in cages and camps. But the reality is that the whole of South Africa is already a camp system, because millions need to be fed from the land. There is simply not enough space in South Africa for all animals to be free-ranging, as the case would be in an idyllic world. Thus we need to manage our existing system as best we can."
The hunting of captive-bred predators is permitted in three South African provinces, including the Free State, North West and Limpopo. It is a lucrative industry, with prices paid to the breeders ranging from around $10 000 to US12000 for lionesses, and around $15 000 (R136 707) to $18 000 (R164 046) for males.
Deputy director: trade and regulation of the national Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Doctor Pieter Botha, says prescribing guidelines is very difficult, as there is such a large difference of opinion regarding the definition of "canned hunting".
Botha says new guidelines from the national department are to be published early next year for public comment, with the aim of developing new regulations from them. These include that all animals should be hunted in a humane way, without being lured with sound, food or any other method, and without being tranquilised.
The new guidelines do not prescribe aspects such as the size of the hunting camp, as this would differ from habitat to habitat and from province to province. Provincial authorities will have to determine their own regulations on these, Botha says. - Sapa