Johannesburg - Karen Trendler first realised the horrific welfare implications of South Africa’s captive lion industry 15 years ago when two critically ill lion cubs were dumped on her.
At the time, she was running a wildlife rehabilitation centre, Wildcare which she started in the 1980s from her kitchen. It was largely devoted to healing injured small mammals and birds.
“We were wet behind the ears (with lions),” laughs Trendler, gently. “The two cubs had been taken away from their mother. It was the start of the lion petting industry in South Africa.
“They had the most horrific nutritional deficiencies, were suffering from convulsions and had weak bones. I just remember looking at the cubs thinking: ‘This is unbelievable’.”
In the intervening years, Trendler and her team would tend to more sickly lions from captive facilities and would form part of an NGO coalition that petitioned the government to tackle the welfare crisis facing lions in captivity.
“We put together a welfare report with recommendations and costing for sanctuaries,” she recalls.
“We met the Department of Environmental Affairs and raised our concerns about the lion bone trade, which was starting and warning how it could open the floodgates. We offered to euthanise lions that couldn’t go into sanctuaries and that we’d take all the flack for it. The government laughed off our concerns about welfare and the lion bone industry.”
But this week, the National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA), where Trendler heads the wildlife trade and trafficking portfolio, won a landmark court case against the Minister of Environmental Affairs and the South African Predators Association (SAPA), over controversial lion bone quotas for 2017 and last year, which the NSPCA argued ignored welfare considerations.
On Tuesday, the high court in Pretoria ruled that the 2017 quota for 800 lion skeletons and last year's quota for 1500 skeletons, both of which have been exported, were illegal and unconstitutional, and that due process was not followed in how these quotas were set.
Judge Jody Kollapen found the DEA, now the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) and the former minister, had erred when they disregarded the welfare of captive wild animals.
“It is inconceivable that the state could have ignored welfare considerations of lions in captivity in setting the annual export quota,” Judge Kollapen’s judgment read.
“What in essence occurs is that the quota is a signalling to the world at large and the captive lion industry in particular that the state will allow exports in a determined quantity of lion bone. It cannot be correct to assert that such signalling can occur at the same time as indicating to the world at large and to the same industry that the manner in which lions in captivity are kept will remain an irrelevant consideration in how the quota is set.”
This is “illogical , irrational and against the spirit of Section 24 and how our courts have included animal welfare concerns in the interpretation of Section 24”.
Welfare consideration and animal conservation together reflect intertwined values, Kollapen said.
“Even if they are ultimately bred for trophy hunting and for commercial purposes, their suffering, the conditions under which they are kept and the like remain a matter of public concern and are inextricably linked to how we instil respect for animals and the environment of which lions in captivity are an integral part of.
“Certainly in South Africa, their numbers are double those of lions in the wild and it would constitute a contradiction if we are to suggest that different standards and considerations should apply to our treatment of lions (depending on whether they were in the wild or in captivity).”
The captive lion industry, Kollapen said, “is said to generate about R500 million” and “exists mainly in South Africa”. Around 8000 captive lions are housed in more than 200 facilities.
South Africa, too, is the world’s largest legal exporter of lion bones and skeletons, sold in Asia as tiger bone wine or cake.
“It still hasn’t quite set in,” says Trendler of the judgment. “It’s been two years and such an intensive complicated case. We took this matter to court because we didn’t have an option.
“We fought for so many years, not just the NSPCA, but so many groups, who begged, pleaded and challenged this industry but have only seen the cruelty increase.”
She salutes the NSPCA and the “incredible” legal team, who took on the case on a pro bono basis.
“This is a precedent-setting judgement, which has much broader implications beyond the lion bone trade. The government cannot just say our policy is that you can intensively breed rhino, or intensively breed lion and that welfare doesn’t matter.”
Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, a doctoral candidate at Oxford University who has studied the lion bone trade, says South Africa's captive lion breeding industry, along with other elements of South Africa’s wildlife ranching industry, is a fairly new and rapidly evolving enterprise.
“So, it’s unsurprising that our government has struggled to keep up with regulating it ... There seems to be ample evidence that publicly acceptable animal welfare standards have been lacking within this sub-sector of the industry, albeit not necessarily with all operations.”
The setting and enforcement of appropriate welfare standards for the industry is an important, necessary step that should be welcomed. But whether the outcome of the judgment will improve the welfare of South Africa’s captive lions remains to be seen, he says.
“The most obvious advantage of this judgment (in theory) is that it puts pressure on the government, lion breeders and the NSPCA to work collaboratively to establish an appropriate set of certified standards as a prerequisite for any future legal exports of lion body parts. "If executed properly, such a measure should serve to reward breeders and sellers who adhere to such high welfare standards with access to the export quota and the consequent financial gains from skeleton sales,” says ’t Sas-Rolfes.
“This ought to provide a positive incentive to ensure that appropriate industry standards are thus established and maintained.”
But there is a potential downside. “If such collaboration and agreement over (and proper implementation of) an adequate system is not easily achieved, then the issuance of the quota might be severely delayed or even thwarted, in which case there is a risk that matters will be made worse and that we could see a rise in illegal activity, while the bona fide legally compliant breeders with high welfare standards are effectively penalised.
"I would argue that There is at least some risk that if the market expects no further legal exports, we could see an increase in (underground) speculative investment in big cat body parts (much as we see with ivory and rhino horn), which could drive up their prices, thereby creating greater incentives for criminals and so on.”
He is concerned about the government’s ability to deal with enforcement challenges.
“Their capacity appears severely stretched. Even if an agreement over welfare standards can be reached, this development is likely to raise the aggregate costs of ‘lion farming’ for body parts, meaning that some of the operators are going to face further financial pressure, possibly compromising their ability to feed and take care of their animals.
It seems inevitable that the industry is going to downsize, and one can only hope that the way in which this happens is humane for the animals. I trust the parties campaigning for tighter restrictions on the industry have taken this into account.”
In August 2017, ’t Sas-Rolfes and Dr Vivienne Williams of Wits University launched a national captive lion survey, which found that the captive lion industry was in an “economically unstable state” after the 2016 US lion trophy import suspension and the implementation of the government’s 800 lion skeleton export quota in 2017.
The US intervention “inadvertently spawned” a new lucrative direct export market for whole skeletons of euthanised lions, they wrote in their paper: Born Captive: A survey of the lion breeding, keeping and hunting industries in SA”, published in the scientific journal Plos One.
“The survey results clearly illustrate the impact of a USA suspension on trophy imports from captive-bred South African lions, which affected 82% of respondents and economically destabilised the industry.
“Respondents are adapting in various ways, with many euthanising lions and becoming increasingly reliant on income from skeleton export sales.
"With rising consumer demand for body parts, notably skulls, the export quota presents a further challenge to the industry, regulators and conservationists, with 52% of respondents indicating they would adapt by seeking ‘alternative markets’ for lion bones if the allocation restricted business.”
Aadila Agjee, an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights, says of the court's ruling: “Our courts are repeatedly recognising the public concern for the welfare of wild animals, and confirming the view that the regulation of the welfare of wild animals is inextricable from constitutional conservation imperatives.
“This judgment confirms the well-being of wild animals in captivity requires the same protection as the well-being of those in the wild. We call on the DEFF and Agriculture, Rural Development and Land Reform (DARDLR) to expedite legislation and enforcement to ensure the equitable treatment of captive wild animals.”
Yolan Friedmann, the chief executive of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, terms the judgment a “turning point for a trajectory of decision-making in recent years that has treated our national wildlife heritage as a resource for pure commercial exploitation at industrial production levels”.
Blood Lions hopes the ruling will “spark an entirely new discussion around these horrific industries and the awarding of lion bone quotas”.
“The captive breeding of lions and subsequent sub-sector of lion bone trade has been allowed to explode into an unmanageable and under-regulated industry which doesn’t account for any animal welfare considerations,” says Fiona Miles of Four Paws Animal Welfare Foundation.
Deon Swart, the chief executive of SAPA, says it is studying the judgement. “We accept it and will see what impact it has on the industry.”
Chris Mercer, of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting, says many lions are kept in appalling conditions in South Africa.
“The lion bone trade wants bones so a skeletal lion is much more profitable than a healthy animal who needs to be fed better to remain healthy Conservation officials in South Africa are so incompetent and dysfunctional that they falsify and unlawfully narrow their own mandate to avoid upsetting their masters in the hunting industry.
“My guess is this judgement will be honoured more in the breach than in the observance by South African government conservation structures. They will continue to support lion farming and the export of lion bones and rely on the fact that anyone challenging their thumbsuck quotas will have to take them to the high court.”