Johannesburg - Global animal welfare organisation Four Paws have urged government to consider legislative changes to stop the commercial trade of all big cats in South Africa.
With South Africa remaining the biggest exporter of live big cats globally, and with widespread big cat farming taking place across the country, the global organisation is pressing for urgent legislative changes.
They want the SA Department for Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment to include all big cat species within the protective legislation it’s planning to implement for lions.
Most recently, Four Paws obtained shocking, unreleased footage, which has revealed widespread big cat farming across South Africa.
The footage documents and supports estimations as many as 12,000 lions, and an unknown number of tigers, are being intensively farmed in captive facilities across the country.
“While the Government’s Draft Policy Position to end the breeding and keeping of captive lions in South Africa for commercial purposes, is a hugely impactful step in the protection and conservation of the species, there is a pressing need to include all big cats within this protective legislation,” Fiona Miles, director of Four Paws in South Africa, told the Saturday Star this week.
“The farming and trading of live tigers is not monitored in South Africa because the species is exotic. The trade is little regulated or enforced. This has to change. Otherwise, the tiger breeding industry will only increase where the captive lion industry is being phased out – our footage serves as evidence that farmers are already manipulating this loophole.”
South Africa has become the largest exporter of big cats and their parts in the world over the past decade, and routes to China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand have seen thousands of animals and their parts leaving the country.
Between 2011 and 2020, 2 402 live lions and 359 tigers were exported from South Africa, with the majority of exports destined for Asia.
“It has been widely documented that South African captive lion populations are linked to Asian markets selling tiger products,” said Miles.
“As bones and other products cannot be easily distinguished between big cat species once the skin is removed, all bones of big cats could be used in traditional medicine. We are additionally urging the government to end the commercial trade in all big cat species and their parts.
“This is the only way to protect big cat species – without this, there is a chance that big cats will only exist behind bars. We sincerely hope the government will take on board these recommendations, and we’ll support them in our capacity to protect all big cat species.
“With new laws, we will protect South Africa's indigenous species, global populations of big cats, support enforcement efforts against illegal trade, and establish South Africa as a global conservation leader.”
In the footage obtained by Four Paws, large numbers of tigers are shown to be living in dirty, overcrowded enclosures.
“We, and other NGOs, have done lots of research into the state of the big cats and the facilities they are kept in,” said Miles.
“Unfortunately, it shows a troubling reality, that’s evidenced in our footage. The cats are kept overcrowded, small enclosures; cubs are torn away from their mothers within a few days to bring their mothers back into an intensive breeding cycle; unsafe working conditions for the farm workers; and a lack of basic animal welfare conditions, such as sufficient water, food, shelter, and medical care.
“These farms have been established solely to make a profit from these animals. Animal welfare is not a priority, and as a result, cubs born with birth defects and high zoonotic disease transmission are commonplace.”
“The footage clearly shows animals suffering from mange, with dirty water, being held in dirty, overcrowded and inadequate enclosures.”
She added that the cats are exploited just weeks after they’re born.
“Lions and tigers are exploited for profit at every stage of their lives. After as little as several days or a week after they are born, cubs are placed in petting enclosures for tourists to take photos, bottle feed and hand-rear the animals.
“Visitors are often told the cub was taken for the cub's safety, or the mother rejected the cub. The cubs are raised by paying volunteers – many of which are international and pay a premium for the opportunity.”
“At the juvenile stage, the cubs are likely to be used in "walk with" activities, for viewing purposes, or even in advertising/film industries. When animals become too dangerous to interact with, they lose their value as tourist attractions.
“The animals are then moved to holding facilities where they remain until they can reproduce; sold to other breeders or zoos; killed as trophies; or slaughtered for their bones to be used in traditional medicine.
“Many animals are shipped alive to Asian countries where we believe they enter wildlife trade networks on arrival.”
According to the cites Trade Database, over 5000 lion skeletons were exported from South Africa between 2008 and 2017.
2,784 skeletons were exported to the Lao People's Democratic Republic, while 2,466 skeletons were exported to Vietnam and 355 to Thailand.
1,895 live lions were also exported from South Africa, while another 8,855 trophy lions were exported globally too.
Miles said the demand for big cats continues to sky-rocket.
“Tiger bones have long been used in Asia in traditional medicine and are said to help a variety of ailments, including arthritis to impotence. The bones, skulls and other products are also extensively used as luxury items to display wealth.
“Around the mid-2000s, evidence emerged that lion bones were being substituted into Asia's traditional uses as well, though lion bones had not previously been used in traditional medicine. As the wild tiger population has been decimated in recent years and protective legislation for tigers elsewhere has increased, the demand for lion bones has grown exponentially.
“Once the skin is removed from lions, tigers, or other big cats, it’s exceedingly difficult to distinguish between the species. Therefore if we allow the trade in one species, others are left vulnerable to exploitation – this is exactly what we’ve seen in the case of lions.”
Miles believes The SA Department for Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment need to act with urgency to prevent the commercial breeding and export of lions and their parts.
“The SA Department for Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment should include all big cat species within the protective legislation it is planning to implement for lions.
“We are additionally urging the government to end the commercial trade in all big cat species and their parts.
“This is the only way to protect big cat species – without this, there is a chance that big cats will only exist behind bars. Of course, this most immediately threatens tigers and lions.”
The organisation has also started a petition to urge the government to end commercial trade in all big cat species in SA.
To sign the petition, visit https://bit.ly/break-the-vicious-cycle