New government plan promotes canned lion hunting and trade
Andreas Wilson-Späth
May 18, 2015

The draft Biodiversity Management Plan for the Lion (Panthera Leo) in South Africa was published under the National Environmental Management Plan: Biodiversity Act by the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, on the 17th of April, ostensibly to bolster lion conservation. But a close reading of the text suggests that it is, at least in part, inspired by motives of financial profit and supposed economic growth.

While the desirability and conservation value of breeding lions in captivity, trophy hunting of captive-bred lions – referred to by critics as ‘canned lion hunting’ – and the trade in lions and lion body parts, including skins and bones, remain hotly contested issues among experts, conservationists and the general public, the South African government has taken a clear stance on the side of the lobby supporting captive lion breeding and trade.

The draft Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP) suggests that, because South Africa’s wild lion population is stable, the conservation status of the species should be downgraded from ‘Vulnerable’ to ‘Least Concern’. This flies in the face of efforts by conservationists and policymakers in other African countries who are pushing for lions to be listed as an ‘Endangered’ species on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and for them to be included in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and it would further facilitate the growth of legal exports of lions and lion body parts from South Africa under CITES regulations, thus stimulating worldwide trade and demand.

According to the document, neither captive lion breeding nor the trade in lions and lion body parts represent serious threats to the country’s wild lion population. It goes so far as suggesting that the captive lion ‘industry’ offers protection to wild lions, stating that they “are safe from the body parts trade for as long as captive-bred lions are the source of the derivatives”. Currently, exported body parts come almost exclusively (about 99%) from captive-bred animals.

The draft BMP actively encourages “well-managed captive populations”, promotes the “sustainable trade in lions and lion products” and identifies as a key target the economic opportunities that will supposedly come with a “growth in lion-based economic outputs [matching] national economic growth indicators”.

A set of materials is to be developed “so that the correct messages can be transferred to the public” with regards to the “educational and research opportunities” provided by captive lion facilities, bringing to mind the Japanese government’s longstanding public policy on whale hunting as an activity motivated by important scientific research.

The draft BMP raises a number of serious concerns:

– While it has received input from a variety of stakeholders it was shaped, at least in part, by groups who have a record of supporting captive wildlife farming and wildlife trade. The general public has had very limited opportunity to contribute to the development of this policy (the deadline for public comments was the 17th of May). It is unlikely that the majority of South Africans would support the proposals in the draft BMP if they knew that there are currently twice as many or more lions in captivity in the country (estimates range from 6000 to 8000) than in national parks and game reserves (3155, according to the draft BMP), that these animals are bred and kept in at least 200 private facilities (most of them in the North West Province and the Free State), that hundreds of them are shot by trophy hunters annually, and that hundreds of kilograms of lion bones and other body parts are exported every year, making South Africa the world’s biggest exporter of such products by far.

– It is widely acknowledged that captive lion facilities have very limited (if any) conservation value. Yet this industry has grown rapidly. If the current trend continues, conservationist Ian Michler forecasts that South Africa’s captive lion population may reach 15 000 animals by 2020, a massive increase from around 1000 in 1999. The proposed policy will only foster this growth.

– The draft BMP gives tacit support to canned lion hunting, albeit under a different name. While Minister Molewa recently told the parliamentary standing committee on Environmental Affairs that “South Africa does not allow canned lion hunting” and the hunting lobby prefers the term “captive hunting”, this amounts to little more than a debate over semantics. The fact is that large numbers of lions are bred in captivity, some of them are used for “petting” and “walking with lions” tourism, but many end up being released into an enclosure days before being killed by trophy hunters. Until the practice was discovered and stopped in 2012, South African authorities and hunting outfits exported hundreds of captive-bred lions every year as ‘wild’ lions under CITES regulations, creating the very misleading impression that hunters killed predominantly wild animals instead of engaging in canned hunts. In reality, an estimated 700 to 1000 lions are legally hunted in South Africa annually, but typically only a handful of them are wild lions. According to the Professional Hunters’ Association lion trophy hunters spend some R122.3 million in South Africa in 2013.

– There are currently no reliable figures on the illegal trade in lions and lion products in South Africa or elsewhere, and even the legal trade data presented in the draft BMP are confusing, open to interpretation and ”must be treated with caution”. There is also little control over lions a lion body parts being imported or smuggled from other, more vulnerable, wild populations in Africa, and subsequently re-exported from South Africa.

– Only four of South Africa’s wild lion populations (those in the Kruger National Park, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park and the Mapungubwe National Park) are relatively stable. Those in some 45 smaller parks and reserves are fragmented, considerably less sustainable and in need of constant management. None of them can be considered bulletproof in the long run.

– Africa’s lion population is under serious threat and has plummeted by 30 to 50% in recent decades. Promoting canned lion hunting and trade in lion body parts will increase demand and encourage poaching both here and in other African countries. The majority of canned lion hunters come from the USA, while most of South Africa’s lion product exports go to Lao, China and Vietnam. In China, evidence shows that government-backed tiger farming has led to a rise in demand and in poaching. Lion products, particularly bones, are increasingly replacing tiger products – both are valued for their supposed medical potency. The potential demand in Asia is immense – well beyond the capacity of potential supply. If we’ve learned anything from the ongoing rhino and elephant poaching epidemic it’s that even seemingly large, stable and well-protected wild populations can be decimated rapidly by poachers backed by sophisticated, well-equipped and well-funded international crime syndicates. The criminal infrastructure is already in place and there is little stopping these groups from adding lions to their inventory of contraband.

The bottom line is this: the draft BMP paves the way to an officially-sanctioned and wholesale commodification of lions and lion body parts by actively promoting a captive lion ‘industry’ built predominantly on profits made from canned hunting and the international trade in lion products.

Motivated by lucrative financial incentives rather than by a consideration of actual conservation value, such an approach should have no place in a national biodiversity management policy. Unless challenged, this policy represents a very serious threat to the long-term survival of wild lions in South Africa and the continent as a whole.