World Lion Day: No reason to celebrate in South Africa
Iga Motylska
9th August 2020

World Lion Day (10 August) celebrates one of South Africa’s most iconic species, yet despite dwindling wild lion numbers, they are also threatened by a burgeoning trade sanctioned by the Department for Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF).

Since the Cook Report exposed South Africa’s canned lion hunting industry in 1997, captive lion numbers have steadily increased. Around 8 000 to 12 000 captive-bred lions are kept in more than 360 lion breeding facilities across the country. Many of these operate under expired permits while being non-compliant with the Animals Protection Act (APA) or the Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) Regulations.

The Blood Lions documentary (2015) and Unfair Game book (2020) both exposed how these breeding facilities frequently prioritise profit over welfare. Lions often lack the most basic welfare requirements, such as sufficient food and water, adequate living space and medical care. Without adequate legislation or welfare audits to hold facilities accountable, there’s little incentive to maintain healthy lions, especially when their value is found in their skeletons.

“We need norms and standards which are aligned to APA and that speak to the absolute best welfare practices available,” says Douglas Wolhuter, National Senior Inspector and Manager of the NSPCA Wildlife Protection Unit.

These commercial facilities farm lions for petting parks and walking safaris which feed into the “canned” (captive) hunting industry and bone trade. Others punt fraudulent voluntourism initiatives that parade as conservation projects or sell lions into the legal live wildlife trade.

South Africa has exported around 7 000 lion skeletons between 2008-17, mostly to South East Asia for use in fake tiger bone wine and traditional medicine. DEFF sanctioned an annual CITES export quota of 800 lion skeletons in 2017. While this number increased to 1 500 the following year, it was reduced to 800 skeletons in 2018 thanks to NSPCA’s successful litigation, wherein Judge Kollapen ruled that all government departments are legally obligated to consider animal welfare in the setting of a  lion bone quota. No Quota has yet been set for 2020 as the quotas for 2019/20 have been suspended.

Various animal welfare organizations have urged DEFF to permanently ban the export of lion skeletons, parts and derivatives and destroy stockpiles. DEFF claims the quota poses a low-to-moderate but non-detrimental risk to South Africa’s wild lions.

Evidence shows an increase in demand since South Africa started exporting lion bones, leading to increased poaching incidents in South Africa and neighbouring countries.

Captive lions far outnumber the estimated 3 490 that are found in the wild across South Africa. The breeding industry does not contribute towards lion conservation in the wild. No captive-bred lions have been fully rehabilitated back into the wild.

In August 2018, after a Colloquium on Captive Lion Breeding for Hunting in South Africa, Parliament resolved that legislation should be introduced with a view to ending captive lion breeding in the country. Late 2019, Minister Barbara Creecy established a High-Level Panel (HLP) to review policies, legislation, and management of the breeding, hunting, trade, and handling of Lions, elephants, rhinos, and leopards.

The responsibility for the welfare of captive wildlife straddles the mandates of the DEFF and the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD). In turn, DALRRD passes the responsibility to provincial authorities, which pass it on to the NSPCA. While the NSPCA attempts to enforce these regulations through nationwide inspections, it is severely under-resourced and doesn’t receive any government funding, while the National Lottery Commission stopped funding animal welfare in 2017

“There are over 8 000 wildlife facilities in South Africa. It’s clear that without funding to secure inspectors, vehicles and accommodation, we are in a precarious position. We need the support of the public to make a difference to animals in South Africa,” says Wolhuter.

With the deadline of November 2020 fast approaching, the HLP has received strong criticism of bias for favouring commercial interests, in the form of predator breeders, trophy hunters, and wildlife trade supporters. It lacks representation from security, wildlife trafficking, ecologists, animal welfare, epidemiologists, environmental lawyers and ecotourism representatives.

The HLP’s sole wildlife welfare specialist, Karen Trendler,  resigned for personal reasons and Aadila Agjee, an environmental lawyer, who was appointed but never served have not been replaced.

Este Kotze, the NSPCA’s deputy CEO, declined her appointment after being invited as the HLP’s preliminary report had already been submitted. Audrey Delsink, of Humane Society International-Africa’s wildlife division, also declined to cite an imbalance of representatives favoring those with direct financial interests in the panel’s outcome, as did Environmental Lawyer Cormac Cullinan stating “In my view, the terms of reference and the composition of the panel do not reflect an even-handed approach and make it inevitable that the panel will advise you to intensify the commercial use of wildlife and wildlife body parts.

While there are no national norms and standards for the management, handling, breeding, hunting and trade of wildlife in captivity, “the NSPCA is working on a Memorandum of Understanding with the DEFF to improve working relationships and to ensure that wildlife welfare is paramount,” continues Wolhuter.

While the Animal Improvement Act (AIA) was amended in May 2019, it made no provisions for welfare in terms of captive breeding, keeping, transportation and slaughter. Proposed amendments to the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act (NEMBA) have been tabled, but only contain an enabling provision that allows the minister to regulate wildlife well-being. The revised TOPS regulations are awaiting final approval from the National Council of Provinces as of February 2020. Since DALRRD drafted the new Animal Welfare Bill in November 2019 to replace the APA and the Performing Animals Act, it’s awaiting the go-ahead from the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation to conduct the required socio-economic impact assessment.

The NSPCA made its submission to the HLP Advisory Committee on 15 June 2020. The Portfolio Committee on Environment, Forestry and Fisheries will receive presentations from DEFF and DALRRD on Wildlife Welfare Legislation and amendments to the Meat Safety Act on 25 August 2020. Now we wait and see.

Cuthbert Ncube from the African Tourism Board pointed out the responsibility the travel and tourism industry has in protecting lions and other wildlife.

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