Captive-bred lions have been temporarily excluded from new rules aimed at controlling the hunting of large predators in South Africa, drawing an outcry from conservation groups.
This is pending legal action against some of the regulations, which aim to rein in unethical practices like “canned” hunting, brought by the SA Predator Breeders’ Association against the national Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism.
Last week, Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk announced “watertight” amendments to the Threatened or Protected Species (Tops) regulations covering large predators and rhino, to come into force on February 1.
But Van Schalkwyk stated: “The definition for listed large predators has, however, been changed to temporarily exclude lion from the definition while the court case is pending”.
Lion breeders and hunters hope their case in the Bloemfontein high court, likely to be heard around April, will throw out the regulations affecting lions.
The regulations, which were supposed to come into effect on June 1 this year but were delayed due to implementation concerns by provincial authorities, impose tougher restrictions on the keeping, breeding and hunting of large predators. This is to stop “environmental thugs” involved in canned hunting and unethical breeding, according to Van Schalkwyk.
While not outlawing “canned” hunting entirely, the regulations decree that captive-bred predators – mostly lions – which are often hand-reared, cannot be hunted unless they have been free-roaming in an “extensive wildlife system” and have caught their own prey for at least two years.
But lion breeders and hunters have attacked this two-year “wilding” period, arguing there is no scientific basis for it.
Conservationists, meanwhile, argue the two-year delay merely serves to allow a lion cub to grow to the ideal trophy size; saying the regulations inclusion of a “fair chase” principle in the hunt is a sham, and that fenced-in lions have no chance of escape from a hunter’s bullet.
Louise Joubert, the founder trustee of the SanWild Wildlife Trust in Limpopo, was “shocked” that lions had been temporarily left out of the regulations.
Van Schalkwyk, she claimed, was being “intimidated” by the lion hunting fraternity.
“Instead of the minister saying to them: ‘You guys started up outside the parameters of the laws; we are now shutting you down; the broader public has said we must rid SA of this horrible practice; take me to court if you want’; he didn’t do that.
“What is even more disappointing is the national and provincial departments haven’t stopped the expansion of this industry. ‘Canned’ hunting doubled in 2007.
“If the government had serious intent to stop the industry, it would have started taking account of the breeding projects. It would have shut down illegal projects and curbed breeding within the existing parameters of the law, specifically for the hundreds of lions being held illegally without permits. But the government has done nothing.”
The wildlife industry was at a “bloody crossroads”, said Joubert. “Our wildlife is under growing pressure from people who want to farm wild animals like battery chickens. The manner in which lions are produced is morally unacceptable.”
Local lion-hunting operations, faced with the regulations, were now trying to set up their operations in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, Joubert said.
“Botswana has banned the breeding of lions for hunting outright, but I don’t have too much hope it will happen here.”
Van Schalkwyk’s department said that despite their temporary exemption from the list of large predators, lions were still listed as protected.
“Permits will still be needed for lions, and lion farmers need to register their breeding operations. The regulations will come into effect on February 1. All breeding operations not registered within nine months will be shut down.”
Carel van Heerden, the chairperson of the SA Predator Breeders’ Association, said: “Everyone in the world from a hunting perspective wants to know what’s going to happen now. We’re not totally against the regulations; all we’re asking from the minister is to enable us, within the parameters of the regulations, to proceed with our business.”
Predator hunting, he said, was one of the major drawcards for wealthy overseas hunters to come to SA and was a multimillion-rand industry. A big male lion, he explained, could fetch over $25 000 (R170 000) on the hunting circuit “while anyone in South Africa can hunt a cheaper lioness at around R10 000”.
The eight-month delay in the legislation has led to a boom in lion hunting. “Everyone wants to hunt a lion in SA before they close down the business as it stands at the moment,” he said.
The two-year wilding period was unreasonable.
“Basically it’s a compromise to allow it (lion-hunting) within certain ethical conditions, but we’re of the opinion that if you make it for two years, it can be two months, one week, or even a day – the lion is still going to be killed.
“The lions have been bred in captivity for hunting purposes. The animal is going to die anyway. Either you are in favour of hunting any animal – and we feel hunting lions is the same as hunting anything else – or you disallow it.
“The people sitting with all these animals don’t want to be stuck with them for two years. The problem for breeders is that it costs a lot of money to feed them. I can’t foresee breeders keeping them for two years without hunting them. I just hope it doesn’t come to something as crude as euthanasia.”
Chris Mercer, founder of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting, accused the department of mounting an “elaborate public relations exercise designed to deflect public criticism from a ghastly and grotesque practice”.
“The regulations don’t even attempt to ban canned hunting, but at least they bring some kind of regulation into what is at the moment a free-for-all.
“All they do is to give some cover of ‘fair chase’ to half-tame lions. The whole thing is a sham. The scale of this industry is quite obscene. They are just butchering lions. SA is a hunting colony.”
Recently, an Afrikaans Sunday newspaper claimed that 1 000 lions were hunted in the North West – home to around 51 predator breeding farms – this year compared to 423 last year.
Lesego Mncwango, spokesperson for its department of agriculture, conservation and environment, said that if the lion regulations as they stood came into effect, over 1 000 jobs would be lost.
“A R600 million industry will be blown off the books by these regulations. We’re not against the regulations, we’re just grappling with the effect this will have on our province. You know what happened in the abalone scenario,” she said, referring to the outlawing of commercial abalone fishing which threatens to destroy the livelihoods of poor fishing communities.
“These guys don’t just hunt. They visit lodges, spend money on commodities and pay licence fees. People should be fair to the breeders. Most consider themselves conservationists. We don’t have vast open spaces where animals can roam free anymore; this is not the 19th century. Perhaps there would be fewer lions were it not for captive breeding, which perpetuates the species in a controlled manner,” she suggested.