SA’S LION CONSERVATION POLICIES ROOTED IN SCIENCE
SOUTH Africa has a long and well-established track record for lion conservation. The conservation group Panthera notes that we are one of only seven countries worldwide containing substantial lion populations in the wild.
All South Africans should be assured that our lion conservation policies are not only backed up by scientific evidence, but remain firmly in line with all the prescripts of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
We welcome the initiative by the Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Environmental Affairs (PCEA) in convening a colloquium to facilitate discussion around various issues in the lion conservation space. The two-day colloquium kicked off in Cape Town yesterday (August 21 2018) and is open to the public.
The discussion is both timely and critical; and will present an opportunity for the actors in the conservation sector, government, the private sector, NGOs and others to deliberate on matters of captive breeding, conservation, lion hunting, and associated issues of trade in lion specimens.
Regrettably, the current public discourse is awash with heavily slanted and often misrepresented information. This is harmful to government’s ongoing conservation efforts, and also to those of organisations in the wildlife and game industry that are working with us to ensure the survival of lion species in the wild.
This collaborative conservation approach, underpinned by sustainable use principles, has seen the resurgence of multiple species being brought back from near extinction. These include the Black Rhino, Cape Mountain Zebra, Bontebok, Red Hartebeest, Black Wildebeest and African Hunting Dog.
As always, the starting point on any discussion around lion conservation should be scientific, and not anecdotal.
STABLE LION POPULATION
The African lion, Panthera Leo, an indigenous species – is not facing extinction, or “an unprecedented crisis” from either hunting, captive breeding or the trade in lion bone in South Africa.
It is currently listed as threatened (sub-category: Vulnerable) in terms of the National Environment Management Biodiversity Act (NEMBA). A 2016 regional Red List assessment noted that lions in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland are of least concern – thus confirming the stability of the population.
The process of Non-Detrimental findings is done to ascertain the level of threat to the survival of species in the wild.
According to the Non-Detriment Finding (NDF) for Panthera Leo made by the Scientific Authority and gazetted this year, there are 3 500 African lions in the wild in South Africa.
Eighty-three percent of South Africa’s lions in the wild are in reserves and national parks, primarily the Kruger National Park, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park. The remainder of the national wild population – approximately 500 individuals – are found in 45 small reserves where lions have been re-introduced and are managed.
The NDF found there are presently no major threats to the wild lion populations within South Africa. Importantly, recent quantitative data suggests that our lion populations are stable to increasing.
LION HUNTING All activities involving the African lion, including hunting, possession and trade are regulated through a permit system; and our conservation policies are supported by solid scientific evidence. We also employ adaptive management strategies within certain contexts.
Hunting is a legal and well-regulated activity – and is subject to a permit being issued in terms of the NEMBA as well as in terms of provincial conservation legislation where required. It is part of South Africa’s policy on sustainable utilisation of natural resources – a principle supported by multilateral environmental agreements such as CITES and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
South Africa’s national and provincial governments have been instrumental in promoting the growth of the hunting industry.
The industry is valued at around R6.2 billion and with its value chain, is a source of foreign exchange and job creation, especially in rural areas.
The legal, well-regulated hunting industry should not be put into the same category as the actions of unscrupulous operators who operate on the periphery.
CAPTIVE BREEDING OF LION
In addition to our wild lion and managed wild lion populations, there are currently approximately 7 000 lions that have been bred in captivity in around 260 captive breeding facilities in South Africa.
Lions are bred or kept in captive facilities for various reasons including but not limited to hunting, but also as a potential source for zoological purposes or possible future reintroductions strictly in line with conservation objectives.
The captive breeding of lions continues to be misrepresented – specifically that the captive breeding of lions leads to poaching.
To date however, the collaborative work between the Department’s Green Scorpions and the South African Police Service (SAPS) has not made a causal link.
The trophy hunting of captive-bred lions poses no threat to the wild lion population within South Africa, and it is thought that captive-bred lions may in fact serve as a buffer to potential threats to wild lions by being the primary source of hunting trophies and derived products.
It is necessary to reiterate once again that the concept of so-called “canned hunting” of lions does not exist in any of our South African conservation laws.
The hunting of captive bred lions is managed through the Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) Regulations.
The TOPS Regulations and various provincial ordinances lay out the conditions under which a lion may be hunted – and forbid activities such as hunting a lion in an enclosure or hunting a tranquilized lion.
CONDITIONS OF CAPTIVE BRED LIONS
As with any legal activity, there are those illicit operators who operate on the margins, and South Africa is doing everything within its means to stamp out activities that involve captive bred lions in a manner that violates our laws.
To address concerns of the public around the conditions in which lions are bred in captivity, a national compliance inspection of captive lion breeding facilities in South Africa has been instituted.
Phase one has been completed and the report is being prepared for submission and scrutiny by the Minister and to the provincial MECs for Environment.
It will include, inter alia, recommendations on matters of compliance.
The department also continues to engage with the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries relating to welfare matters to be addressed in terms of the Animal Protection Act, and any other regulatory tool for animal welfare management.
LION BONE TRADE South Africa supports the trade in legally acquired specimens such as hunting trophies and other lion specimens such as skeletons in line with our sustainable utilisation policies.
Such acquisition and trade follows a prescribed and well-regulated process.
The trade in lion bone goes as far back as 2008 and has been steadily increasing over the past decade primarily due to the demand for bone in some countries in Asia.
It is necessary to challenge the assertion that the export of lion skeletons will result in the extinction of African lions.
In 2016, TRAFFIC released a report called “Bones of Contention”, which analysed the risk associated with trade in bones derived from captive bred lions. They could find no evidence that South Africa’s legal bone export trade was negatively impacting wild lion populations.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) the key threats to lion populations are loss of habitat, reduction in available prey and conflict with humans. The few incidents of captive-bred and wild lions being poached appear to be linked to the poaching of lions for their body parts and not specifically for their bones.
The establishment of an annual quota for the export of lion bone follows a decision made at the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to CITES. Parties agreed at COP17 to a zero annual quota on the export of bones, bone pieces, bone products, claws, skeletons, skulls and teeth removed from the wild and traded for commercial purposes.
However, Parties agreed that South Africa should establish an annual export quota for bones derived from captive breeding facilities in South Africa.
SCIENCE-BASED DECISION MAKING
South Africa continues to generate knowledge on lion bone trade to assist in the management of this activity. To supplement the historical information on lion bone trade since both pre- and post- determination of the quota system, a research project has been commissioned involving the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) in collaboration with the University of the Witwatersrand, Oxford University and the University of Kent. Its preliminary findings and those of other regional and international studies will assist in the determination of export quotas.
The implementation of the quota for 2018 will be managed by the national and provincial conservation authorities, and strict processes must be followed in line with provincial and national legislation to ensure that no illegal trade in lion bones takes place.
Parties to COP17 further issued an instruction to the CITES Secretariat to undertake studies on legal and illegal trade in lions, including lion bones and other parts and derivatives. The purpose is to ascertain the origin and smuggling routes in collaboration with TRAFFIC and/or other relevant organisations.
In tandem, SANBI has commissioned a study into how the trade in captive-produced lion bone under an export quota system affects wild lion populations.
This study will further strengthen the evidence-base for the annual review of the export quota, in order to ensure that it is sustainable and not detrimental to wild populations.
TO BAN OR NOT TO BAN?
Various interest groups are pressuring South Africa to ban the captive breeding of lions as well as the trade in bones sourced from captive bred lions.
This is not a simple step and comes with its own set of challenges and consequences. Whatever decision is made requires trade-offs and comes with a set of outcomes.
If South Africa closes down lion breeding facilities and bans trade, more than 297 facilities with associated staff will be negatively affected.
In addition, an estimated 8 000 lions will suddenly have no value and there will be no income for food, veterinary care and shelter.
A trade ban only restricts the flow of legal products, so, with a potential ready supply of surplus lions and people whose main expertise is in the lion trade.
We have instituted bans before and with regards to trade ban in species. A trade ban only restricts the flow of legal products and in this case the result will be that ongoing demand will be supplied from illegal sources.
Our experience with the illegal trade in rhino horn has shown that poaching operations and illegal trade networks proliferate when there is no legally acquirable supply.
Removing a legal and regulated trade in bone and other parts threatens to increase the risk of poaching of wild lion in order to supply demand mainly from Asian markets.
The illegal killing of wild lions is presently at low levels in South Africa. A ban may stimulate an illegal trade in lion bones and other parts. South Africa has adopted a risk-averse approach that is considered to be in the best interests of the conservation of the species.
Measures introduced by the government to manage lion populations are a clear indication that we are focused on the protection and conservation of lion in South Africa.
In reaching any decisions regarding the hunting or trade of any species, the Department of Environmental Affairs and, ultimately the Minister, has to weigh up the advice from the Scientific Authority against the many trade-offs.
The basic principle is to ensure the survival of species in the wild.
There is also the need to balance conservation with trade dynamics and other socio-economic considerations. There is no one size fits all in dealing with the challenges, opportunities facing the management of not just lion, but a variety of species.
The well-regulated, sustainable utilisation of wildlife is an integral part of conservation, and South Africa is one of the world leaders in this regard.
All members of the public are encouraged to provide us with any information relating to illegal and prohibited activities that are carried out in contravention to our environmental laws. Non-compliance can be reported through the Environmental Crime Hotline: 0800 205 005