Our Burning Planet

Our Burning Planet: OP-ED

Conservation’s Mariana Trench: Report on wildlife trade a seminal moment in South Africa’s history

Conservation’s Mariana Trench: Report on wildlife trade a seminal moment in South Africa’s history
A Lion is seen at the Aquila private game reserve in Touws River, some 200 km east of Cape Town, South Africa, 01 July 2010. (Photo: EPA/HELMUT FOHRINGER)

For those familiar with the conservation landscape in southern Africa, the significance of Barbara Creecy’s announcement needs little explanation. But for those who aren’t, suffice it to say there are two main wildlife issues around which almost everything revolves in South Africa – hunting and trade. Unfortunately, the divide is so deep that it makes the Mariana Trench seem like a ditch.

Peter Borchert is the founder and publisher of Africa Geographic magazine, and has authored five natural history books, and published and edited in excess of 500 magazines and books. He is the honorary chairperson and editor-in-chief of the Shannon Elizabeth Foundation, which publishes www.rhinoreview.org, where this article first appeared. He is also co-host of South Africa’s number one-rated nature podcast, www.artofconservation.com

Mid-morning on Sunday, 2 May 2021, I sat glued to my computer screen, and I certainly wasn’t alone, for the day was to prove a seminal moment in South Africa’s long and mostly illustrious wildlife conservation history. The occasion was the public release of Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Barbara Creecy’s long-awaited review of the policies, laws and practices around the breeding, hunting, management, trade and handling of four iconic species – elephants, rhinos, lions and leopards. 

It didn’t disappoint. As Don Pinnock writing in Daily Maverick aptly observed: “In a seismic shift that will send shock waves through many areas of SA’s wildlife industry, the Cabinet has endorsed a report calling for the end of lion farming, captive lion hunting, cub-petting and the commercial farming of rhinos.”

Comment was quick to follow. Ian Michler, an investigative journalist, a long-time campaigner against predator breeding, and a key member of the Blood Lions film team, was deeply encouraged by the panel’s findings. “After almost 25 years of opposing the horrors of captive predator breeding, mostly without success, this shift in thinking is significant,” he said. “The minister seems sincere, which means it is also an incredible opportunity to work with the department to rid the region of these practices forever. Blood Lions congratulates her, the ministry, the high-level panel and all those who made submissions calling for an end to the industry.”

Not everybody was happy, however. At the end of her presentation, Creecy was challenged by a very angry representative of the pro-trade, pro-hunting lobby which claimed that “many of these recommendations will not lead to the saviour of our species. They will lead to the destruction and the eradication of our species. They will pave the way to the extinction of our species. We need to change the way we do business. And don’t talk to us as being partners if we are not treated as partners, but the majority of people who own and pay for the protection of the rhino are the people who want a pro-trade agreement with CITES.”

Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Barbara Creecy. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Thulani Mbele)

For those familiar with the conservation landscape in this part of the world, the significance of this seminal report needs little explanation. But for those who aren’t, suffice it to say there are two main wildlife issues around which almost everything revolves in South Africa – hunting and trade. Unfortunately, the divide is so deep that it makes the Mariana Trench seem like a ditch. On the one side sit the protagonists of trade and hunting, and on the other sit those against. To be fair, there are a few conservationists who accept that both sides make some good points, but apart from these minor concessions, the opposing views are cemented into place with dogma-like conviction.

The pro-consumptive wildlife stance has dominated for many decades – unsurprisingly so, given the extent of land and wildlife stock in private ownership in South Africa. It is a powerful lobby – about 9,000 wildlife ranches sprawl across about 207,199 square kilometres of the country’s real estate, while the hunting industry is worth close to $1-billion to the national economy. Of this, trophy hunting contributed only about $131-million in terms of accommodation, game hunted and, in some cases, also the trophy handling and processing. The major slice of hunting revenue derives from mainly local “biltong hunters” who spend about $800-million a year on their pastime.

The lobby is no less powerful in neighbouring countries, particularly Namibia and Zimbabwe. This southern African nexus has not only supported hunting over the years but has also led impassioned delegations to argue the case for the legal trade of ivory and rhino horn, particularly at conferences of the signatories of CITES, the international treaty governing trade in endangered flora and fauna. However, the response from the rest of the world to these initiatives has by and large been unsympathetic. Increasingly, the zeitgeist (particularly in the West) is running against blood sports, trade and other practices perceived as inappropriate in today’s world. 

This is particularly true in the case of a lion-breeding industry that has been allowed to flourish in recent times and operates as nothing but lion factories to supply stock into the canned lion sector of the trophy hunting industry. While South Africa might have enjoyed some sneaking international sympathy for rhino horn farming and trade, there has been none for this form of “sustainable use” from any quarter except for those (mainly American) hunters intent on having a stuffed lion to hang proudly in their homes.

Even in South Africa, the mood has swung significantly, much to the chagrin of the pro-hunting/pro-trade community, and has led to intensely vitriolic and unnecessarily personal attacks (from both sides, it must be said). The energy expended in these open displays of sectarianism has been costly and enormously time consuming, and has done little to enhance South Africa’s conservation reputation globally. But government concerns regarding damage to the country’s putative status as an exemplar of good practice in conservation and ecotravel seem to have finally prompted action.

In this regard, relentless pressure has been brought to bear on Creecy’s ministry. This has been led by individuals, the ecotourism industry, local and international NGOs and organisations such as Blood Lions, whose telling documentary of the same name has done so much to expose the sickening, cruel underbelly of the industry.

At Sunday’s press conference, Creecy referred directly to ending “certain inhumane and irresponsible practices that greatly harm the reputation of South Africa and the position of South Africa as a leader in conservation”. There could be no mistaking that her finger was pointing directly at the lion-breeding industry as she reiterated the panel’s view that it “poses risks to the sustainability of wild lion conservation resulting from the negative impact on ecotourism, which funds lion conservation and conservation more broadly, the negative impact on the authentic wild hunting industry, and the risk that trade in lion parts poses to stimulating poaching and illegal trade”. 

She has already instructed her department to take the necessary actions for South Africa to end the practice, not breed or keep lions in captivity, or use captive lions or their derivatives commercially. This effectively puts an end to canned hunting and the current legal and lucrative practice of killing captive-bred lions and shipping their skeletons to Asia, where they are often falsely advertised and used as a substitute for tiger parts.

Besides those deeply involved in the industry, few will shed tears over this hard line taken against predator breeding and canned hunting. However, regarding rhino conservation, Creecy will undoubtedly feel the wrath of breeders and pro-traders in the coming weeks and months. As mentioned earlier, they will have been less than overjoyed by her decision not to make proposals to CITES for further trade in these species until additional findings are at hand and there is a global consensus for legal international trade in horn. She made it clear that, since South Africa is responsible for the most significant component of the global rhino population, the country intends to play a global leadership role in these deliberations. In respect of elephants, she also made it clear that South Africa supports the current CITES position of no trade and that the country would seek to play its part in finding an African consensus on ivory.

The report acknowledged the significant contribution of the private conservation sector and gave assurance of continued dialogue with private rhino owners. However, they will take scant comfort from this, given the panel’s view that captive facilities for the five iconic species should be reviewed, with a view to phasing them out, that their domestication and intensive and selective breeding should be prevented and restricted in legislation and regulation, and that special consideration should be given to mechanisms to rewild captive rhino from breeding facilities.

Creecy, her ministry, the panel, and all who made submissions for consideration are to be congratulated on their thorough and detailed application to a highly complex set of issues.

The report focuses heavily on providing policy certainty and reducing bureaucracy in its overall vision of “secured, restored and rewilded natural landscapes with thriving populations of elephant, lion, rhino and leopard, as indicators for a vibrant, responsible, inclusive, transformed and sustainable wildlife sector. The ongoing intention is to place communities living with wildlife at the centre of conservation thinking and make sure they benefit appropriately, something that to date has received little attention.”

Accordingly, there will be a renewed focus on transforming the ownership and management of the commercial wildlife economy, particularly in the ecotourism and “authentic hunting” sectors. 

Creecy was at pains to point out that the panel’s recommendations are not against the hunting industry. On the contrary, she argued, ceasing to hunt captive lions is actually in the interests of the authentic wild hunting industry.

Quite what is meant by authentic is uncertain, but the panel clearly tried to avoid loaded terms such as “ethical hunting” and the concept of “fair chase”. Nevertheless, these definitions will have to be teased out and debated to avoid future confusion and legal loopholes. Meanwhile, South Africa and its neighbouring trophy hunt-hosting nations will continue to face pressure to end all trophy hunting once and for all. I certainly abhor the practice and find it impossible to see anything ethical or fair in it. For anyone critical of my stance, I suggest they watch The New Yorker’s exposé of NRA executive Wayne LaPierre’s farcical attempt to shoot an elephant in Botswana in 2012. He fired botched shot after botched shot point-blank into the poor creature lying and groaning on the ground before his companion’s coup de grâce ended its misery. And then he was lauded by the whole entourage for his shooting prowess. I would dearly love to know what was really going through the mind of LaPierre’s professional hunting guide as he offered his congratulations. Ethical, fair chase, authentic? I think not. 

To be fair to the panel and the ministry, investigating the closure of all trophy hunting was not within their terms of reference. Nevertheless, for those who have long lobbied for the demise of the captive-lion breeding industry and all the inhumane practices it embodies, including canned trophy hunts, the report will be good news indeed. And so will the firm decision not to press CITES for a trade in rhino horn. 

Needless to say, the protagonists for legal rhino horn and ivory trades and members of the broader trophy hunting industry will be less enthusiastic. But, this said, all business thrives in an environment of stability and certainty and flounders under contradictory and imprecise rules. To this end, the report has certainly started down a road of providing policy certainty, and this should be appreciated by all stakeholders. 

Creecy, her ministry, the panel, and all who made submissions for consideration are to be congratulated on their thorough and detailed application to a highly complex set of issues. That said, the following and most important step will be to secure all these critical decisions in unambiguous policy and legislation.

As Don Pinnock comments: “The report now needs all the support it can get to make its way through Parliament and into law. Now is the time for former opponents, both in the NGO sector and the wildlife industry, to bury their hatchets and give it their support – and to do it for the sake of the beautiful wild animals with which South Africa is blessed.”

I hope that Pinnock’s appeal will be heard and that some hatchet-burying will take place. But sadly, I doubt it. The divisions are enduring, and all the old antagonisms and ill-feeling will continue to simmer in the dark depths of conservation’s Mariana Trench. DM

Absa OBP

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