Our Burning Planet

OUR BURNING PLANET

South Africa at a crossroads on wildlife welfare and sentience

(Photos: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook | EPA / Mohamed Messara | EPA / Gernot Hensel)

Two government approaches to our relationship with wild animals, two opposing views. One could chart the path to South Africa’s global leadership in wildlife conservation, the other to increased commodification.

First published in Daily Maverick 168 newspaper

The 17th-century mathematician and philosopher René Descartes said animals were automatons, so cruelty towards them was impossible. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham disagreed, saying that in our measure of animals we should not ask can they reason, nor can they talk, but can they suffer?

For more than 200 years Descartes’s views have prevailed. But in official narratives and court findings around the world, Bentham’s views are back on the table.

The recent report on the management of lions, elephants, rhinos and leopards by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries explicitly emphasises animal sentience:

“Animal welfare is science-based with a growing body of research and expertise that acknowledges that some animals are sentient beings that can experience pain and suffering. 

“As humans, living with, utilising and benefiting from animals, we have a social and moral responsibility to do so in a way that is humane and prevents suffering and ensures quality of life.”

In a minority Bloemfontein High Court judgment, Judge Cameron echoed Bentham, saying “the statutes recognise that animals are sentient beings that are capable of suffering and of experiencing pain… but have no voice of their own.”

These views are embedded in a 580-page Environment Department report, out this month, which is the result of almost two years of work by specialists following considerable public consultation. They have put the department on a collision course with the Department of Agriculture which administers the Animal Protection, Animal Improvement and Meat Safety acts, which are being renovated to encompass wild animals in captivity. 

Along the way, animal welfare has fallen into an abyss between the two departments. This was noted in a parliamentary resolution a year ago which called on them “present a clear programme of work on how they intend to address animal welfare and health issues…. which straddle the mandates of the two departments, outlining clear timeframes for achieving this.” 

Environment Minister Barbara Creecy told Parliament she had met Agriculture Minister Thoko Didiza to express her concerns and that a working group had been set up. Nothing has been heard of that meeting or the implementation of the resolution, let alone a clear programme of work.

Meanwhile, in 2019, the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development listed 32 wild animals, including lions, giraffes, white and black rhinos and cheetahs under the Animal Improvement Act, effectively rendering them farm animals subject to manipulation and consumption. 

This was done “in order to provide for the breeding, identification and utilisation of genetically superior animals in order to improve the [food] production and performance of animals in the interest of the Republic”. The Wildlife Animal Protection Forum South Africa warned that this “enables breeders to create genetically manipulated animals, in addition to breeding rarities and colour variants”. 

Shortly afterwards the Agriculture Department proposed an amendment to the Meat Safety Act to bring all wild animals under its jurisdiction during slaughter. The act controls how they may be “slaughtered for food for human and animal consumption”. 

In Parliament, that department’s director of veterinary public health, Dr Mphane Molefe, claimed the moves were to protect wild animals from cruelty, but did not elaborate on how this would be achieved. 

The Agriculture Department has also set up a working group of 10 vets from its provincial departments tasked with constructing an Animal Welfare Bill behind closed doors and without public participation. All members of the group are “insiders” within the department, which is deeply influenced by the agricultural industry and ideas of sustainable use.

The drafting process was approved in a 2019 Socioeconomic Assessment. Notably, in reply to a parliamentary question, Creecy said the drafting of the bill was “currently limited to structures within [the Agriculture Department]”. If this is so, the custodian of South Africa’s wildlife will have no say in drafting the laws regarding its welfare.

Unlike the Environment Department’s High-Level Panel which produced recommendations, the Agriculture Department group will be rewriting the legal framework for animal welfare and not simply advising on it. And it will be doing this without the inclusion of any of the organisations which have been lobbying for an improvement in animal protection, including the body designated by law to do this – the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA). 

Requests to be in the working group by the EMS Foundation and the Humane Society International-Africa – groups widely respected internationally for their work on animal welfare – were rejected.

Department picks up welfare baton

The Environment Department, however, has refused to be out of the loop on animal welfare and has placed it – and considerations of animal sentience – at the core of its 580-page report.

So, despite the Agriculture Department’s mandate on animal welfare, the Environment Department has now picked up the baton it historically dropped and has produced path-breaking recommendations which, if implemented, will put it on a collision course with the Agriculture Department on the treatment of animals.

It takes direct aim at the Animal Improvement Act which, it says, promotes the domestication and intensive and selective breeding of iconic wildlife, undermining the sense of place of wild Africa and the conservation of the species in the wild.

The implementation of the act within the wildlife economy, it says, is undermining the link between animal welfare and conservation required by the Constitution. It suggests a revision of the act and also calls for a revision of the Meat Safety Act to take into account the welfare of wild animals during slaughter.

The department was particularly concerned with the domestication and breeding of lions, elephants, rhinos and leopards. It says captive, intensive and selective breeding, handling, captive interactions, canned hunting and the bone and derivative trade pose risks and threats to South Africa’s reputation. There are also considerable zoonotic risks of Covid-type outbreaks.

Considering that the Agriculture Department’s working group consists mainly of departmental vets, the High-Level Panel report was less than complimentary about the profession’s competence to judge welfare issues. 

“Veterinarians have a loyalty to clients and this often prevents them from talking out about or addressing welfare concerns. [They] are also seen by the courts as the welfare experts, although they are often reluctant to testify or speak out about welfare issues due to possible loss of clients and business. This becomes both an ethical and welfare issue.”

It also notes that the potential for an intensification of management practices by listing wildlife under the Animal Improvement Act “poses significant welfare risks”. This has been confounded, it says, by unresolved confusion in the mandate between the two departments, resulting in wildlife welfare being neglected.

Its findings echo an earlier government-commissioned report by the South African National Biodiversity Institute which noted the threats posed to biodiversity by intensive farming practices. 

Departmental processes and procedures, it says, are “not in place to address these conflicts or mitigate their negative consequences for the environment”. The High-Level Panel therefore tasks Creecy to engage with the Agriculture Department “to clarify overlapping mandates for welfare and wellbeing” and to request Cabinet to establish an inter-ministerial committee on biodiversity conservation to sort this out.

The High-Level Panel report is also concerned about the structural weakness of the NSPCA model. It says the organisation is vastly under-resourced, which limits its capacity to deal with wildlife welfare.

It’s a statutory body under the SPCA Act, carrying out an inspectorate and enforcement function, but receives no government funding or support. “Because the NSPCA has to raise its own funds, this results in numerous challenges and potential conflict of interest regarding the undue influence funders may bring to bear on [its] work.”

The High-Level Panel proposes a review of the NSPCA model to determine the best mechanism for addressing welfare issues and also address general under-resourcing of the organisation. It tasks the department with exploring the creation of an integrated wildlife welfare unit.

Some deeper questions remain.

Whether the new direction of the Environment Department will be implemented or prevail over those of Agriculture remains to be seen, but they pose two deeper problems which the High-Level Panel appears not to have contemplated and the Agriculture Department is unlikely to.

Listing all wild animals under agricultural legislation may seem expedient in the face of widespread game farming, but it fails to address the wider question about the difference between owning wild animals as a conservation measure and using their body parts as a human resource.

Then there’s the matter of sentience. The High-Level Panel acknowledges solid scientific proof that many creatures with which we share the planet are indeed sentient as individuals and can suffer. This approach is also at the heart of a raft of conservation legislation presently making its way through the British parliament and is accepted by a number of countries.

If animals are sentient, exploiting them under the Environment Department’s sustainable use policy (which generally means killing them for their body parts) and the High-Level Panel’s approval of hunting (with the possibility of inflicting agony from a hunter’s misplaced shot) must surely amount to legally sanctioned cruelty. 

Animals are clearly not Descartes’s automatons. They share our awareness of their personal safety, hurt and fear of death. Are we then saying that, as a country, we sanction cruelty to them? If we are, as it seems, this holds a mirror to ourselves as a species. It’s not a silly “greenie” question, but a fundamental matter of ethics and a contradiction at the heart of the High-Level Panel report which needs attention. 

It might be time to convene another parliamentary colloquium on our use of wild animals to hammer out some answers. DM

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