Our Burning Planet


‘Shift in conservation thinking’: A new biodiversity White Paper could make SA a world leader if it becomes law

‘Shift in conservation thinking’: A new biodiversity White Paper could make SA a world leader if it becomes law
Campaign Against Canned Hunting activists march in Johannesburg against canned lion hunting on 15 March 2014. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Mary-ann Palmer)

It’s excellent legislation, but faces enormous challenges, not least from wildlife breeders who are sharpening their knives.

Changing a country’s legal paradigm on conservation is like turning a supertanker at sea – it takes time and space. And though the just-released draft White Paper on the Conservation and Sustainable use of South Africa’s Biodiversity sets a new course, it’s not yet law and the ship is only beginning to turn. There will be battles up ahead, but the new shoreline is at least in sight.

Its vision – both lofty and wordy – is of “an inclusive, transformed society living in harmony with nature, where biodiversity conservation and sustainable use ensure healthy ecosystems, with improved benefits that are fairly and equitably shared for present and future generations”.

It envisions a world centred on Ubuntu, where all people have a high quality of life, a voice and a nurturing earth supporting them.

The problem with these admirable goals yet to be embedded in law is what bedevils so many such reports – implementation. The White Paper admits that to become effective, it will take considerable redirection of funds plus strategic integration of the ideas into all departments, both national and local.

According to Wilderness Foundation Africa, the White Paper provides long overdue, comprehensive definitions of sustainable use and conservation.

“In our view, not having such clear and unambiguous definitions in our environmental law has led to conflicting approaches and interpretations within the biodiversity sector.

“The Paper enshrines the environmental duty of care principle and entrenches the requirement for activities, methods or actions involving wild animals to be humane and to consider their wellbeing.”

There is, unfortunately, a disconnect between the Paper’s principles and the reality on the ground where protected areas have been allowed to wither from neglect, corruption and nepotism. This will be addressed shortly below.

We have been here before

Although limited popping of corks is in order, it comes with a caution. A White Paper with similar goals was tabled in Parliament in 1997, but stalled.

Had that White Paper been cast into law, the environmental field would have been very different now. It recognised that the goal of using biological resources sustainably was to ensure that it minimised the adverse impact on biodiversity. It also insisted that biodiversity considerations be integrated into all national policy. Pity it hit the skids.

These issues lay dormant for many years and their re-emergence was in relation to the growing abhorrence of captive lion breeding and hunting.

As a result, mainly, of calls from conservation NGOs, Parliament’s portfolio committee on environmental affairs convened a two-day colloquium in 2018 and concluded that canned lion hunting should end.

That broke the logjam of business-as-usual in the government’s approach to the treatment of wild animals.

In 2019, new environment minister Barbara Creecy established a high-level panel to review policies, regulatory measures, practices and policy positions related to hunting, trade, captive keeping, management and handling of elephant, lion, leopard and rhino.

Its conclusions didn’t please everyone, particularly wildlife breeders and hunters, but it was a giant step in a new direction for wildlife protection.

Most importantly, it changed the language of conservation, which, through the policy position that followed, found its way into other avenues of wildlife policy.

One was the National Environmental Management Laws Amendment Bill which contains a vital wellbeing clause, but it has been hanging around since 2018 without forward movement. Could it be because game breeders have indicated that they will challenge the clause in court?

Last year, Creecy appointed a panel to look into the voluntary exits of lion breeding facilities – five years after the colloquium call. She has just extended the deadline for a further 60 days – breeders are clearly not clamouring to give up their outfits.

Another roadblock was the withdrawal this year of the new Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) regulations. Gazetted by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE), it was arguably the most progressive wildlife protection legislation yet drafted in South Africa. It seemed like good news for beleaguered wildlife.

But just before it was to become law, game breeder and hunter organisations applied for an urgent interdict to halt it. DFFE responded with a convincingly argued defence of its legislation.

At the last minute, in a secret, out-of-court settlement, the department withdrew the proposed TOPS regulations as well as related norms and standards amendments and agreed to pay the applicants’ legal costs. Breeders had clearly found a legal loophole and closed it down.

Biodiversity White Paper

The White Paper on sustainable use of biodiversity is the latest to signal a shift in government conservation thinking. As mentioned above, its bite is in its definitions.

The highest on the list is “sustainable use”, a term hitherto undefined and employed by those more interested in use than sustainability. The White Paper nails it down and probably provides the world’s best definition.

The use of any component of biodiversity, it states, must ensure that it is:

  • Ecologically, economically and socially sustainable;
  • Does not contribute to its long-term decline in the wild or disrupt the genetic integrity of the population;
  • Does not disrupt the ecological integrity of the ecosystem in which it occurs;
  • Ensures continued benefits to people in a manner that is fair, equitable and meet the needs and aspirations of present and future generations; and
  • Ensures a duty of care towards all components of biodiversity for thriving people and nature.

Sustainable use of biodiversity, it states, “implies the careful and equitable use of nature so that all current and future generations of people get the full benefit of what they value from nature”.

A second important definition – which is a nod to the sentience of animals – is the notion of “animal wellbeing”. This is defined as “the holistic circumstances and conditions of an animal or population of animals which are conducive to their physical, physiological and mental health and quality of life, including their ability to cope with their environment”.

Human interventions and activities, according to the White Paper, must consider animal wellbeing, not only of individual animals, but also of groups and whole populations of animals. This is because the wellbeing of individual animals is entwined with the biodiversity of the space in which they live.

For this reason, measures must be taken “to prevent harm from occurring to biodiversity within the environment and ecosystems that they are part of.”

This is in line with the notion of Ubuntu, which acts as the White Paper’s guiding principle. Ubuntu, it states, emphasises the environmental duty-of-care principle in which actions should be humane and ensure quality of life within its environment.

An important principle is the creation of linkages,  corridors and connectivity between wild spaces to ensure genetic variation and expand the natural footprint, both on land and in the ocean.

Infertile ground

Just how difficult it will be to implement the excellent recommendations of the White Paper can be seen from a survey by the Endangered Wildlife Trust entitled, The State of Provincial Reserves in South Africa – Challenges and Recommendations.

There are 400 provincial parks and reserves covering three million hectares of South Africa and it is there – not just the large parks like Kruger – that the rubber of biodiversity hits the road. Many of these are falling apart because of a shortage of money, poor management or lack of political will.

The most common problem in all provinces, says the report, are inadequate budgets for nature and wildlife conservation. In some reserves, as much as 80-90% of budgets are consumed by staff salaries – leaving little funding for day-to-day conservation.

The survey respondents also lamented the lack of capacity – including staff who were “not dedicated, motivated or passionate about what they do”.

The report adds: “The adoption of funding models that centralise financial flows in government, and the gradual but significant decrease in government budget allocation to conservation efforts, have combined to put pressure on protected areas to generate the necessary funds for their management and protection.”

The new Biodiversity White Paper comes with a detailed implementation plan as it heads, hopefully, into law.

First, key stakeholders in the environmental field will be identified and consulted. This will be followed by intergovernmental consultations to work out implementation processes. If all goes well and the White Paper is not watered down or sidelined, South Africa could end up with some impressive biodiversity protections on paper.

However, for it to grow beyond law into implementation, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment – with all other departments for which biodiversity is important – will have to till and fertilise the ground upon which the White Paper can grow its plans.

That will take political will and a good deal of cash allocated to conservation, and not fat staff salaries and top-heavy “management”. That will be another supertanker that needs to turn. DM/OBP

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Absa OBP

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