Our Burning Planet


Biodiversity Bill – a high-water mark for the environment and Minister Barbara Creecy

Biodiversity Bill – a high-water mark for the environment and Minister Barbara Creecy
Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Barbara Creecy. (Photo: Supplied)

If Barbara Creecy loses her position as the minister of forestry, fisheries and the environment after the elections, commercial wildlife breeders will cheer. But many conservation organisations will deeply regret her departure. She has done far more for wild creatures than ever imagined possible when she took office in 2019. The Biodiversity Bill and White Paper on Biodiversity will be her legacy. If they become law, they will change the face of conservation in South Africa.

There is power in definitions, and in the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Bill (Nemba), just released for public comment, definitions are game-changing. They will spark controversy and possibly lead to legal challenges. 

It’s been a bumpy ride to get to where we are, best viewed through the lens of these definitions. 

“Sustainable use” has been a term mainly recycled by wildlife ranchers and hunters to justify the commercial use of wildlife through intensive breeding, selling, cub petting, trophy hunting and the sale of lion bones for tiger-bone wine. 

The latest version of Nemba nails this down tightly, and adds another controversial definition: “well-being”. 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.

“Using” a wild creature will require ensuring that its well-being is primary and that it is undertaken in a way that is: 

  • Ecologically, economically and socially sustainable.
  • Does not contribute to its decline in the wild or disrupt the genetic integrity of the population or the integrity of the ecosystem in which it lives.
  • Ensures that it can be enjoyed by present and future generations.

The definition requires a duty of care towards all components of biodiversity to ensure that both people and nature thrive.

It will be very difficult to squeeze commercial wildlife farming or trophy hunting into this cloak of protection and it’s hard to imagine that these industries will not immediately litigate to block the limitations.

Male lion. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

End lion farming

The Bill comes on the back of a Cabinet agreement to end the intensive captive breeding of lions and “canned” lion hunts.

Cabinet also agreed to the proposal by Creecy’s department to phase out intensive management and captive breeding of rhinos and to enhance the conservation of wild leopards. 

It gave the nod to limit the live export of lions, elephants, leopards and rhinos to habitats within Africa. This in effect curbed the growing Asian demand for live zoo specimens.

According to a statement by the department, the policy would “transform practices within the wildlife industry that are not conducive to animal well-being and promote conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in general, and these species in particular.” 

This, it said, would enhance South Africa’s position as a megadiverse country and leader in the conservation and sustainable use of these iconic species.

A decade of negotiations

The new Nemba Bill, which is now out for public discussion, is the result of nearly a decade of inquiries, reports, a parliamentary colloquium, and increasing local and international abhorrence of “canned” lion hunting which was highlighted in a shocking film flighted in 2015 called Blood Lions.

These inquiries include the Rhino Committee of Inquiry (2015); the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee Lion Colloquium on lion breeding (2018); the High-Level Panel Report on lions, rhinos, elephants and leopards (2021); and the White Paper on Conservation and Sustainable Use of South Africa’s Biodiversity (2023). 

More recently, the collapse of rhino farmer John Hume’s breeding programme left the fate of around 2,000 rhinos at risk, until it was saved through a purchase by the NGO Africa Parks which has begun relocating them to safe havens across the continent. 

The acceptance of the Policy Position coincided with the release for discussion by the environmental department of a Biodiversity Economy Strategy.

This proposes to grow areas under conservation — called mega-living conservation landscapes — from 20 million hectares to 34 million hectares by 2040, an area equal to the Kruger National Park times seven.

Creecy has also shepherded through the Climate Change Bill, which now awaits Presidential assent. It marks a new step into a greener future for the country. 

It’s the first law to collectively tackle the impact of climate change. 

She has also tried, with less success, to untangle the mess she inherited in the fishing industry.

Teeth to act

In pursuit of “animal well-being and humane practices, actions and activities”, the Nemba Bill will provide the minister with the teeth to impose conditions, restrictions and permits or “any other measures” for the protection of any listed or non-listed species or ecosystem.

The Bill provides for a scientific authority to regulate, restrict and assess the impact on species of international trade and to advise the minister on captive breeding operations and species. 

The Bill permits the minister to take tight control of the qualification of anyone dealing with wildlife, the methods, gear or equipment used, licences, quotas and hunting facilities. 

It also permits her control over removing animals from the wild into captivity, the export of animal parts and the domestication of wild creatures.

The Bill substantially jacks up sentences for wildlife violations of the regulations. If a person is convicted of an offence involving a specimen or a listed species or ecosystem for commercial exploitation, they can be fined up to R10-million or get 10 years in prison.

Members of criminal syndicates or State employees found guilty of offences involving priority species (rhinos, elephants, lions etc) will be liable for fines of up to R20-million or 20 years in prison.

Big steps

Taken together, these are extraordinary policy shifts under a single minister in five years. 

The legislation that has accompanied it is not perfect – legislation is always the product of compromise – but it could not have been foreseen when she stepped into the portfolio. 

Creecy has been called a “greenie” under the sway of “desk conservationists” by the breeders and hunters, and accused of being “in the pocket of the breeders” by conservation organisations. But she has always been prepared to listen to scientists, public comments and both official and non-official specialists. 

Painfully slowly (it has taken nearly 10 years), the ship of environmental protection has changed course from the naked exploitation of wildlife for commercial gain to a more humane perspective which acknowledges the individual sentience of animals. 

Still ahead is what to do with around 8,000 lions on farms that are required to close down. 

Captive-bred lions cannot be rewilded because of genetic inbreeding and the poor condition of many of the big cats. Also, lions are social animals which are taught by a pride to hunt and survive in open systems. 

There seem to be three options: euthanise, open them for hunting, or fund their care in sanctuaries – accompanied by ever-tightening regulations restricting new entrants, further breeding and movement of animals. A mix of these solutions will likely be implemented.

Hunting of captive bred lions will, unfortunately, continue, with 400 lions being hunted in 2022, the latest year for which statistics are available.

Right now, Nemba is still a Bill and the Biodiversity White Paper is not yet legislation, so a tough road still lies ahead. 

But if the ANC decides to replace Creecy (which would be a misstep) or the party is required to give away the portfolio in a coalition government, she will leave office having paved the road into a saner, kinder and more sustainable wildlife environment. DM

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Geoff Coles says:

    She does seem more that partly competent, but will still do as the ANC instructs.

  • Alexis Kriel says:

    “Members of criminal syndicates or State employees found guilty of offenses involving priority species (rhinos, elephants, lions etc) will be liable for fines of up to R20-million or 20 years in prison.”

    Wondering what Don means when he says “priority species”? Does this mean all (ToPS) Threatened or Protected Species? Not sure that the words “priority species” are used as a definition.

  • iwre says:

    What about the continouos poaching of abelone which has not decreased at all and gets very little attention.

  • Moraig Peden says:

    Well done Barbara Creecy! Lets hope the Biodiversity Bill and the Climate Change Bill become law.

  • Louise Wilkins says:

    Great work!

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.