Last week, I talked with Professor Pieter Potgieter, Chairman of the South African Predator Association. The conversation left me genuinely perplexed.
We spoke about the future of South Africa’s approximately 8,000 captive lions on approximately 200 farms across the country. I was left gobsmacked not in the traditional bunny-hugging sense, but rather by the rationale of a person with the esteemed title of professor.
Who, with the means, has not been to a predator park? I can think offhand of at least two on the outskirts of Johannesburg, around Muldersdrift and Lanseria. It’s a convenient journey – a short drive from the metropolitan (and a decent price) brings you an encounter with the majesty of the ultimate big cat, king of the jungle, from the comfort of your car. It’s ideal for tourists, where cosmopolitan meets the wilderness; you can experience the African bush as the silhouette of Ponte Tower, Hillbrow Tower and the rest of the Joburg skyline looms over the southern horizon.
I myself have posed with and cuddled lion cubs. My wife – then my fiancé – and I once walked a 300kg male Siberian tiger named Apollo. His mesmerising presence and idiosyncratic fear of a wheelbarrow made it easy not to think about this animal (and all others’) eventual fate.
This is the point of departure. This is where these wildlife sanctuaries on our urban doorsteps reveal a dark, insidious side – a side that would have little children, those who marvel at these big cats by day, crying themselves to sleep at night.
Those little cubs grow up, and judging by the cow and horse carcasses they scoff down as adult prides, they are not cheap to maintain. Simple logic dictates that due to habitat limitations, the perpetual breeding for cub-petting results in too many mouths to feed. These cute cubs are destined to be sold off to game farms and similar ‘sanctuaries’, which according to the Professor is a good thing, as it guarantees genetic diversity for further breeding, protecting the species.
Professor Potgieter and his organisation’s justification for why some of these lions should be hunted is supposedly that it is for their protection. Logically, he and many others – particularly those who profit from these lions being shot on their properties – argue that the hunting of these animals prevents their poaching within our national parks, where they are protected. They argue that if you have farms or similar privately owned reserves where civilian hunters can go and shoot lions to mount as trophies, nobody will be tempted to sneak into the Kruger National Park to poach a protected, wild lion.
The reason for my chat with the Prof was a recent embargo by the United States on lion trophies, shot and hunted in our neck of the woods. Since this is the nation that produces the highest number of dentists who need to assert their machismo by killing the king of the jungle, it has a serious impact on our captive-bred lion industry. Hunters from the US are understood to account for half of hunts and the eventual export of lion trophies in South Africa. Further, South Africa supplies an estimated 90% of lion trophies out of Southern Africa, the majority of which are captive-bred.
So with the US drying up this money well as of January this year, the question is, what happens to these lions bred to be hunted? The number of lions that would have generated an income for the owners of these farms has been halved, and since they are not cheap to maintain, it stands to reason that they will be put to use in another way to generate an income, or a tragic fate awaits them.
South Asian traditional medicine has already put our rhinos at risk, and now something referred to as tiger wine has led to the decimation of wild tiger populations already on the brink. This is an issue for lions globally, as they have become substitutes for the ‘tiger’ part of the wine. It is either that the producers of this product have no scruples and do not tell their patients that tiger has been replaced with lion, or it is believed that tigers and lions share the same mystical powers. Either way, with an oversupply of lions, half of which will no longer be shot by American hunters, it stands to reason that many private lion owners will see this as a convenient alternative to dollars for trophies. The Prof would argue that the demand for this market already exists and we should relent and just supply. After all, based on his logic, it would prevent lions from being poached, thus protecting wild populations as ‘legitimate’ farmers could supply the market.
In fact, reports indicate that South Africa’s current trophy trade has already sparked interest in South Asia. Pieter Kat from conservation NGO LionAid said four years ago: “Suddenly, and very recently, […] a great number of people from Laos have a big interest in trophy hunting. And that has never happened in the … history of Laos.”
Supply through ‘legitimate’ means would in all likelihood increase demand, as this exotic product will become more freely available and would in all likelihood drive prices down. Only so many lions could be supplied for the bone trade; in fact, out of the estimated 8,000 lions in captivity, no more than 1,000 are shot as trophies annually. This, I am afraid, is Economics 101.
As for the argument that the demand has existed all along and there is nothing we can do about it; this is a copout and nothing more than an excuse to breed lions for profit. Before November 1995, there was no demand for McDonalds’ burgers here in South Africa; Wimpy and Steers just had to do. Now, twenty-one years later, we chasing the Big Mac like heroin addicts, craving a fix, and diabetes levels are a serious concern. The point is that supply all too often fuels demand. We have been the supplier and will not only increase, but blow up the demand. This increase in demand then endangers wild lion populations, as poaching would be lucrative if and when the ‘legitimate trade’ can no longer supply enough lion bones.
The Prof argues that trophy hunting has brought back many species from the brink of extinction and is therefore good for conservation. What the Prof’s argument completely ignores is the question of protection. Places like the Kruger National Park have been designed to protect the wild species that roam within it, and if there is a lesson Botswana has taught us, it is: protect your wild animals, make damn sure they are not poached and exchange ‘Hunting’s Millions for Photo Tourism’s Billions’.
With information freely available and conservation best practice becoming public knowledge, evidence points to the fact that lions cannot be easily re-introduced into the wild once bred and reared in captivity – there is a big difference between having an abattoir-prepared carcass delivered and actually having to hunting or scavenge for your food. It is also clear that a principled decision to ban trophy hunting with a focus on protection, is the obvious choice in conserving our species.
If we know all of this, than why is it that the Professor and many of his colleagues insist on using tenuous logic and information to justify an industry that endangers the conservation of lions as opposed to providing real protection as it claims? Perhaps it is not an academic argument, but one informed by the amount of money being made. DM