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If the captive big cat industry is left to thrive, species harm will be irreparable

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Sarah Locke is Big Cat Policy Specialist at animal welfare NGO Four Paws.

Only when South Africa commits to implementing a phase-out of the entire captive big cat industry, with time-bound goals and objectives, can it begin to piece together its reputation as a global leader in conservation.

The situation for South Africa’s huge captive lion population has not improved, despite Minister Barbara Creecy announcing that the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment, under her leadership, would phase out captive lion breeding in 2021.

Since then, a ministerial task team of experts has been strategising pathways for a voluntary exit from the industry and recently it presented its findings to various stakeholders. The task team’s recommendations range from humane euthanasia of compromised lions, trading of lions, and transformation of facilities into “lion safe havens” that would be specific — for example, allowing no breeding or interaction with people except for veterinary care. 

While the impact of these recommendations is not currently clear, not least because the task team has not yet shared how many facilities have come forward (or with how many lions), what is clear is that in the two years since Creecy’s announcement, the captive lion population, which some believe to range between 10,000 to 12,000 strong, continues to see many animals languish in often inappropriate conditions. It should be noted that the ministerial task team’s evaluation based on permit records estimates just under 8,000 lions kept in 348 facilities. 

The animals are considered part of an extremely lucrative business model that exploits individuals in captivity, threatens wild populations or vulnerable wild species and encourages illegal wildlife trade. The big cats are intensively bred, meaning cubs are removed from their mother for tourists to pay for the opportunity to interact with the big cats either by bottle feeding cubs, petting, or taking selfies with them.

Premature removal from their mother means she can be bred again far sooner than is natural. When the cats grow too large for the “up-close-and-personal” interactions, they are often sold on to other farms, sold for the pet trade, or exported where they could then be used directly in traditional medicine or as breeding stocks on big cat farms for the purpose of traditional medicine, or as luxury goods items in the form of skins or jewellery. The animals may be used in trophy hunts, where a hunter will only take the trophy, and the bones may subsequently be stockpiled or enter the illegal trade. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Letting the cat out of the can on captive lion breeding and hunting

The United Nations Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (Cites) Trade Database shows the huge scale of the legal trade of live lions and their body parts from the country.

Lucrative exports

Between 2011 and 2020, South Africa exported over 25,000 lion parts and just under 2,000 live lions. Among the top importers of live lions during this time period were China and Thailand, which were reported to receive 557 and 166 lions respectively.

With regards to the destinations of lion body parts exported from South Africa, Laos received 5,174 and Vietnam received 4,687 — this includes skeletons, bones and bodies. These countries are places where the use of big cat parts in medicinal and luxury goods items are in high demand and where there are known to be extensive illegal wildlife trade networks.   

The scale of live lion trade and bone trade seems to substantiate the understanding that where trade restrictions have tightened around the use of tiger parts for use in traditional medicine and as luxury goods items as their wild populations have plummeted over the years, other big cat species, such as lions, are being used to substitute the demand.

According to the Cites Trade Database, South Africa is now the largest exporter of big cats and their parts from anywhere in the world, which is believed by many to contribute to the decline of wild big cat populations, contrary to the regard the country holds in terms of its leadership status in its wildlife conservation efforts. 

The scale and welfare concerns of the industry have historically received international outcry and backlash, and in 2019, a moratorium was imposed on the export of lion skeletons and bones from South Africa.

Despite this moratorium and Creecy’s 2021 decision, the captive lion breeding industry has not diminished. Creecy’s call for a voluntary exit is believed to have had only a few volunteer farmers come forward interested in exiting the industry. Instead, it is predicted that some are stockpiling skeletons for a time when the moratorium is lifted or are exporting lions to more loosely regulated neighbouring countries or provinces.

Suggestions are that some export live animals to bypass the moratorium, meaning those animals are then “processed” abroad. In July of this year, it was reported that 10 lions were exported from South Africa to Laos, a country known to have its own historic issues of big cat farming (tigers), where the use of big cat parts in medicinal and luxury good items are in high demand and where there are known to be extensive illegal wildlife trade networks.

Experts are concerned that the lions are to be used to substitute the demand as tiger farms have been illegal in Laos since 2016 and the country has no more wild tigers.    

Another concern is that the South African lion industry now targets tigers, which are non-native to South Africa and are a Cites Appendix 1 listed species, and as such, they should be protected by the highest level from international trade. Yet in South Africa, an unknown number of tigers are being commercially bred, often in the very same enclosures as lions.

This is despite Cites Decisions and Resolutions (Res. Conf. 12.5) stating that countries with intensive operations breeding tigers on a commercial scale shall implement measures to restrict the captive population to a level supportive only to the conservation of wild populations, and that tigers are not to be bred for commercial purposes or traded for their parts and derivatives.

Facilities that do breed tigers must be registered with the Cites Secretariat, yet records state the country does not have any tiger breeding facilities registered in South Africa, meaning the country is at risk of not implementing international agreements and is compromising conservation efforts for all big cats across the world.

Commerce before conservation 

Breeding endangered animals as commodities has long been debated in the country. Arguably one of South Africa’s most well-known proponents of the commercial breeding and trade of endangered species is John Hume’s rhino project. The Platinum Rhino project saw Hume breed 2,000 white rhino in the hope that the 1974 international ban on the trade in rhino horns would be overturned and he would make a hefty profit.

However, the ban has not been overturned and this year’s auction of the project failed to attract any buyers. Thankfully African Parks, a South African NGO, has taken over the animals and seeks to rewild the herd where possible. This at the very least calls into question the model of breeding of endangered species for commercial purposes, and at best, evidences a lack of viability. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Conserving and rewilding John Hume’s rhinos may cost R1bn or more

While a happy ending may be on the horizon for those 2,000 rhinos, the same cannot be said for the unknown number of tigers kept on South Africa’s commercial captive farms. As large sentient predators that have been handled often from birth and bred without studbooks, rewilding will not be appropriate for South Africa’s captive lions as the animals would not survive for long before human or livestock attacks would result, with consequential retaliatory killings or necessary capture and/or euthanasia. Meaning their future is more uncertain.

The reality is that due to inappropriate conditions, many of the animals will not be able to live a life free of suffering due to disease or inbreeding. For these animals, humane euthanasia and responsible disposal of their parts may be the only option.

For those that are able to live a healthy life, legitimate sanctuaries are one viable solution. These are sanctuaries that rescue animals from captivity and provide lifelong care. Legitimate sanctuaries do not permit interactions between the public, breeding of animals, or trading for profit.

On top of those minimum requirements, they are facilities with the highest standards of captive enclosures, where animals are provided with appropriate enclosures with substantial enrichment to allow as natural an environment as possible, good nutrition and access to veterinary care. These sanctuaries are largely owned by the NGO community and demonstrate one feasible solution.   

The work of the ministerial task team was extended to 31 December 2023, and NGOs, the breeders and the international community alike eagerly await its outcomes. In addition, the DFFE has recently released a new draft Policy Position on the Sustainable Use of Elephant, Lion, Leopard and Rhino, which similarly, has all the right intentions for lions, but still actively and concerningly seeks to transform and expand the trophy hunting of leopards.

Ominous future for big cats

The extension on the ministerial task team’s working timeline, or delay, is under even more scrutiny given that the Cabinet is due a reshuffle as of next year where Minister Creecy is unlikely to remain as Minister for Forestry, Fisheries and Environment, leaving any implementation of a phase-out to her successor. Given that her tenure has taken South Africa the closest to closing the industry it’s ever been, the appetite of her replacement to implement a phase-out will remain a concern.

That legal trade of big cats and their parts from within and to South Africa acts as a conduit for illegal trade is becoming increasingly documented. For example, investigations have shown that despite the high numbers of big cat body parts destined for Laos, many bones never enter the country, and may instead be rerouted to Vietnam.

In June 2023, it was reported that a man travelling en route to Vietnam from South Africa was found with a suitcase filled with lion bones that were estimated to equate to five individual lions.

A month later, Vietnamese nationals and a Guinean national were arrested in Nigeria for crimes including the trafficking of lion bones from South Africa.

In addition, a legal industry hinders on-the-ground conservation efforts in other countries by perpetuating the demand for vulnerable species to be used and commercially traded. While tiger range states are taking strict measures to eliminate poaching of tigers for their body parts, South Africa is farming the species for their commercial trade, while allowing an industry to exploit its own iconic species in the same manner.

While the task team is committed to advising on the exit of the captive lion breeding industry, no assurances have been made that the situation for tigers will be addressed. 

Yet the solution does exist. Four Paws along with WWF and the Environmental Investigation Agency have taken the lead role in developing a Roadmap to Closing Captive Tiger Facilities of Concern, which was presented at the Cites 77th Standing Committee in Geneva at the beginning of November.

Not only would this be invaluable to the task team if they are considering the tiger issue, but the roadmap is also applicable to phasing out the captive lion industry. Earlier this year a Cites Mission took place to investigate tiger-keeping facilities of concern in South Africa, and the outcomes of this mission revealed there to be a lack of clarity regarding the situation.

The mission’s report detailed a number of conflicting statements from South Africa including South Africa stating that while tiger facilities do exist and operate on an intensive commercial scale, the country doesn’t commercially trade in tigers for example.

The 77th Cites Standing Committee again raised the awareness of the issue of illegal trade in tigers and the role of countries such as South Africa in the global trade. During the Standing Committee, the South African delegates announced from the floor that legislation and policy will change in South Africa in relation to tiger keeping and trade — but the question remains, will it be enough to help safeguard the species for illegal trade and will South Africa reverse its role as a contributor to the decline of the tiger and other big cats globally? 

The intensive breeding of big cats in this manner exploits individual animals in captivity and threatens wild populations by perpetuating the demand for their parts. Only when South Africa commits to implementing a phase-out of the entire captive big cat industry, with time-bound goals and objectives, can it begin to piece together its reputation as a global leader in conservation.

The longer the industry is left to continue, the more harm will be done. The task team’s recommendations are a positive step, but without an understanding of how many facilities and how many animals are being considered in the voluntary exit, how effective the recommendations will be has yet to be seen.

Even now, there is no moratorium on the breeding of animals, something the NGO community has been urgently calling for and has offered support on. It will be a tragedy for South Africa to have gone back on one of the most important decisions it has ever made for its wildlife and will be to the detriment of all big cat species. DM

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  • John Nash says:

    The ivory ban hasn’t stopped elephants being poached.
    The rhino horn ban hasn’t stopped rhinos being poached. In fact, the ban has almost stopped landowners keeping rhinos because without sales of horn trimmings, there is no way of paying to guard and feed rhinos. The ban caused Mr Hume’s excellent rhino breeding farm to fail and now 2000 previously safe rhinos, all carefully DNA registered, will slowly disappear. The ban puts the trade into the hands of criminals and they don’t care – in fact they welcome bans – it keeps the price up and legal competition out of the market. When I was trading in SA in the 1970’s, I would have loved a ban – I made money during UDI. If the horn ban was lifted, the 50 tons+ of horn in the stockpile could fund conservation, and many more landowners would keep rhinos – they are wonderful – and perhaps 10,000 more would soon appear. The ban prevents this happening.
    If you ban lion breeding, the price will go through the roof and all the farmed legal lions will disappear – farmers will breed something else. However, the world demand for lion derivatives won’t go away, so the demand will fall on the few wild lions left.
    That’s what happens when you pass laws with your heart instead of your head – Bambi effect humans get to feel pious but the wildlife keeps dying, but because of bans, there is no way of replacing it by means of sustainable harvesting.

  • ian hurst says:

    The article is full of emotive, unsubstantiated claims such as: Captive breeding “threatens wild populations.” or “it encourages illegal wildlife trade.” No, captive breeding reduces the demand on wildlife and it satisfies a demand which would otherwise be met by wild animals. Without captive breeding supplies, the price for lion parts would rise, making poaching more attractive. Many years of trying and many millions of dollars spent have show that it is impossible to stop the Eastern Asian demand for animal parts. I have no doubt that there are welfare concerns. Deal with them, do not ban the whole captive breeding industry, thus signing the death warrant of wild lions.

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