Future looks no better for SA's canned lions 14-06-2009 Share
By Mike Cadman
The government has won the court case that will effectively put a stop to canned lion hunting - but it now faces a massive animal welfare crisis as breeders threaten to ditch unwanted predators that no longer have any commercial value.
There are between 3 500 and 4 000 lions in captivity in South Africa, most of which are bred specifically for the hunting industry.
The South African Predator Breeders Association (Sapba) estimates that 1 050 lions - the highest figure on record - were hunted in South Africa last year.
About 700 lions were shot in 2007 and 322 in 2006.
On Thursday, the Bloemfontein High Court ruled that the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs had a right to enforce laws that stipulated that lions raised in captivity must be allowed to roam free for two years before being hunted.
Sapba argued that this provision would make the breeding of lions in captivity for hunting financially unviable even though the industry is legal.
The association also argued that the former department of environmental affairs and tourism had acted unfairly in drawing up the legislation.
Sapba chairperson Carel van Heerden said on Friday that his organisation, which has 123 members, was considering appealing against the ruling. The members would meet next Friday to consider their options, he said.
"This is a crucial time for them. The decision could mean the end of their businesses, which had been legalised by the state," Van Heerden said.
"It also has dire consequences for about 5 000 workers and their dependents who could lose their jobs if lion breeding facilities close down.
"People have poured millions of rands into their facilities and it costs a lot of money to feed lions and raise them.
"The government allowed the industry to become established over a period of many years; they legalised it by issuing permits," he said.
"And now they want to destroy it, so they must tell us what they plan to do with all these animals that no one will want because they have no economic value."
For the past few years, conservation, animal welfare and animal rights groups have urged the government to draw up plans to deal with the animal welfare issues should the canned lion hunting industry be shut down.
"A victory may have been won in court, but to these animals, whose lives so far have been nothing more than a caged existence to provide a trophy to an unethical hunter, their future remains uncertain and may not necessarily be any better," said Yolan Friedmann, CEO of the Endangered Wildlife Trust in Joburg.
"We urge the government to immediately begin a process of addressing this situation, to avert a welfare crisis in which these animals could fall prey to neglect and further cruel treatment," she added.
The government has no suitable sanctuaries for unwanted lions raised in captivity, and private operations can't handle such large numbers of lions.
Wildlife rehabilitation experts said releasing lions back into the wild was extremely difficult and time-consuming, and that most large wildlife areas in the country had reached their carrying capacity for lions and other predators.
Brenda Santon, the manager of the wildlife unit at the NSPCA, said that law enforcement and monitoring of the industry had been notoriously poor for years.
"Immediate action is needed to deal with this welfare crisis and there is an urgent need to properly monitor how the animals are now treated," she said.
A report published recently by the NSPCA shows that most captive lion breeding facilities are in North West and the Free State.
There are some facilities in Gauteng, the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, but more than 90 percent of all lion hunting takes place in North West.
The Department of Water and Environmental Affairs said last week it was still awaiting a report on the captive lion breeding and hunting industry, but it planned to include lions in the Threatened or Protect Species (Tops) regulations as soon as possible.
Asked what plans were in place to deal with unwanted lions, the department's spokesperson Albi Modise said it "will co-operate with all stakeholders and investigate all available options to address the issue should it arise".
Canned lion hunting in South Africa made headlines in 1997 when a British documentary showed lions being hunted behind fences.
The documentary sparked an outcry, and three successive environment ministers repeatedly vowed to investigate the industry, enforce strict controls and outlaw canned hunting.
In February last year Marthinus van Schalkwyk, then the minister
of environmental affairs and tourism, said new legislation ensured
that "the days of captive breeding of listed species for any
purpose except science and conservation are over" - but he later
removed lions from the Tops regulations because of the Sapba court