Nicci Wright sees the kind of places “that will make your hair stand on end”.
Yet every year these same “horrific” facilities receive permits from environmental officials to keep wild animals.
“Government departments aren’t mandated to worry about welfare,” says Wright, the wildlife project manager of Humane Society International Africa.
“Permits and animal welfare should go together and they don’t. Provincial officials just look at the basic requirements and say, ‘okay this cage is four by five, and there’s the right kind of fencing’, as per the minimum requirement, and give the permits.
“They don’t come back to check on the welfare situation of the animals. When wildlife becomes a commodity, as it has in South Africa, often the welfare of the animals becomes secondary,” she explains.
Wright’s long-held concerns are echoed in a new joint report, Fair Game? Improving the Regulation of the Well-Being of South African Wildlife, which reviews the legal and practical regulation of the welfare of wild animals.
Compiled by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) and the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), it details how South Africa has in recent years seen a proliferation of facilities that involve the captive management of wildlife for commercial purposes.
Yet legislation that governs the welfare of wild animals has not kept pace with the rapid changes in the wildlife industry, “compromising the welfare of numerous wildlife species”.
The report was prompted by shared concern among the authors about the absence of welfare considerations in biodiversity laws and the inadequacy of existing welfare laws as they apply to wild animals, specifically those in captivity.
The need for a solid, consistent and adequate welfare regime for wild animals is “apparent and urgent”.
Good welfare, says the report, promotes healthy development, humane treatment, the ability to express innate behaviour and the fostering of biodiversity as each species performs its role in the ecosystem optimally.
Welfare falls under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) while biodiversity conservation falls under the mandate of the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA).
“Captive wild animals under the physical control of humans, whether held temporarily or permanently, straddle the divide between inter-departmental and concurrent national and provincial jurisdiction because of a statutory regime unintended and unsuited to addressing the issue of wild animal welfare.”
But too often, wild animals fall through the cracks, and while regulations may exist for the captive management of some selected species, and laws may be in place to regulate their trade, “the welfare of captive wildlife, and the mandate of the authorities to monitor compliance, is insufficiently protected”.
As an example, the CER and EWT cite the well-publicised 2014 death of a giraffe while being transported in an open-air truck on a national highway after the driver drove under a bridge that was not high enough for the giraffe to safely pass under. No prosecutions were reported.
“More recent examples include dozens of neglected and starving captive lions on a Limpopo farm and a ‘lion abattoir’ in the Free State housing over 200 lions, awaiting slaughter for lion bone exports, in limbo as both the DEA and DAFF say that the welfare situation is not their responsibility.”
The increase in reported incidents of captive carnivore attacks on people – consider that the EWT says there are least 37 known incidents causing 12 deaths – are not being legally addressed either.
Dr Kelly Marnewick, senior trade officer at the EWT’s wildlife in trade programme, explains there are more than 6000 African lions in captivity in South Africa, six times more than there are in the wild.
Housed in about 180 facilities, the animals are kept for several reasons: tourism for petting, walking-with initiatives and viewing; the shooting of captive lions for “canned hunting” and supplying bones to Asian countries for the medicinal trade.
But fast-growing industries like these bring up all sorts of welfare issues, she says. “There’s a lot of blurring of mandates about captive welfare. It’s been an ongoing issue for ages and unfortunately while we carry on with all this confusion, the only ones that suffer are the animals.”
For Karen Trendler, wildlife trade and trafficking manager at the NSPCA, the growth of the captive lion industry serves as a “brilliant example” of where legislation and regulations have failed to safeguard welfare.
“There is a massive need to address welfare issues in the wildlife industry. We have one of the largest and most commercial wildlife industries in the world and one of the biggest challenges is that our environmental legislation doesn’t adequately cover captive wildlife.”
Government departments and their provincial counterparts are “passing the buck quite literally”, she says.
The report explains how the NSPCA, a statutory body, is tasked with responding to wild animal welfare complaints, conducting its own investigations and attempting to regulate good welfare practices without state funding and limited resources.
“It’s expected to adequately bridge the jurisdictional divide between what DEA and DAFF believe to be their respective mandates.”
The report calls for significantly increased capacity for an adequate number of trained officials, regular welfare inspections and consistent enforcement, including through funding from increased permit application fees and fines, in addition to government funding to the NSPCA in its performance of its crucial public function.
But it notes how budgets for biodiversity management at national and provincial departments are declining. “It’s easy to see how the welfare of wild animals … is put on the backburner, or in most cases, completely ignored.”
Aadila Agjee, an attorney at the CER, explains how game ranching and the “wildlife economy” are becoming popular as Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa encourages the use of biological resources for economic development.
Trendler agrees. “The green industry and the wildlife industry are being very aggressively promoted by the DEA and the government. It’s a very large and well organised industry yet there’s an absence of legislation and regulation. We can only enforce the Animal Protection Act, as the NSPCA, and while it’s a good Act, there are gaps when it comes to the welfare of wildlife,” she says.
The CER and EWT, through the report, are seeking engagement with the national and provincial departments to address a more appropriate legal framework to improve the welfare protection of wild animals.
The organisations also call for a standardised and transparent permitting system for activities involving and affecting wildlife.
Long-term reform of the permit system requires an integrated electronic national permit database, including permits compliance inspection reports and audit reports.
“This is critical as the lack of any cross-referencing across provinces has allowed for the dubious practice of obtaining permits in one province refused in another. “All provinces should have real-time access to the nationwide details of all applications, approvals and denials.”
DAFF did not respond to queries this week, while the DEA stated it would respond next week.
Wildlife Ranching SA says the large investment in the economy by private owners and wildlife ranchers is important,” it says, in a response to the report.
“The owners look after the welfare of the animals because they do not want to lose their investment. They protect biodiversity.”