Earlier this year, the Free State High Court in Bloemfontein, South Africa, handed down its long-awaited judgement in the case between the South African Predator Breeders’ Association (SAPBA) and the former Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism.

In essence, SAPBA, which effectively includes the canned hunting industry, challenged certain regulations in a raft of new legislation that seeks to curtail the breeding and shooting of lions in captivity (see page 24 of Africa Geographic, July 2006).

The court ruled in favour of the Minister, dismissing the application by the breeders on all counts, including costs.

Readers of this column and past features on trophy hunting in Africa Geographic will be familiar with the pertinent points. In making his ruling, the judge reaffirmed that the predator breeders make no contribution to the natural biodiversity of South Africa and that viewing the industry as ‘abhorrent and repulsive’ would be ‘objectively reasonable and justifiable’. I wholeheartedly agree with these sentiments and welcome the outcome of the case.

But while the judgement is important in the bigger picture, it should by no means be taken as the final chapter in this lamentable mess. The absurd irony of it all is that because the original legislation did not advocate an outright ban, which would have immediately outlawed both the breeding and the hunting of predators, the parties continue to argue in the courts over how and under what conditions thousands of lions are to be bred for killing.

And this as the species faces severe conservation threats in the wild, both in South Africa and across the continent.

In the meantime, the industry still needs to be held in check, and in this respect it is necessary to draw a clear distinction between the breeders and the hunters.

As far as the former are concerned, the new legislation is only a first step. Implementing and policing it, and ensuring that there is both the will and the means to prosecute, are going to be crucial. If breeding is allowed to continue, we will have to deal with the consequences of domesticating species that are integral to the definition of ‘wildness’, ‘wilderness’ and ‘natural ecosystems’. If the legislation is successful, we will have to face the highly contentious issue of what is to be done with thousands of caged lions and other predators.

Even more complex than the breeding issue is the one of hunting; not only are there millions more hunters around the world than there are breeders, but they attempt to draw distinctions between themselves on the basis of how they kill.

Most conservation agencies and ecotourism operators do the same: they oppose canned hunting, but many still support trophy hunting. How do these groups distinguish between the two and is there any merit to their distinctions? Why is shooting wild animals in a cage viewed as unacceptable, while killing off the gene pool in a wilderness area is lauded?

Aren’t all hunters merely members of the same extended fraternity? The so-called ‘fair chase’ hunting groups in South Africa certainly cannot claim to have been outspoken against canned hunting. And it is quite conceivable that a hunter who fails to bag his Big Five trophy in Botswana will end his safari with an easy captive-bred kill in South Africa.

It is inevitable that a total review of trophy hunting and its future application in conservation will be one of the next great wildlife management debates. With the outcome of this court case and the recent public debates about hunting in and around South Africa’s national parks and reserves, now is the time for this review to begin. A thorough reassessment would require a multi-disciplinary approach, involving much research and evaluation.

To this end, all major role-players from conservation agencies active in Africa – including the IUCN, government, NGOs and the greater safari and ecotourism community – would need to participate.

It is my suspicion that trophy hunting will in time be exposed as having been more of a conservation con than an effective wildlife management tool. In the meantime, I advocate that Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game and the Safari Club International Record Book be discontinued. These trophy hunting bibles promote the shooting of what everyone else is trying to protect.