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Holding lions, conservation and Brand South Africa captive

Earlier this year, officials in the state of Florida, USA introduced legislation to ban the captive breeding of orcas as well as the keeping of them for entertainment purposes. Seen as a necessary and progressive step in line with our greater understanding of wild species, this move follows on from California successfully passing similar legislation in 2016.

It is against this backdrop that it’s worth reviewing South Africa’s current situation with regards to lion breeding and the commercial exploitation of these animals.

It’s been almost three years since the release of the feature documentary Blood Lions, and its global campaign to bring awareness around the issues portrayed in the film. Done in partnership with numerous local and international agencies, the film and campaign aims to do for lions what Blackfish has done for orcas.

To date, these efforts have brought numerous successes, at times way beyond initial expectations, and for this we owe huge thanks to all these committed partners. However, there is much work that remains as the indiscriminate breeding continues and thousands of predators remain on farms or in captive conditions, mostly to be used for hunting and tourism related purposes.

As we plan the next stages of the campaign, it is important to reiterate a few key issues.

Firstly, to those involved in the hunting of canned/captive/ranched lions; no amount of messing with language can divert attention from what underpins the practice of killing these animals. This country already has three different official categories for lions: wild, wild-managed and captive, two more than most conservationists would like to see. Despite the existing confusion among some, a small group of breeders and hunters are now trying to introduce a fourth grouping; that of ‘ranched’ lions.

No matter how you phrase it or attempt to hide it, breeding lions and other predators in captivity to be killed in captivity will remain an unacceptable practice in the eyes of the conservation and ethical hunting community, let alone a shameful one by the vast majority of nature lovers.

And these views are also supported by the US Fish & Wildlife Service who introduced a ban on the import of trophies from captive lion populations because they see no conservation value to these practices.

Secondly, to all those that continue to be lured by the thrill of securing a ‘selfie’ while cuddling or walking with a lion cub under the guise of making a contribution to the survival of the species, it is vital you heed the words of the world’s leading scientists and conservationists, and not the marketing hype of the business owners. The African Lion Working Group (ALWG), an IUCN affiliated body with a membership of over 100 leading lion scientists and researchers, says clearly that “Captive breeding of lions for sport hunting, hunting of captive-bred lion and the associated cub petting industry are not conservation tools. In our opinion they are businesses and outside the remit of the African Lion Working Group and should be dealt with accordingly.”

And it’s worth pointing out that not a single lion breeder, captive hunting operator or commercial predator enterprise, and this includes the many outfits trying to justify their existence on the basis of their claims to conservation, are members of the ALWG.

Similarly, The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), one of South Africa’s most highly regarded conservation NGOs has the following to say. “Captive carnivores do not contribute to the conservation of free roaming populations; they are not releasable and they do not form part of any registered conservation or management plan for any carnivore in Africa.”

These statements were followed up late last year by another damning one from the wider conservation community.It was sent to the US government in response to a letter “fraught with inaccuracies, false statements, and a flawed viewpoint”sent by SAPA in an attempt to have the captive lion trophy ban overturned.

A more recent development has been the awarding of an export quota of lion bones and skeletons by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), a move widely condemned by the recognized predator conservation community. According to Dr Paul Funston, Senior Director of Panthera’s lion programme, “The government’s proposed quota of 800 lion skeletons for legal export has absolutely no grounding in science.” Dr Funston went on to say that, “when the facts are clear; South Africa’s lion breeding industry makes absolutely no positive contribution to conserving lions and, indeed, further imperils them”.

These views are vital because they set the conservation and scientific agenda, not the words of farmers and businesses profiting from the breeding and commercial activities. Making sure visitors and volunteers to this country understand the accepted predator conservation objectives and approaches as well as the recognised agencies involved in securing them remains a central focus of the Blood Lions campaign.

And the same can be said about tourism in South Africa. The current marketing push is all about authentic, ethical and responsible tourism products. Petting lion or cheetah cubs and paying for other related activities hardly represents these parameters. It’s why the CEO of SA Tourism, SisaNtshona has been so outspoken. “South African Tourism does not promote or endorse any interaction with wild animals such as the petting of wild cats, interacting with elephants and walking with lions, cheetahs and so on,” he said earlier in 2017.

It’s also why the Blood Lions call to stop all the non-conservation breeding needs to be a priority. If we end the commercial breeding we end the need to deal with the current mess.

In the light of the unequivocal opposition from all sectors across the world, and the potential damage being done to Brand South Africa, the DEA’s ongoing aversion to listen or engage begs the question; who specifically are they listening to and why? Or, are there other issues at play here?

* Ian Michler is co-leader of the Blood Lions global campaign.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.