The canned hunting industry has again been in the news lately. For those readers who have not been following the debate, the State President has before him a policy document that awaits his signature. First drafted in 2002, the document aims at legislating the cowardly and abhorrent practice of shooting captive bred animals, mostly large predators, that are kept in cages and confined areas, sometimes drugged and feeding from a bait. The policy has already been approved at various levels of government, including parliament. As it stands, it should not be allowed to receive his signature. There are obvious loopholes – policing the legislation, it does not provide for exotic species, there are weak definitions of what constitutes human-imprinted animals and the lack of public participation amongst others.
While these oversights are serious, I believe there is a more menacing aspect to the industry that needs to be introduced into the debate, and that is the process of domestication. Are the canned operators not in the process of creating a domesticated version of the wild lion? And for that matter, the same could be asked about a number of the other species being bred by canned operators and wildlife ranchers. Do we understand the biological, behavioural and philosophical implications of what is actually going on behind the fences and cages on these farms? One can distinguish three broad categories of interaction between Humans and wild animals. Habituation occurs when wild animals become familiar with our routine movements, taming occurs when we control their feeding behaviour, and domestication occurs when we control their breeding behaviour. The managed hunting industry is all about supplying animals that offer sufficiently attractive trophies. Larger, heavier, longer and more colourful equates to higher prices paid by the hunter, and in order to achieve this, breeders will control and manipulate the breeding behaviour of animals. With the large predators, one-week old cubs are often removed from their mothers in order to induce another estrus cycle; lions will be mated with their own offspring (particularly in the case of white lions); lions and tigers are being cross-bred producing what are known as ligers. By consistently doing this, the reproductive capacities of the females are placed under stress as they will be reproducing at rates that exceed the normal circumstances in the wild. The cubs on the other hand are being reared outside of their natural social pride dynamic. With plains game species for example, blesbok and bontebok are crossbred to achieve longer horns and springbok and impala are bred for recessive genes. One need only consider the mutations that have occurred in domestic dogs and cats to accept that there will be critical future consequences to this reckless practice.
Controlling the breeders in South Africa is only half the solution as they are only half the problem. The hunters, who come from all over the world, also need to be targeted. Much like the illicit drug industry, effective legislation needs to be aimed as much at the user and abuser as at the dealer. The ultimate control would be to put a blanket ban on the export of all trophies. This would also be an interesting acid test as to why people hunt in general. This measure should not materially affect the overall experience of genuine hunters, who claim that they are primarily involved in conservation and the fair chase!
And while discussing the distinction between wild and domestic animals, the hoary? old story still put forward by hunters and breeders to justify their practices by comparing them with the domesticated animals is simply outlandish. The majority of domesticated animals is the result of a process that has taken place over thousands of years – when Humankind was inexplicably linked to the natural world for food, clothing and survival. Our relationship with the environment has fundamentally and unquestionably changed, and to argue otherwise is both foolish and self-serving. If there is any doubt, lets ask the hunting world a question in a paradigm they will understand. Do they ever come to Africa to shoot our prize cattle and horses to hang these trophies on their walls? Or conversely, when last did they pop down to their local butcher to order a kilogram of prime lion or zebra ribs? The fair treatment and slaughter process of domesticated animals is another issue altogether. Ultimately, by carrying out these practices with wild animals and attempting to link the argument to domestic animals, they defeat the very purpose of what they say is central to their sport – that of the thrill and challenge of pitting ones hunting skills against the instincts and survival strategies of wild animals.
Canned hunting has no conservation status whatsoever! How can we trust canned hunting operators with the gene pool of Africa’s wild species. The canned hunting industry must be completely killed. It has no place in a forward-thinking society.