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Let’s put the lid on wild tales of canned hunting

Let’s put the lid on wild tales of canned hunting US hunter Melissa Bachman created a storm of outrage on social media when she tweeted this picture with the message: ‘An incredible day hunting in South Africa! Stalked inside 60 yards on this beautiful male lion … what a hunt!’

Image: FACEBOOK Social media and local and international publications have been abuzz recently with claims that canned hunting of lions is taking place in South Africa in full view of authorities. The circulation of images of lions in cages or behind fences whips up emotions, effectively scuppering any reasoned discussion on the substantive issues around lion conservation.

At a time when the country is fighting international criminal syndicates involved in the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products, including rhino horn, such stories serve to reinforce a perception, no matter how misguided, that the African lion is facing extinction in South Africa because of hunting. I am regularly pressured on social media to “do something” to stop these allegedly widespread instances of canned lion hunting. But when asked to substantiate the claim, or provide evidence enabling the department to investigate, the tweets go silent.

There appears to be a deliberate strategy to conflate canned lion hunting with captive breeding of lions. The former is strictly proscribed; the latter is allowed, but strictly regulated and monitored. Protestors took part in the Global March for Elephants, Rhinos and Lions on October 4, 2014 in Sandton, South Africa.

136 countries around the world marched to protest against elephant and rhino poaching. Image: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Mary- Anne Palmer The legal, sustainable use of wildlife cannot and should not be equated with illegality such as canned lion hunting. Canned hunting is outlawed in terms of the Threatened or Protected Species Regulations promulgated in 2007, which form part of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act. In addition to this, there are the National Norms and Standards for the Sustainable Use of Large Predators.

The legal hunting industry in South Africa is valued at about R6.2-billion a year. It is also a source of foreign exchange, job creation, community development and social upliftment.

Sustainable use, including hunting, has played a significant role in the growth of populations of species, including lion, elephant and rhino. A 2012 study, “The Significance of African Lions for the Financial Viability of Trophy Hunting and the Maintenance of Wild Land”, notes: “Restrictions on lion hunting may also reduce tolerance for the species among communities where local people benefit from trophy hunting, and may reduce funds available for anti-poaching.”

The government will continue to support the legal hunting industry, as well as the legal trade in legally acquired specimens such as hunting trophies.

Prior to the drawing up of the threatened species regulations, there was evidence to suggest there was canned lion hunting in South Africa. Although some define canned hunting as “a trophy hunt in which an animal is kept in a confined area, such as a fenced-in area, increasing the likelihood of the hunter obtaining a kill”, it is more accurate to talk of “any form of hunting where a large predator is tranquillised, artificially lured by sound, scent, visual stimuli, feeding, bait, other animals of its own species or another species, or any other method, for the purpose of hunting that predator”.

Some objectors cite the principle of “fair chase” – the notion that an animal has a chance to escape its hunter. Again, the suggestion that this principle does not exist in South African law shows a lack of awareness of the threatened species regulations, which focus on the conditions of the hunt, as well as on prohibited methods of hunting. Furthermore, provincial conservation authorities have to be present on any African lion hunt.

Peddling half-truths and unsubstantiated claims of “widespread” canned lion hunting is damaging our reputation for species conservation. Undeniably, unscrupulous operators exist on the margins of the legal, well-regulated hunting industry, as they do in virtually any sector globally. Hunting is allowed in South Africa. It is an integral part of our sustainable utilisation policies It is unfortunate, however, that some want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, penalising legal operators because of the illegal actions of the few. Would anyone, for instance, call for the entire diamond trade to be abolished globally because of marginal groups trafficking in “blood diamonds”?

The management of captive-bred lions is also regulated. There are more than 6 000 captive-bred lions in South Africa, and about 2700 African lions in the wild. Of these, some 67% are well protected within national parks where no hunting is allowed. All captive breeding facilities are registered by law. The animals are maintained in terms of well-regulated conditions and are a potential source for new lion populations.

Some, including cubs, are sold to start new conservation areas of free-roaming lions, while others are sold or donated to countries – many in the developed world – whose own lions have long become extinct, and to zoos and private game ranches. Others are bred for hunting. Hunting is allowed in South Africa, and forms an integral part of the government’s sustainable utilisation policies, as enshrined in the constitution. It is a concept supported by a regulatory system provided for in terms of national legislation as well as multilateral environmental agreements such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Although some conservationists and animal rights activists would challenge this, lions do in fact form part of South Africa’s indigenous natural resources, and play an important role as an income-generating species. It is also worth considering that allowing the hunting of captive-bred lions takes pressure off the hunting of the wild lion population.

Contrary to perceptions, the African lion is not endangered. The species is well managed. Storm over Czech hunter’s trophy page on Facebook However, it should be noted that it is an indigenous species listed as threatened or protected in terms of the biodiversity act. Therefore, all activities involving the African lion, including hunting, possession and trade, are regulated through a permit system. This is to ensure this is done in a manner not detrimental to the survival of the species.

As the government we engage regularly with all South Africa’s main hunting organisations and have found no instances of so-called canned lion hunting. This is based on our own continuous compliance monitoring – and not on the basis of viewing YouTube videos.

Those who allege the abhorrent practice of shooting drugged lions in pent-up facilities are called on to provide the Department of Environmental Affairs with evidence to enable us to investigate.

South Africa’s management of the African lion has been exemplary. The measures we have in place are designed to ensure sustainability and provide incentives for the conservation of lions. As a result, curbing illegal practices in the sector is our obligation as the government and the penalties for noncompliance are severe.

We encourage all concerned with the welfare and conservation of this species to work with us in rooting out illegal practices such as canned hunting, if and when they occur. Molewa is the minister of environmental affairs. Follow her on @BEMolewa