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Op-Ed: Hunters and predator breeders take aim at Star journalist

The South African Predator Association (SAPA) – whose members breed for hunting, among other creatures, what it terms “managed ranch lions” – has set its cross-hairs on another prey: a journalist and her newspaper.

The Predator Association has served summons on Independent Media as publishers of The Star and a journalist, Shannon Ebrahim, following the publication of her article, Canned lion hunting damaging Brand SA. It’s claiming damages of R1,000,000.

In what is clearly an attempt to muzzle criticism aimed at its members, SAPA appears to be reaching beyond the journalist to environmental NGOs and activists she quotes who campaign against cruel hunting practices. Independent and Ebrahim will defend the action and believe they have a strong case on the merits.

The summons singles out the acclaimed documentary Blood Lions and specifically its lead consultant, Ian Michler, for what SAPA claims to be false statements that the hunting of “canned” lions is cruel, barbaric and macabre and that they are raised in cages to be shot by foreign thrill-seekers.

SAPA seems particularly stung by what it perceives in Ebrahim’s article to be a claim that its members are involved in illegal, unethical and poaching practices and unacceptable labour practices. Also that most operators and breeders are apartheid-era reactionaries.

There is a strong possibility that when Independent Newspapers defends the case, SAPA will be confronted by more than it bargained for. It is likely to be called upon to contend with claims and investigations of damning evidence from a wide range of organisations and environmentalists quoted in the Star article.

Blood Lions, for a start, has visual evidence of cruelty on farms where lions are reared for the bullet. Captive lion breeding for hunting has also been condemned by the African Lion Working Group (comprising 100 registered scientists), the Endangered Wildlife Trust, Panthera, Wildlands Trust, Wild Cat Conservation Group, International Union for Conservation of Nature, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Four Paws, Coalition Against Lion Hunting, the NSPCA and the Humane Society International. All could probably be called on to give evidence in support of Ebrahim.

The quote on damage captive-bred hunting was doing to South Africa’s international image came from the then Minister of Tourism, Derek Hanekom.

“I think it has already damaged Brand South Africa,” he said on camera in Blood Lions. ‘The practice of canned lion hunting or breeding in captivity comes with a lot of negativity and therefore it does and probably will do further reputational damage unless we take some more decisive measures to discourage it.

“Our first step is to be in one mind as a country about whether we want this – is this something that we feel proud of as a nation? My feeling is I’m not proud of it.”

Dr Andrew Venter, the CEO of Wildlands, said he would be prepared to support Ebrahim if called to. “The South African captive lion breeding and associated hunting and bone trading activities,” he said in response to the summons, “are not regarded as bone fide conservation activities by the vast majority of conservation organisations, both in South Africa and globally, including the IUCN”.

“There is significant concern around the conditions under which the lions are bred, reared, hunted and slaughtered, with many conservationists and hunters finding the industry to be immoral and unethical in its behaviour and practice.”

Commenting on the lawsuit, the executive director of Humane Society International, Audrey Delsink, said: “It is intended to intimidate this journalist and others who see it as their duty to expose the cruel lion breeding industry for what it truly is. Ebrahim gave accepted representations of South Africa’s captive breeding and exploitation of lions. She merely collated general opinion and consensus of this shameful industry.

“SAPA should not waste the valuable time and resources of the judiciary, as well as this newspaper and journalist. This is a clear attempt to muzzle public opinion.”

Support for Ebrahim and Independent also came from tourism specialist Colin Bell. “One in seven South Africans are directly dependent on the tourism industry to put food on the table. My concern about the canned lion industry is that it potentially can damage Brand South Africa in such a bad way. Why risk that for the benefit of a few individuals?”

Shortly after SAPA issued the summons, it was slammed by 27 of the world’s top conservation and research organisations and individuals on another matter: a letter it wrote to the US Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, requesting the lifting of the ban by US Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS ) on the importation of captive-bred lion trophies.

In an open letter to Zinke, the lion conservation community refutes SAPA’s claim that hunting of captive bred lions presents conservation benefits to wild lions. “There is no published, peer-reviewed evidence to support this statement,” they wrote. “The hunting of captive-bred lions neither benefits biodiversity conservation nor the conservation of wild and free-ranging lions.”

SAPA also claimed that if captive lion hunting was stopped, increased pressure would be placed on wild populations, but they provide no evidence whatsoever to substantiate this.

“SAPA states that if USFWS does not allow for the importation of lion trophies then these lions will be euthanised. It is unclear how this outcome would differ biologically from killing them in a captive hunt, or for their bones? Either way, the lions will be killed.

“We wish to express that SAPA’s letter is fraught with inaccuracies, false statements and a flawed viewpoint that is shaped for the economic benefit of captive lion breeders.”