In 2021 we undertook an immense research project to better understand the extent of the captive predator industry in South Africa. Through our research, we hoped to gather information to gain insight into the unregulated nature of predator breeding, keeping and trade across the country. We wanted to get a better understanding of the extent and nature of the industry which meant we needed to get a sense of the sheer numbers of big cats in facilities and the types of activities that involved these predators, such as captive hunts, euthanasia, breeding, transport, and trade. It was also necessary to understand how officials carry out their responsibilities, like inspecting these facilities. With this information we could comprehend more fully the efficiency and compliance of provincial regulations and officials with regard to the captive breeding, keeping, and trade of big cats in South Africa.
Our Main Research Findings
An expansive project like this culminated in an abundance of notable findings. One of the most concerning experiences we encountered during data collection was that 53% of our PAIA requests were either ignored or refused by provincial departments. This unfortunately resulted in incomplete datasets, making it difficult to accurately quantify the true magnitude of the captive predator industry in South Africa.
Another serious concern demonstrated by the data our researchers gathered was the highly inconsistent nature of the information obtained from the departments. The permitting systems put in place showed a complete lack of standardisation and centralisation within and across the various departments responsible for managing captive wildlife.
Since provincial regulations differ quite significantly, some provinces are more attractive than others for activities like captive breeding, captive hunting and euthanasia. For example, in 2020 230 lions were hunted in the North West despite strict lockdown conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic (see Figure 1). The Free State is particularly attractive to breeders and those trading in lion skeletons due to more lenient regulations regarding euthanasia. This makes the Free State not only a major industry player in breeding lions for the bone trade but also the province to send lions to be euthanised (see Figure 2).
Figure 1. A provincial breakdown of the number of TOPS hunting permits (grey) issued by the provincial authorities and the quantity of lions (orange) and other large felids (blue) involved (2017-2020).
Figure 2. A provincial breakdown of the number of TOPS euthanasia permits (grey) issued by the provincial authorities to the number of unique captive facilities (green) and the quantity of lions (orange) involved (2017-2020).
In 2019, after the ruling that the lion bone quota was deemed unlawful, a further 130+ skeletons were exported with CITES permits despite reports that no legal exports were made during that year.
There are also indications that some breeders may be gathering stockpiles as euthanasia permits were still issued despite a zero quota on lion skeletons (see Figure 2). Notably, there are no stockpile records kept on a provincial or national level, which means we cannot quantify how many skeletons are currently stored by farmers and traders.