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They should be roaming wild and free

Ian Michler of Invent Africa is one of the continent’s finest wildlife guides, as well as an outspoken conservationist who has fought for the protection of African wilderness and wildlife. For 15 years, he has researched and campaigned against the canned-lion hunting industry in South Africa. His film Blood Lions is due for release at the Durban International Film Festival (Diff) on July 22.

SCOTT RAMSAY chatted to him recently about the canned-lion industry — and his thoughts on rhino-horn trade and hunting.

You’ve been exposed to some very different wildlife experiences — which was the most striking?

About 15 years ago, I was at one of the many wildlife auctions that take place across South Africa. I photographed an adult lion squeezed into a metal crate barely larger than its own body size. Brought to the market for selling, the crate was lying in the midday heat and all I could see of the animal was one of its eyes. What I saw in that eye continues to drive much of my conservation work.

There are probably no more than 20 000 lions remaining in the African wild. Consider that there are maybe more white and black rhinos in Africa than lions, and its clear that lions are facing a serious conservation crisis.

South Africa has somewhere between 2 800 and 3 200 lions in the wild. Of these, about half are “managed”, as they occur in the smaller private wildlife reserves. But there are more than 6 000 captive lions in South Africa, bred in small enclosures or on smallholdings.

These “canned” lions are bred for a variety of commercial uses: for cub petting, for hunting and for the lion bone trade, which is booming in Asia. It’s become a multimillion dollar industry, and all based on the deceit that it’s about conservation, education and research.

The genetics of these captive lions are useless to conservation because of inbreeding, as well as the extensive habituation to humans.

Of course, these are apex predators that should be roaming wild and free in national parks and wilderness areas. Lions should not be bred in captivity or enclosed in cages or small enclosures.

My new documentary film titled Blood Lions (produced with Nick Chevalier) reveals the full extent of the notorious industry, which serves no conservation purpose of the species whatsoever.

 Trade in rhino horn. Yes? No? Or maybe?

Trade in rhino horn should not be allowed as it may well hasten the demise of the species. Trade is based on a fraudulent paradigm. The economic models put forward to support a trade are weak, inconclusive and ultimately, risky.

Trade relating to other species or their body parts in similar circumstances: elephants, bears, tigers, lions, abalone and vicunas, for example, show clearly how a legal market promotes demand, poaching and parallel illegal markets.

Because of current legislation and voting requirements, it would seem that South Africa’s chances of succeeding with change at the 2016 Cites meeting are highly unlikely. Why are we wasting time and resources on an unrealistic approach?

Hunting. Does it fit into your conservation matrix? If no, why? If yes, why, and with what conditions?

Trophy hunting should not be part of our conservation thinking for a number of reasons. Here are two broad ones

  • We have more effective ways of managing protected areas; responsible non consumptive ecotourism being the primary one. These options bring significantly more sustainable conservation, economic and community based benefits.
  • Trophy hunting is a paradigm that originated over 100 years ago when colonials sought to shoot large numbers of wild animals as sport. Despite the conservation and economic justifications, it remains mired in that thinking today.

However, in the past few decades, we have made such substantial advances in unravelling our knowledge of other species, the environment in general and the impacts we are having. Society demands that we respond progressively to such scientific and social breakthroughs, which should mean a complete review of trophy hunting.

Which are your three favourite wildlife regions in Africa?

The remote private concessions of the northern and central western reaches of the Okavango Delta in Botswana. The wetland and woodland mosaic is always enchanting, and makes for the perfect place to linger among wildlife and birds.

Liuwa Plain in far western Zambia during the May/June period. One of the most underrated parks out there, Liuwa has awesome birding, fascinating wildlife, great landscapes and those early evening periods, where sound and silence alternate, are completely addictive.

The Mahale Mountains in far western Tanzania offer something truly special, and if twinned with Katavi on the other side of the mountain, it’s the most unique safari combination available. The far north-western reaches of Namibia, the southern Serengeti and Timbuktu are not far behind.

What does African wilderness and wildlife mean to you, personally?

Wilderness is so utterly different from everything that consumes the daily lives of most modern humans. It is completely natural, while our societies have become increasingly manufactured and contrived, and the level of malady we feel and display as individuals and communities is a measure of this menacing disparity.

So yes, we go into the wild for the immense beauty, the tranquillity, even the excitement, but we also go because it’s the most secure place to measure our own maladies and levels of unease. Being there is like coming up for fresh air, and it’s the only place where we can, for a period of time, exist in that refreshed state of mind.

What do I miss most about it?

It’s the complete authenticity and integrity that exist, factors that are mostly absent in our world, and it’s kind of reassuring to know they trump our cunning ways.