It was almost inevitable that a minister with no experience of conservation or environmentalism would get railroaded by the animal rights lobby. There is little time to save Creecy – and 8 000 innocent lions – from its clutches.

South Africa is set to prohibit the captive breeding of lions, kill off at least 8 000 supposedly ‘captive’ lions, will stop lobbying CITES to legalise the international trade in rhino horn, and will move away from private rhino populations in favour of returning them to the tender mercies of government.

In presenting a voluminous High Level Panel Report on matters of elephant, lion, leopard, and rhinoceros management, breeding, hunting, trade and handling, the Minister of Environment, Forestry, and Fisheries, Barbara Creecy, said that ‘having applied my mind, we will be adopting the majority recommendations on these issues’.

The minister’s mandate, of course, is not to make popular decisions. It is to make correct decisions that respect the rights of South Africans, as well as her Constitutional and legal mandates. In that, it is not at all clear that she applied her mind.

Animal rights victory

The controversial majority recommendations in the report are a massive win for the animal rights extremists, who were well-represented as ‘experts’ on the 28-member panel.

The animal rights lobby, however, is resolutely opposed to any and all consumptive use of wildlife. It does not accept the principle of ‘sustainable use’, which has been enshrined in global and domestic wildlife conservation practice for over 40 years.

Instead of supporting what the Constitution says, namely ‘ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources’, the animal rights movement has been developing a competing legal doctrine under which conservation is not about protecting nature in aggregate, but about protecting every individual of every species. It has no answers for overpopulation problems in protected areas other than ‘let them starve, like nature intended’. It would outlaw pets and livestock farming, if it could. It would lobby for the rights of individual rats in a plague rat infestation.

This makes them activists, not experts, and they had no business sitting on an expert panel advising the minister.

Unfortunately, it seems the minister is not familiar with the philosophy and tactics of animal rights extremists. This is perhaps no surprise, since her education is in political science, and before being appointed to the Ramaphosa cabinet as environment minister, her previous executive experience was at provincial level in finance, education, and sports, recreation, arts and culture.

Only six of the panel’s 28 members could be said to represent the wildlife ranching or hunting industries, which makes it no surprise that their views were relegated to the minority. The question the minister had to answer was not which views were most popular, but which views were most reasonable.

‘[I]t is frightening how uninformed the views of so many of the panelists appear to be,’ rhino farmer Derek Lewitton told Paul Ash of the Sunday Times.

Game ranching

In South Africa, national parks and protected areas cover 5% of the country’s land surface area. Another 17% of the land is owned and managed by private wildlife ranches.

It wasn’t always so. In 1965, game was practically extinct outside national parks. Many species were exceedingly rare, even in those parks. Today, thanks to changes in the law to permit private ownership and sale of game, there is more than three times as much game on private land as there is on state-protected land.

In 1950, there were 19 bontebok in the Bontebok National Park. Those were the only bontebok in the wild, anywhere. Today, there are about 1 000 bontebok in national parks around the country, and more than 7 000 on private game ranches.

Sable antelope went from 450 individuals in 1950 to 500 individuals in national parks today. Private game ranches, however, play host to 4 500 of them. Roan antelope went from 150 in parks in 1950 to 200 in parks today, but 2 300 can be found on game farms. Blesbok fared a little better, with 2 000 individuals in parks in 1950 growing to 25 000 individuals in parks today. Game farms today host about a quarter of a million blesbok.

Not all game ranching is equal, of course. Some of the farms are small and fragmented, with incomplete and imperfect ecosystems. Others are larger, and in some cases, have combined by pulling down intervening fences. Some game ranch populations are genetically similar to wild populations, while others have been bred for specific traits.

While conservation purists might look down on game ranches as being of little value to wild game and ecosystem conservation, surely one must acknowledge that land under game is far more desirable, from a conservation point of view, than the inevitable alternative, which is to turn that same land over to livestock or crops.

If game does not earn enough, that is exactly what will happen to most game ranches. And what pays for game? Urban elites would like to think that photographic tourism can sustain private game conservation, but the reality is much different. Many game ranches are far from the beaten tourist track, and only a few have the spectacular views and comfortable facilities that typically attract tourists.

In fact, ecotourism – prior to Covid-19 – contributed only 5% to the wildlife ranching industry’s revenue. Meat and biltong production accounted for 7%, live sales for 16%, foreign hunters for 18%, and a whopping 54% of the game industry’s revenue was accounted for by local hunters. Overall, hunting makes up 72% of the industry’s revenue.

And remember, without this revenue, very few game farm owners would keep the place going as a philanthropic conservation initiative. The vast majority of unprofitable game farms would become cattle ranches, sheep farms, or maize fields. They would also employ fewer people, if that happened.

So there’s a context for all this policy hand-wringing.

Common cause

It is common cause that animal welfare should be a guiding principle in how wildlife is regulated in South Africa. None of the panel members, and hardly anyone in the game ranching and hunting industries, would dispute that.

It is also common cause that maximising the scope for conservation of animals and ecosystems in the wild should be a goal of public policy.

Everyone is also agreed that the game industry could benefit from transformation, that black owners and operators should be recruited into the industry, and that local communities should benefit more from the industry.

There are several points on which the experts (and activists) do not agree, however.

Rhino

Among them is whether prohibiting trade in rhino products, or reducing private ownership of rhino, would benefit rhino conservation in general. The evidence would suggest not.

Current trade restrictions on rhino products mean forgoing several billion rand in potential revenue, every year. Some of this revenue could be re-invested in conservation, employment, and anti-poaching operations. Some could be reinvested in community projects. Even the profits accruing to owners ultimately serve to strengthen the broader economy, through their investment or spending.

The absence of a legal market in rhino products makes the illegal market the only avenue to supply demand. It is notable that the poaching crisis grew to unprecedented levels during a time when there was a moratorium on legal trade in rhino horn. As with any prohibition, a ban on trade stimulates, rather than combats, the illegal market.

It is also deeply troubling that the majority view in the report suggests returning privately owned rhino to the wild. It is exactly there, in the wild, that rhino populations are declining, and at the greatest risk of poaching. Moving rhino from secure, private locations to insecure trans-frontier national parks seems, well, daft, from a conservation point of view.

‘The minister and her department have failed to protect our national asset, and now they’re trying to legislate rhino into extinction. The only sector that’s working is the private sector,’ complained another rhino owner, Richard York, in the Sunday Times.

Lions

Then there is the lion decision. The majority opinion demands an immediate end to tourist interactions with lions, such as petting. It wants to ban hunting of captive-bred lions, and the sale of lion-derived products such as bones. Further, it wants an end to the entire practice of keeping lions ‘captive,’ and recommends the euthanasia of the 8 000 to 10 000 lions that are currently classified as captive lions.

Those lions ought to be killed, but their bones are not to be sold under any circumstances, of course. We want people who desire such products to go after the 3 500-odd surviving wild lions.

Imagine the impact this will have on the large number of wildlife ranches that breed lions. Imagine the impact on game lodges that attract tourists with promises of seeing Africa’s most iconic species, but which do not have the acreage to sustain a lion population that isn’t considered ‘captive’, but requires active intervention, such as supplementary feeding.

Of course, there are legitimate concerns about the captive lion breeding industry.

Unnecessary cruelty to animals is, in and of itself, unethical, of course, and should be criminalised. Animal rights activists have been working hard to expose anecdotal examples of maltreatment of lions, and this poses a reputational risk for South Africa’s wildlife ranching industry and conservation credentials.

There is also well-justified concern in the hunting industry that hunting captive lions that have been habituated to humans gives the broader industry a bad name. That said, the majority of lions bred for hunting are not habituated to humans. Why this practice is problematic for the minister, outside of the animal rights echo chambers, is anyone’s guess.

Misconceptions

Creecy said: ‘The panel identified that the captive lion industry poses risks to the sustainability of wild lion conservation resulting from the negative impact on ecotourism which funds lion conservation and conservation more broadly, the negative impact on the authentic wild hunting industry, and the risk that trade in lion parts poses to stimulating poaching and illegal trade.’

On her first point, that the private lion industry poses a threat to ecotourism, presumably in national parks, is absurd. Killing off the industry just to eliminate competition is sheer protectionism.

Her second point is also nonsense. In fact, there hardly is any ‘authentic wild hunting industry’. No more than a dozen truly wild lions get hunted in South Africa every year. The overwhelming majority of lions that are hunted in South Africa are bred for this purpose. It is this entire industry, complete with its more than 8 000 lions, the minister proposes to destroy.

Whether the South African hunting industry has a reputation for hunts that are ‘too easy’, which causes foreign hunters to seek more challenging climes like Namibia, is something only the industry can determine for itself. Nobody wants the Disneyfication of the hunting industry, but it is not government’s role to prevent it, if some operators believe that enough clients want this to make it commercially viable.

We’ve already covered her third point. Every lion product that gets sold legally reduces the demand for poached product. Why risk life and limb to go after wild lions, which are themselves dangerous and are routinely protected by trained anti-poaching rangers with big guns, when one can safely buy lion products from an industry that sustainably breeds animals for this purpose?

Wild crocodiles were saved from poaching not by banning trade in crocodile leather, but by establishing crocodile farms to supply the market for crocodile leather. Vicuña were saved from poaching not by banning vicuña fleece, but by giving communities ownership rights over vicuña so they could farm them sustainably.

Norms and standards

The solution to problems in an industry is not to ban the industry entirely. Many cars on South African roads are unroadworthy and pose a danger to occupants and other road users. Is the solution to ban cars altogether?

The solution is to set minimum standards and enforce them.

First, recognise that private breeding of any animal is not inherently immoral. Different people have different views on the matter, but that’s okay. Some people believe farming cattle and eating beef is unethical. Many local communities who live near, or in direct conflict with, wildlife have views that are diametrically opposed to those of urban elites about their management. If the animals do not benefit the community, they simply get slaughtered to make way for grazing, housing, or cropland.

Then, set norms and standards. Require humane treatment of all animals. Require a minimum amount of space for each animal in which to roam. Prohibit hunting of lions bred for human interaction. Set rules for different classes of trophy hunts, and how hunts are advertised.

Enforce these standards through industry regulation mechanisms, reporting requirements and/or a licensing regime. Inspect lion ranching facilities at random to detect and act against the ‘bad apples’ that give the entire industry a bad name.

Realise that prohibitions are not the only tool in the government toolbox. People – whether they are ranchers, hunters, or local communities – respond far better to positive incentives.

And don’t, by all that is good and holy, go banning trade in wildlife products. Not only does that encourage poaching and illicit trade, threatening wild populations, but it also destroys revenue that is desperately needed to sustain the industry, the jobs it creates, and the wider economy.

The end game

Lions, rhino, elephants, and leopards are what is known as ‘charismatic mega-fauna’. They’re the animals that people care about, that feature in eco-activist advertisements, that tourists want to see.

What about all the other animals? Is Creecy going to ban the private breeding of every other game animal that supposedly ‘does not contribute to conservation’? Is she going to ban the private wildlife ranching industry altogether?

That would suit the animal rights groups perfectly. That is their endgame when it comes to wildlife. They want nature fenced off and free from human interference of any kind. They oppose all commercial exploitation of wildlife. They want Africa’s natural resources kept away from greedy and immoral Africans and preserved for Western ecotourists.

The sooner Creecy recognises this agenda, the sooner she can start making policy that instead of pandering to the ideological extremism of animal rights activists, benefits the environment, the economy, and the people of South Africa.

She will soon announce a public comment period. May I suggest taking a few days to read the 582-page report, followed by a loud and vociferous response from those who support the sustainable and responsible use of our natural resources? If Creecy makes decisions based on popularity, let’s try to turn the minority opinions in the report into the majority opinions of the public.

 The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay


contributor

Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker who loves debunking myths and misconceptions, and addresses topics from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. Follow him on Twitter, @IvoVegter.