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Captive lion breeding damages SA’s tourism reputation

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Despite overwhelming worldwide opposition, including a parliamentary resolution to close down the captive lion breeding industry, SA’s government is ignoring red flags that the industry is damaging the country’s reputation and deliberating a 2020 annual trade quota for the export of lion bones.

The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) said in April that the decision for a lion bone quota has been deferred to later this year. It claims that public opposition and a 2019 court case between the minister and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA), who say breeding and trade in captive bred lion parts raises significant welfare issues, delayed determining last year’s export quota.

Wildlife trade experts say the legal trade in lion bones which is used for medicinal purposes in Southeast Asia, is fuelling an illegal market.

They say that the permit system is weak and creates loopholes for illegal wildlife trafficking, which is further impacting on wildlife conservation. An estimated 12000 captive lions exist in South Africa, while no more than 10 000 wild lions roam the continent. More than 6000 lion skeletons have been exported from South Africa since 2008.

According to department, the decision will be based on the recommendations by a panel, mandated to review policies, legislation and practices on matters related to the management, breeding, hunting, trade and handling of four iconic species, including lions.

The panel is required to provide recommendations to the minister by the end of this month. But this comes after a 2018 parliamentary committee recommended that the captive lion breeding and lion bone trade industry be closed and a High Court judgement that previous annual export lion skeleton quotas were illegal because they ignored animal welfare.

“Should DEFF issue a lion bone quota now, no matter the stockpiles that are accumulating on lion breeding farms, it will send a very clear signal that the voice of public opinion, scientific reason, and of legal judgement has been ignored and that only money and no doubt corruption matters on the issue of lion bones and captive breeding,” says Paul Funston, lion species director at Panthera, an organisation exclusively devoted  to the conservation of the world’s 40 wild cat species and their landscapes.

With international criticism, reports highlighting animal cruelty and the lack of conservation value, conservationists are questioning the minister’s motivation in considering a trade in lion bones which supports the continuation of the captive lion industry.

They say she is wasting resources when the writing is on the wall that the industry should be closed down.

“The lion breeding industry is making a few lion breeders a lot of money, but is costing Brand South Africa billions,” says Colin Bell, wildlife conservationists and founder of Wilderness Safaris.

“Not only is this industry barbaric, it is terrible for Brand South Africa and has cost South Africa many millions – even billions in lost tourist arrivals, revenues and jobs when tourists elect to rather travel elsewhere.”

According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, over R400bn is generated by South Africa’s travel and tourism industry. This is compared to the captive lion breeding industry which supports little more than 1000 jobs.

The department claims welfare will be considered in determining this year’s quota with the engagement of welfare experts. But there are no welfare authorities sitting on the panel HLP.

The only welfare specialist on the panel, Karen Trendler, resigned and the NSPCA which received a late invite, declined membership, for reasons it won’t divulge.

Others, including the Humane Society Africa and environmental lawyer, Cormac Cullinan, also declined membership stating the panel was weighted with parties invested in the commercial use of wildlife and wildlife body parts and had no interest in welfare.

Despite the existence of animal welfare legislation in South Africa, it lacks adequate representation and enforcement. While the department is mandated to oversee biodiversity conservation, animal welfare falls under the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD), which in turn routinely passes the buck to the NSPCA, a non-government body tasked with enforcing the Animal Protection Act, but which receives no state funding.

With limited welfare enforcement, over 450 breeding facilities capitalise, unhindered, on breeding lions for hunting and trade. Many of these facilities pose as lion conservation centres or sanctuaries but on closer inspection are more akin to lion factories.

Lion conservation experts say breeding lions in captivity has no conservation value. In a statement, the Endangered Wildlife Trust says: “The captive keeping and breeding of large carnivores does not contribute to carnivore conservation in South Africa.

“There are nationally and internationally recognised conservation plans for cheetahs, lions, wild dogs and leopards and none of them identify captive breeding as a required conservation action.”

Recently, studies have shown that lion breeding farms are a “hotbed” for zoonotic diseases.

A report says captive lions carry a range of harmful pathogens, including Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

With many lion farms offering cub petting and walking, these facilities are posing a real threat to tourists and staff.

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