Cape Town – While the Department of Environmental Affairs is the custodian of SA’s wildlife and natural resources on a governmental level, a few pressing environmental cases in dire need of national attention are being blatantly ignored.
Apart from the fact that the DEA says it would like to legalise domestic trade in rhino horn in order to ‘clear its house’ of the rhino horn stock, there are a number of other shocking actions – or perhaps the lack of action – that needs urgent attention from the department.
As the world celebrates the official World Wildlife Day across the globe, we take a look at four wildlife issues in SA which have baffled conservationists so far in 2017.
Silence over Thula Thula tragedy
Perhaps the DEA is taking the name of the Findimvelo Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage literally… (Thula Thula means ‘hush hush’ in isiZulu and isiXhosa). But still, their silence over the harrowing incident at the rhino orphanage in KZN last week has been slated by conservationists.
On the evening of 21 February, poachers tied up staff and killed two rhino as their protectors watched in horror.
Wildlife lovers and conservationists across the globe flooded the orphanage with well-wished and donations, but a response from SA’s official DEA remains at large.
According to Allison Thomson, founder of Outraged South African Citizens Against Rhino Poaching, “It beggars belief that there has not been a single word from the Department about the tragedy that occurred at Thula Thula”.
Thomson posted to the organisation’s official Facebook page saying the lack of interest in the harrowing incident “sums up the DEA’s attitude towards the poaching crisis we face”.
The proposal to legally trade in rhino horn
Speaking in a Parliamentary portfolio committee on Tuesday, 21 February, Department of Environmental Affairs’ Minister Edna Molewa baffled conservationists when she said there had been a moratorium on rhino horn sales since 2009 and that the department needed to ‘clear its house.’
It’s an intricate issue, with the DEA most likely feeling pressure from local rhino farmers with large stockpiles of horn in their possession. “The backstory to her announcement is that last year the moratorium was challenged by private sector rhino breeders who won on a technicality,” Don Pinnock of the Conservation Action Trust wrote in an article recently published on Traveller24.
“Molewa, took the result on appeal to the Constitutional Court. Then, on February 8 – possibly contemplating losing the case – she announced new draft regulations to permit legal internal trade in rhino horn and setting out conditions favourable for its export.”
If passed, each person will be able to buy, own, sell or export two rhino horns. The public have 30 days from date of the gazette to make representations or objections.
As with the legalisation of all trade in endangered species, conservationists fear that a stimulation of the market will only further endanger the specie. The draft regulations, they fear, are also too vague and full of holes and will do doubt put the increasingly vulnerable rhino species further exposed.
Disregard for full impact of legalising lion bone trade
In the most recent statement from the global wild cat conservation group Panthera, the DEA’s completely disregard for glaringly obvious facts on legalising trade in endangered species is highlighted again.
This time, by an international authority.
Addressing SA’s DEA directly from New York in the US, Panthera released a statement saying the organisation “is calling on the DEA to institute a moratorium on lion bone exports, effective immediately”.
Panthera’s Lion Program senior director Dr Paul Funston elaborated on the statement saying the SA “government’s proposed quota of 800 lion skeletons for legal export has absolutely no grounding in science.
“It is irresponsible to establish policy that could further imperil wild lions—already in precipitous decline throughout much of Africa—when the facts are clear; South Africa’s lion breeding industry makes absolutely no positive contribution to conserving lions and, indeed, further imperils them,” Funston says.
But the DEA insists they are acting within the environmental law, and says a “well-regulated trade will enable the Department to monitor a number of issues relating to the trade, including the possible impact on the wild populations”.
Panthera warns that the legalisation of a trade in lion bones will stimulate the market and endanger both captive and wild lion populations. “There is significant evidence that South Africa’s legal trade in captive-bred lion trophies is accelerating the slaughter of wild lions for their parts in neighbouring countries and is, in fact, increasing demand for wild lion parts in Asia — a market that did not exist before South Africa started exporting lion bones in 2007,” they say.
Wild lion populations are on a steep decline, with only 20 000 remaining today, down from 30 000 just two decades ago, Panthera reports.
The jury is still out on whether the DEA will approve the legal export of the 800 captive-bred lion skeletons in 2017, and requests by Traveller24 to the DEA about where the process currently stands have yet to be answered.
Zero quota for leopard hunting in 2017 but little about last year’s ban effects
While a ‘zero quota’ for the hunting of leopard (Panthera pardus) has been extended for the duration of this year, a lot of confusion exists over whether leopard numbers are on the increase or decrease.
Along with the instating of the zero quota for 2017, the DEA warned that there is a “possibility of introducing a precautionary hunting quota in 2018, based on the review of available scientific information from SA’s Scientific Authority on the status and recovery of leopard populations in South Africa,” the DEA said.
They cited an increase in leopard numbers as the reason to lift the quota, but their ‘available scientific information’ did not coincide with those of other, global conservationists’ findings, who argues that leopard numbers are declining and legal hunting and trophy importing and exporting plays a major role in this decline.
A 2016 legal petition considered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Scientific Authority, for example, asked for all leopards to be classified as “endangered” status under the Endangered Species Act.
The petition is being backed by The Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society International, International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Centre for Biological Diversity and The Fund for Animals.
In 2014 alone, they say, hunters imported 311 leopard trophies into the United States. In sub-Saharan Africa, the leopard population has declined by more than 30% in the past 25 years, and the species has lost 48 to 67% of its historic range in Africa.
Between 2005 and 2014, at least 10 191 individual leopards were traded internationally as hunting trophies.
Regardless, the DEA will reconsider the zero quota for the upcoming year and conservationists can hope they recognise both local and global trends in wildlife trade and exploitation before lifting any ban.