South African Government’s latest thinking on elephants, rhinos, lions and leopards

On 2 May 2021, South Africa’s Minister for Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Barbara Creecy, made public a massive report of 582 pages compiled by a so-called ‘High-Level Panel’, containing 18 goals and 60 recommendations. Most strategic planners will tell you that having too many goals is a sure recipe for failure to achieve any of them.

It is called ‘The high-level panel of experts for the review of policies, legislation and practices on matters of elephant, lion, leopard and rhinoceros management, breeding, hunting, trade and handling. For submission to the Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries – 15 December 2020.’

The media have picked up as the main message of the report that South Africa plans to ban the so-called ‘canned hunting’ of lions in South Africa, a practice that has resulted in widespread condemnation from many quarters, including most hunting organisations and from the majority of hunters themselves.

A Colloquium on Captive Lion Breeding by the then-Portfolio Committee on Environmental Affairs was held in August 2018. This was attended by a range of national and international organisations who gave evidence to the Committee. According to the report of the Portfolio Committee, which was later adopted by Parliament, there was a predominant view that the captive lion breeding industry did not contribute to conservation and was doing damage to South Africa’s conservation and tourism reputation.

The Portfolio Committee, therefore, requested the Department, as a matter of urgency, to initiate a policy and legislative review with a view to putting an end to this practice. Given that there were a number of other burning issues related to other iconic species such as rhino (escalating poaching, rhino horn trade), elephant (ivory trade), and leopard (threats such as illegal offtake of damage causing leopards, poorly managed trophy hunting, trade in leopard skin for religious and traditional use) the Department decided to include these in the terms of reference of the Panel in order to get a holistic view of the pertinent issues.

The Minister established the High Level Panel (HLP) on 10 October 2019, in terms of Section 3A of the National Environmental Management Act 107 of 1998 (NEMA). The Panel was chaired by Ms Pamela Yako, and comprised 25 members from a range of backgrounds and areas of expertise.

The report is extremely long and will require some serious reading and analysis before the full implications of its recommendations can be made. It remains to be seen whether any of the 18 goals can be achieved, given the complicated nature of South African society, let alone the diversity of views about the environment and conservation. The views of animal rights proponents seem to be scattered throughout the report. Some idealistic philosophical threads run through the report, like this:

“To provide this aspirational horizon against which to reference our thinking, we identified the following consensus ‘working vision’:

Secured, restored, and rewilded natural landscapes with thriving populations of Elephant, Lion, Rhino, and Leopard, as indicators for a vibrant, responsible, inclusive, transformed, and sustainable wildlife sector.

‘Responsible’ and ‘sustainable’ sound like appropriate words for the wildlife sector to aim for, but what is meant by ‘vibrant’, ‘inclusive’ and ‘transformed’ in this context? Given that the ANC government seems intent on implementing a new land policy of ‘expropriation without compensation’, what does this mean for the privately-owned wildlife ranches and game farms on which much of South Africa’s hunting activities take place?

The HLP identified seven cross-cutting themes within which they could frame the issues of concern that needed to be dealt with as part of its Terms of Reference (ToR), and for which the members would need a deeper understanding to inform their recommendations, namely: The Constitutional framework; Legislation and mandates; Land-use and the South African wildlife model; Transformation in the sector; Education and capacity building; International position, and Animal welfare.

Seven sub-committees developed situation reports for each theme, which identified key issues of concern, as well as providing different ‘lenses’ from which to view the specific issues raised for each species within the ToR. It is no wonder that their report is so lengthy! The Executive summary is five pages long. Let’s skim through its 18 areas of concern to the HLP:

  • Recommends the development of a National Policy on Biodiversity and Sustainable Use, which will provide context, clarity and strategic direction to all stakeholders.
  • Notes the importance of transformation of the sector, with empowerment and capacitation of communities living with wildlife, and recognition of their traditions and culture, as practiced through the traditional leaders and traditional healers.
  • Notes the importance of thriving populations of the five iconic species as catalysts for a vibrant, responsible, inclusive, transformed, and sustainable wildlife sector, and has identified key aspects of wildlife land-use and the wildlife model that can be improved to achieve this.
  • Capacity building, education, training, and empowerment of human capital across the wildlife sector needs focus and attention.
  • Standards and practices within the wildlife sector need to meet the minimum acceptable standards for animal welfare and well-being.
  • Inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of governance of the wildlife sector caused by multiple mandates and dual competency between national and provinces requires reform from a legislative and implementation practice perspective.
  • Conflicting legislation, policy and mandates between Environment and Agriculture requires attention.
  • Rationalised and improved contribution of protected areas to support conservation and sustainable use of the five species, and to aid in serving as drivers of regional rural economies.
  • South Africa’s international standing as a leader in conservation is threatened by some wildlife practices and approaches in South Africa – with a protocol, key interventions, and a risk mitigation and communication strategy required to deal with this.
  • There is a need for responsible, adaptive, transparent, and accountable management that secures thriving and sustainable populations of the five species and their habitats, for the benefit of all (wildlife, wildlife custodians, and society at large), while highlighting interventions to secure this.
  • South Africa to be repositioned and promoted as a destination of choice for legal, regulated and responsible hunting of the five iconic species, recognising that this supports and promotes conservation and rural livelihoods.
  • Live export of the five iconic species should focus on in situ conservation of the species within their natural range.
  • There is a need for development of an integrated, shared, strategic, approach to leopard management that considers all the dimensions, and is inclusive of all stakeholders.
  • As the HLP recommends a policy position stating that South Africa does not envisage submitting an ivory trade proposal to CITES as long as current specified circumstances prevail, alternative income streams need to be identified to support both elephant management and urgent socio-economic development requirements of people living with elephants.
  • The HLP recommends that South Africa should take a global leadership position on rhino conservation, and that the Minister should lead a process of engagement to develop a consensus approach to both global conservation of rhino, and a range state consensus on international commercial trade in rhino horn, that can be taken to CITES when the Rhino Committee of Inquiry and Rhino Action Plan conditions are met; to this end, urgent progress needs to be made with the implementation of the Rhino Committee of Inquiry recommendations, while alternative benefit streams to international rhino horn sale are developed and implemented.
  • The HLP recommends investigating the full range of options for future stockpile use, taking into account social and economic risks, costs, and benefits.
  • The majority of the HLP recommends that the current trend of increasing intensive management and registration of rhino captive breeding operations is reversed within a period that allows for a sustainable conservation outcome, through phasing out captive rhino breeding, and providing clarity that trade in captive rhino horn would not be supported or approved prior to the Rhino Committee of Inquiry recommendations being met.
  • Three different approaches to captive lions are presented by the panel, with the majority view being that, in future, South Africa will not captive breed lions, keep lions in captivity, or use captive lions or their derivatives commercially.

So, there is much to think about in this massive report, and already there are noises from rhino breeders that their rights are seriously infringed by the recommendations here. Most of us will support the notion of phasing our canned lion hunting, but what is to be done with the large population of captive lions, and the people whose livelihoods are sustained by the practice? What usually happens when you ban the trade in any commodity, is that it goes underground and becomes the domain of criminals and corrupt officials. That has already happened with rhino horn, and will surely be the case with lion bones. The HLP report is not very helpful in these two cases.

But the underlying support for hunting is welcomed, as it is expressed in recommendation 11:

“South Africa to be repositioned and promoted as a destination of choice for legal, regulated and responsible hunting of the five iconic species, recognising that this supports and promotes conservation and rural livelihoods.”

Dr John Ledger is a past Director of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, now a consultant, writer and teacher on the environment, energy and wildlife; he is a columnist for the African Hunting Gazette. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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