Canned lion hunting: a necessary evil?
Aletta Gardner asks if this controversial practice could help to save the species.
Footage of a hunter killing a lioness in an enclosure with a crossbow recently caused upset. It's the first video of a canned hunt to surface for years, and comes as the South African government mulls over changes to regulations to protect vulnerable species. But could this industry be a necessary evil to protect wild populations? Aletta Gardner explores the case for and against canned hunting.
Lion hunts are the stuff of legends. I remember being captivated by a particularly entertaining story about the old days when hunting was still allowed in the Sabi Sand game reserve where I spent childhood holidays. Big game hunters worth their salt would certainly have deemed a lion trophy a necessity on their list of things to accomplish. The Maasai tribe of East Africa have traditionally seen hunting these predators on foot with a spear as a rite of passage. So perhaps we should not be surprised that the demand for the experience and the industry which allows a safe, easy way of getting it is still out there. Still, I was.
Who doesn't remember the outrage caused by the expose on canned lion hunting back in the late 1990s? You could easily be forgiven for believing that the practice was outlawed at the time.
Therefore footage which surfaced recently came as a shock to many. The video of a local hunter inexpertly trying to get a lioness in the crosshairs of his bow and arrow is a difficult one to watch. The animal is clearly fenced in, and behaves wholly unnaturally - making desperate charges at the vehicle, while the hunter fumbles and curses. Ultimately, the animal is hit, letting out a strange roar, before writhing around in the dust, confused and mortally wounded.
It's easy to get emotional while watching this video. But doing so does not allow us to engage with the debate about canned hunting and the potential threats or benefits to the future of lions in South Africa. While some call it downright cruel, is controlled hunting of captive bred lions possibly a way of ensuring the future prosperity of wild populations?
While doing research for a news piece about the renewed calls for a ban on canned hunting which followed the video's publication, I was very surprised to learn that there are approximately 2700 wild lions left in South Africa.
I re-checked this several times, feeling sure that it could not be true. But the figure was confirmed by the latest information obtained from the Department of Environmental Affair, which puts the number of wild lions at 2743.
It means there are now fewer wild lions than rhinos.
It also means that the captive population now outnumbers the wild one by as much as double.
This left me with many questions: Where is the hype? What are the implications? And why does the Department of Environmental Affairs say it is not concerned?
I started becoming more alarmed when I found a report released the previous month, led by renowned lion expert Dr Craig Packer from the University of Minnesota, which claims Africa's wild lions are in serious trouble.
I put this to the department, who reassured me that 70% of South Africa's wild lions are in protected areas and are doing well, since studies show their populations are stable.
I contacted Dr Packer, who confirmed that South Africa is the exception in his study:
"Unlike the rest of Africa, South Africa's lions are doing very well. Most populations are close to their carrying capacity, and the recent proliferation of private conservancies has increased the total number of wild lions in South Africa to the highest it has been in the past century," he told me.
Case closed? Not quite. What I learnt next suggests it's not the time to rest assured.
For those who are against hunting in principle, canned hunting is particularly problematic: An animal which was raised in captivity is put in an enclosure from which it cannot escape, with the hunter safely in a vehicle. There is a case for calling it unfair and cruel.
But for the Campaign Against Canned Hunting this only as one part of the problem. It suggests that the industry poses a real and direct threat to the future of the species.
How? It argues the "insidious" consequences for Southern Africa's wild lion populations mean that lion breeding and canned hunting cannot be seen as a separate issue from conservation of wild animals.
Chris Mercer, who heads the campaign, has been calling for a complete ban on canned hunting for 13 years.
He argues that not only are many South Africans wrongly under the impression that the practice was outlawed, but the legal battle which ensued with predator breeders left lions even more vulnerable since they were removed from the Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) list.
The reason? The outrage over canned hunting in the late nineties demanded some sort of action from government. The compromise was a 24-month wilding rule - before you could shoot a captive-bred lion it had to roam in a camp with some buck for up to two years. The debate about whether this makes the hunt fair rages on.
According to the Environmental Affairs Department it did not want to delay the protection for other listed large predators when litigation was brought against the minster over this regulation, so it opted to leave lions off the TOPS list temporarily.
But the department's Thea Carroll insists there are "several legal provisions in place in terms of the national legislation that (do) address activities associated with canned hunting."
Mercer claims these are merely cosmetic and leave the necessary loopholes for the practice to continue to harm not only animals, but do collateral damage to conservation efforts.
"We think that the captive breeding of lions poses a reckless threat to the survival of wild species in South Africa, and the reason is that people don't realise the insidious spin-offs from lion farming," he said.
Mercer explained, "…the Roland Ward trophy book will not recognise trophies from South Africa, because they know that the animals are captive bred and therefore "not real" in hunting terms, (so) resourceful hunting operators smuggle captive-bred lions from South Africa to neighbouring territories where they are hunted."
This, Mercer claims, leads to those neighbouring countries losing track of the numbers of their wild lion populations, and new hunting quotas being based on erroneous information.
Another concern is that the industry could inadvertently fuel the lion bone trade by stimulating the demand from Asia and leading to a poaching crisis similar to the one facing rhinos. Mercer said the trade is increasing exponentially.
"We're tracking it through CITES returns - that's going to result in wild lions being killed because… the bones are cheaper. Why pay $165 a kilo for bones when you can pay a poacher $10 a kilo for bones?"
The other issue with allowing captive breeding is ensuring healthy genes. Mercer suggests this is sometimes done in underhanded ways.
"Breeders have to keep importing fresh blood in order to combat captivity depression. That means wild lions are being captured (often illegally) and very often being smuggled in over the porous border with Botswana," Mercer said.
This claim is backed by the African Lion Working Group, who according to a Times Live news report this week fingered South African breeders in capturing wild lions in Botswana to stock their farms.
According to Mercer there is no two ways about it. "…This toxic industry is going to poison the conservation of wild lions."
The owner of the Drakenstein Lion Park outside Cape Town, Paul Hart, steadfastly believes captive breeding does nothing to aid conservation.
At his facility Hart takes lions rescued from circuses and urban dwellings in South Africa and overseas to live out their lives in peace. They are not allowed to procreate and will never be released into the wild.
Hart believes the large population of captive lions in South Africa "…poses a huge threat to wild populations. Any outbreak of disease or new viral strains in captive populations can effectively wipe out entire wild populations in South Africa."
The South African Predator Association (Sapa), which represents lion breeders, however flatly denies that its industry does any harm whatsoever to the future of the species.
"The hunting of captive bred lions does not pose any threat to wild lion populations. On the contrary, it contributes in a real way to the conservation of the wild lion populations," it told me in a statement.
It concedes to a "disastrous decline" of free roaming lions in Africa, but says "the 6000 captive bred lions represent a significant lion population that cannot be dismissed or disregarded in terms of the survival of the species. The captive bred population can serve as a healthy gene pool, which may be used in a number of ways to save the African lion. The captive lion industry has embarked on a project to ensure and improve the genetic integrity of its breeding animals."
It also argues that allowing controlled hunting alleviates the pressure on free roaming populations, and claims that captive bred lions may be introduced into the wild.
"Many conservationists are sceptical about such a possibility, but we believe that it is possible and we are going out to prove it."
On the issue of the bone trade, it warns that the consequence of banning it may be far more damaging.
"If the legal trade in lion bone is terminated (as was done with rhino horn fifteen years ago) the African lion will meet the same fate as the rhino. It will be poached to extinction. If the legal trade is kept open, market forces will ensure that the poaching of wild lion will stay within reasonable parameters."
A NECESSARY EVIL?
Dr. Packer calls canned hunting "a two-edged sword" for lion conservation.
"Most people I know are so horrified by the lion-bone trade that they haven't seriously considered whether the lion farmers might actually be doing wild lions a favor. From an animal-rights perspective, of course, canned hunting and farming lions for their bones is pretty awful. If someone could squash the demand for lion bones in China, I don't think anyone would defend the lion farms. In the meantime, they may be a necessary evil."
A report studying the possible impacts of the captive-bred lion hunting industry in South Africa and the hunting and conservation of lions elsewhere in Africa was released a year ago. It was a joint project between the University of Pretoria, the big cat conservation organisation Panthera, Sweet Briar College in the USA and the University of Cape Town.
It concluded that there are real conservation issues arising from the industry, which include "the probability that the genetics of captive animals are being manipulated" and it flagged "potential impacts on demand for the bones of wild felids, and potential impacts on the demand for wild lion hunts."
It called for urgent research into the issue of the trade of lion bones from South Africa to identify the potential risks and issues for lion conservation.
According the Panthera, lions are currently listed as "Vulnerable" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species; and in West and Central Africa, the species is now classified as "Endangered."
It claims that the number of wild lions in Africa has dropped from an estimated 200,000 to fewer than 30,000 in the last century.
Its Lion Program Director Dr Guy Balme warns, "Lions have slipped under the conservation radar for too long. If we do not act now, lions will find themselves in the same dire predicament as their Asian counterpart, the tiger."
Although it's not concerned about the numbers, the Environmental Affairs Department says it is in the process of investigating the lion bone trade and that a closer look at the "by-products" of hunting industry are prioritised for this year, although it could not say when it would be finalised.
It adds that a biodiversity management plan for lions is also in the process of development.
The South African Predator Association says it is currently working with DEA to develop norms and standards for the management of captive bred lions.
The public has until 15 June to give input on the proposed new TOPS regulations.
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Aletta Gardner is a Multimedia Journalist at EWN. You can follow her on Twitter.