OPINION: Legal regulated hunting has a role to play in conserving species
Much of the recent debate around lion management and the role of legal, well-regulated hunting in species conservation has been polarising and, in many instances, misinformed. South Africa's species preservation track record is well known on the global stage and, thanks to a strictly regulated permit system, the department of environmental affairs has been able to ensure that the trade in listed species is in the main sustainable, legal and traceable.
The controversy over the shooting of well-known lion Cecil on a trophy hunt in Zimbabwe highlights the need for a more balanced, reasoned discussion on the substantive issues around lion management, and the role of legal, well-regulated hunting in species conservation in general.
Regretfully, much of the recently resurrected debate and discussion has been polarising and, in many instances, misinformed.
Every year, hundreds of legally acquired wildlife specimens, among them trophies acquired in legal hunts, pass through South Africa's main ports of entry and exit without incident.
Because of a strictly regulated permit system governed by a raft of national laws and policies, as well as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), the department of environmental affairs has been able to ensure that the trade in listed species, among them lion, elephant and rhino, is in the main sustainable, legal and traceable.
As one of the first signatories to Cites, South Africa's species preservation track record is well known on the global stage; so much so that in recognition of our efforts we will host the 17th Conference of Parties (CoP) to Cites next year.
Legally managed, sustainable hunting is an integral part of this country's constitutionally-enshrined principle of sustainable utilisation.
The sector is valued at around R6.2 billion a year and is a major source of South Africa's socio-economic activity, contributing towards job creation, community development and social upliftment.
Historically, sustainable utilisation of species through legal hunting has played a role in the growth of populations, including of lion, elephant and rhino.
Further studies support the position that banning hunting could have potentially broader negative effects, such as increased human-animal conflict, and wildlife-based land use being abandoned in favour of ecologically unfavorable alternatives.
Undeniably, the threat posed by the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife specimens threatens to undermine any country's conservation successes. We must in the same vein admit that penalising an entire industry for the illegal actions of the few is not in the country's best interests.
It is within this context that one should view the announcement by the cargo division of our national carrier, South African Airways (SAA), that it is lifting its embargo on the transportation of hunting trophies.
As the department of environmental affairs has repeatedly affirmed since the embargo was first announced in April, illegality should not be confused with legality.
Over the past six years, the department has put in place a raft of measures to control and reduce the illegal exploitation and trade in endangered species and their products.
The department's environmental management inspectors, commonly known as the Green Scorpions, have been stationed at OR Tambo International Airport since 1 April 2015.
The Green Scorpions are deployed at the airport to ensure compliance with the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, Cites and the threatened or protected species regulations.
Our teams have been working closely with other law enforcement agencies and have conducted joint proactive compliance and enforcement operations at the airport, and have facilitated training sessions with SAA Cargo officers.
As part of new measures to prevent the circumstances that gave rise to the embargo (caused by an illegal consignment that did not even originate from South Africa), our teams will now be working 24 hours a day, together with other law enforcement agencies at ports of entry and exit.
Part of their work is ensuring that physical inspections are conducted on a daily basis to monitor compliance, and that Cites export and re-export permits are endorsed only after physical inspection of consignments, and are cancelled after use.
Further training will be conducted for airline officers and cargo handlers, Airports Company South Africa employees and other operators in the handling of wildlife consignments and the detection of suspicious cargo.
As a country we will continue to crack down on illegal operators.
The decision by other international airlines such as Delta Airlines to enforce a blanket ban on the transportation of hunting trophies from Africa once again incorrectly fails to distinguish between the trade in and transportation of legally acquired wildlife specimens, and the illegal trade in wildlife specimens.
The SAA decision, which we welcome, and hope other airlines like Delta (and cargo handlers) will follow, is the outcome of an extensive consultation process between the airline and the department.
It is because SAA has satisfied itself that sufficient measures are in place to effectively monitor and detect the illegal transportation of wildlife specimens that the embargo has been lifted.
It has not been lifted because we have "bowed to pressure" from the hunting industry.
Hunting is a highly-regulated activity in South Africa, as is the transportation of hunting trophies.
South Africa's management of all our 'Big Five' has been exemplary and our track record speaks for itself: we are home to most of the world's African black and white rhino, and have one of the world's largest and most stable lion populations.
This is the result of measures we have put in place not just to promote sustainability, but also to provide incentives for the conservation of our wildlife and their habitat.
The hunting, possession and trade in our natural flora and fauna is regulated and monitored, with all information in this regard collated by the department of environmental affairs.
We should therefore not be swayed by emotive arguments claiming our country's natural resources are being secretly decimated because of hunting.
Edna Molewa is environmental affairs minister.