24 January 2005

Green groups seek ban on canned lion hunting

The Professional Hunters' Association of South Africa and animal rights groups are hoping that the government is going to ban canned lion hunting. A long-delayed policy on the "sustainable use of large predators" will be released within weeks for public comment.

The association fears that the game hunting industry, which has grown substantially in the past 10 years and earns the country billions of rands in foreign currency, could be seriously damaged if it becomes associated with canned lion hunting.

There are now almost 9 000 game ranches in South Africa. Through the legitimate hunting industry alone, which follows strict principles of "fair chase", 9 000 to 10 000 foreigners pour $1-billion (about R6-billion) every year into hunting, according to Gary Davies, the chief executive of the association. Trophy hunters pay at least $20 000 to hunt a male lion.

Davies is concerned that if laws banning canned hunting are not enforced, the industry as a whole will be tainted. "It can kill our industry," he said.

"That's not worth selling your soul for."

The world was scandalised in 1997 when Carte Blanche broadcast the Cooke Report, which used undercover video footage to show foreign hunters at game farms in Mpumalanga shooting drugged lions from the back of air-conditioned vehicles. The expos´┐Ż also showed a lactating female lioness that was separated from her three cubs and shot in front of them.

Shortly afterwards, then-environmental affairs minister Pallo Jordan issued a moratorium on the licensing of captive lion breeding centres in an effort to stop the supply of canned lions.

The moratorium was voluntary, however, and there is widespread confusion about which provinces - if any - disallow the breeding of lions in captivity for hunting.

According to Gareth Morgan, the Democratic Alliance spokesperson, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, the environmental affairs minister, only last year commissioned a study to determine the severity of the canned hunting problem.

"All credit to him for doing it," said Morgan, "but I cannot fathom how seven years after the Cooke Report and just months before the public participation process, the department doesn't have the facts and figures at its fingertips."

Morgan said he was "left with the feeling that the department is not entirely committed to eradicating this" - a concern echoed by conservation and animal rights groups.

SanWild, a rehabilitation sanctuary in Limpopo, currently cares for 17 lions that have been confiscated from the canned hunting industry.

Louise Joubert, who has run the sanctuary for 14 years, said new captive lion breeding projects were still being licensed.

In December 2003, the SABC reported that canned lion hunting was becoming such a major problem in Limpopo Province that authorities were battling to keep up with the number of lions being confiscated.

Wildlife groups estimate that there are currently 3 000 captive lions in such institutions.

If new laws ban captive breeding, these animals will have to be put down - an option Joubert said she would rather see than allow the continued psychological cruelty, problems with disease control, and degeneration of genetics that come with captive breeding.

In its current form, the draft policy on canned hunting (released in 2003) allows hunting only on foot and prohibits pack-hunting with dogs, baiting and hunting at night. An animal must have lived in the wild and have been sustaining itself for six months before it can be hunted, and must not be "human-imprinted".

While this all looks good on paper, it would be difficult to enforce. A nature conservation official would struggle to determine whether a lion had been human-imprinted, whether it had been free-ranging and had been supporting itself for six months, and whether it had been hunted in an ethical manner.

Karen Trendler of Wildcare Africa Trust, a rehabilitation centre that has operated outside Pretoria for 20 years, said she had seen a steep increase in lions and other animals arriving at the centre in recent years as a result of the commercialisation of the game industry.

She said the practice by lion farmers of continually removing cubs from their mothers, to force the female to come into oestrus and breed again, had severe health implications for the lioness and the genetic quality of the cubs.

The captive breeding industry was rife with "really questionable and unethical practices", Trendler said. Some foreign hunters on canned safaris "know what they are getting and don't have an ethical problem", she said. They don't want to go into the hot sun, and so shoot from the vehicle.

Others are conned into believing they are on a legitimate hunt, pay a huge amount of money and are driven around in circles until they are presented with a lion that has been drugged and dropped off.

A disturbing practice that had become popular in the past three years was that of "green hunting", Trendler said.

Not wanting to kill an animal, and believing the practice to be in the interest of conservation, foreigners were paying huge sums to dart an animal and then have their picture taken with it.

What the tourists don't know was that the animal might have been darted several times in the space of a few weeks, leading to liver, kidney and brain damage. The fifth or sixth time a lion was darted, she said, it was so ill that it was "ready to be hunted and shot".

Free-ranging wild lions, "not Simba the circus lion", would fetch a premium price once captive-bred lions were no longer allowed to be hunted, said Davies.

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