Conservationists in South Africa are celebrating news that the country will soon start implementing policies to ban lion breeding and the mistreatment of captive animals. The legal battle began back in 2019, when Barbara Creecy – the minister of South Africa’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment – initiated a review of the treatment of animals bred in captivity. This included elephants, leopards, and rhinos as well as lions. Submitting their findings in 2020, the panel called for an end to the captive breeding for lions to be harvested for traditional medicine or hunted inside contained habitats.
The South African cabinet has now accepted the recommendations, as confirmed in a statement released on May 2, 2021. The next step is to establish the supporting policies that will halt the multimillion-dollar lion breeding industry. The South African government will no longer issue permits that allow tourists to pet lion cubs or shoot adults, and will make it illegal to breed captive animals. According to a report from National Geographic, one of the recommendations does include euthanizing those animals in captivity – but this was suggested with the animals’ welfare in mind, as captive animals rarely fare well when released into the wild.
“The panel identified that the captive lion industry poses risks to the sustainability of wild lion conservation resulting from the negative impact on ecotourism which funds lion conservation and conservation more broadly, the negative impact on the authentic wild hunting industry, and the risk that trade in lion parts poses to stimulating poaching and illegal trade,” reads the statement. “The panel recommends that South Africa does not captive-breed lions, keep lions in captivity, or use captive lions or their derivatives commercially.”
Carrying out a cost-benefit analysis for an industry such as lion farming is not as clear-cut as some might think. The panel which reviewed South Africa’s existing lion breeding industry included conservationist and economist Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes who wanted to end captive breeding but maintain the lion bone trade.
The conservationist's argument for such a decision centers around the fact that simply making something illegal doesn’t mean you can make it stop. It’s the view of some that enforcing policies that render such trades illegal simply pushes the problem underground, where its processes cannot be regulated. Instead, advocates for maintaining the bone trade argue it should be monitored, using existing stockpiles of lion bones as well as those from deceased captive animals at zoos to support a more sustainable trade that doesn’t risk an uptick in lion poaching. The counterargument to this approach is that supplying animal products to countries where they are coveted may actually increase demand, only serving to worsen the issue.
Animal welfare is another key issue when considering the ethics behind the debate, as it was argued by the panel that captive breeding sites are rarely found to treat their animals humanely. Tiger King, a documentary that shot to fame at the start of the pandemic, demonstrated how inbreeding and traveling petting zoos aren't in the best interests of the animals. Protecting wild populations at the expense of thousands of farmed animals may actually result in a greater yield of suffering, though the significance of maintaining biodiversity in the wild cannot be ignored.
“In summary, I believe that the report provides a platform for not only achieving policy clarity, but also for the development of a new deal for people and wildlife in South Africa,” read the statement. “Implementation of the recommendations will greatly transform the practices within the wildlife industry, enhance conservation of our environment and these species, invigorate the rural economies where the species occur or can be introduced, and empower traditional practices, leadership, and healers.”
[H/T: National Geographic]