LICHTENBERG – Carel van Heerden feels no reason to apologise about his doomed lion-breeding business. “Trophy hunters will always exist. We're taking the pressure off the rest of the roaming lions in Africa.”
The appetite for big game hunting among foreign tourists sustains around 300 lion-breeding farms across South Africa, employs thousands of workers and brings in significant amounts of foreign currency.
But as of June, the so-called “canned hunting” industry looks set to become a thing of the past under controversial legislation brought in by the government following concerted pressure from wildlife campaigners.
“We are putting an end, once and for all, to the reprehensible practice of canned hunting,” said Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk as he announced the legislation last month.
“South Africa has a long standing reputation as a global leader on conservation issues. We cannot allow our achievements to be undermined by rogue practices such as canned lion hunting.”
According to the South African predator breeders association (SAPBA), around 5,000 lions are currently bred in captivity.
In 2006, 480 lions, including 444 bred in captivity, were hunted down in South Africa with tourists paying between 6,000 and 8,000 dollars (4,500 to 6,000 euros)for a female and 20,000-30,000 dollars for a male.
Previous legislation did seek to regulate the industry, however a number of exposes have caused outrage among wildlife campaigners at home and abroad.
Revelations that some lions had been doped and that some had been confined in hunting areas measuring only a few hundred hectares had particularly embarrassed the industry.
The new legislation effectively makes the practice of lion breeding economically unviable by expressly forbidding the hunting of any big game within two years of their release from captivity.
At the moment, many game reserves even send pictures to their clients of their potential targets which are then released into the wild only a few days before the hunters begin their quest.
While there has been some disappointment that Pretoria has not opted for an outright ban, most wildlife groups have welcomed the move.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Jason Bell-Leask, Southern Africa director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
“Breeding animals in intensive conditions simply to be hunted, presents all types of animal welfare ethical concerns.”
The breeders have reacted strongly to the government’s move and have vowed to challenge the legislation in the courts.
“Hunters from all over the world that have booked trips for the rest of the year. They come from Russia, America, Spain, Germany, all over,” SAPBA president’s van Heerden told AFP.
Van Heerden acknowledged the need for tighter regulation but said trophy hunting would always be a fact of life and that the breeding of lions in captivity helped preserve packs in the big wildlife parks.
“Give us a chance and we will regulate our industry,” he said.
Nor has the government’s decision been greeted with unanimous approval from the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
The move was “seriously contradictory to our (employment) millennium goals if we look at the number of people who are working in this industry,” Poppy Mocumi, an ANC member of the North West province’s parliament, said on a visit to a breeding farm around 200 kilometers (125 miles) west of Johannseburg.
Outside the Doorinkop farm, several workers brandished banners condemning the government’s move, including one which read: “Kill the lion industry, kill our future!” At least a hundred lions are currently being bred at Doorinkop from where they are usually transported and then released into a nearby 1,000 hectare reserve where tourists come to hunt down their prey.
Styger Joubert, a professional hunter who accompanies the trophy-hunting tourists, denied the current set-up was cruel or detrimental to wildlife.
“It’s much better than killing free-roaming lions. When we kill one of these lions we take nothing out of the eco-system,” said Joubert.
He said it was wrong to think that lions born in captivity were easy prey for tourists.
“A lion born and bred in captivity within 24 hours will be able to catch a giraffe. Their instinct never dies,” Joubert told AFP.
“As soon as you remove the fence, it’s a wild animal again.”
Other questions remain subject to debate such as what will become of the thousands of lions which have been raised in captivity which will no be worth rearing for the breeders after June 1.
“The text does not say anything about the welfare of those animals,” said Michele Pickover, a spokeswoman for Animal Rights Africa.
“There is a need for a real financial commitment to truly create a life for these lions post-promulgation.” – By Jerome Cartillier – Sapa-AFP.