I’ve been back from Africa for weeks now. I find myself stalling, not finding it easy to write this update and my apologies to you as I know you are keen to know the progress of our work.
I’ve visited places and met people who I’d prefer never to have crossed paths with.
The trip to Africa in February and March this year was made possible by NSW MP Mark Pearson, who had been given a grant for a research tour/fact-finding trip, thanks to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association of Australia.
With the knowledge and experience I’ve gained over the years with steering For the Love of Wildlife, with our focus on the industrial-scale farming of lions, canned hunting, lion bone trade and the farming of endangered species, I was asked to help put together a fact-finding trip for South Africa. Mark has been in the NSW Upper House for the past 8 years and attended the screening of Blood Lions in Sydney some years before.
As many of you know, For the Love of Wildlife’s work resulted in Australia taking a solid and firm stand in 2015 when former Environment Minister Greg Hunt banned the importation of lion trophies and body parts, the first country to do so, followed by France and the Netherlands, with the US implementing strict import laws.
I was invited to accompany Mark on this trip, introducing him to stakeholders on both sides of the lion/predator, wildlife/endangered species farming, associated businesses such as taxidermy and outfitters, professional hunters and those in the conservation space, sanctuaries, and government.
The South African Government has committed to closing down lion farming, after years of community, conservation and industry consultation and brilliant campaigning by Blood Lions and many others.
Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous individuals who are undermining the progress, ensuring this will be slow and drawn out.
Arriving in Johannesburg (J’burg) in mid-February, Mark and I intended to meet with the government at the beginning of the trip. Despite best efforts, it was obvious they weren’t keen to meet with us and we used this first week to meet with lion breeders and hunting groups, keen to understand what drives them in keeping their industry alive despite global outrage and the impact their industry has on South Africa’s brand.
Our first meeting was with the newly appointed head of SAPA (South African Predator Association) Hans Wessels. A two-hour drive from J’burg to meet on his property. I was driving and missed the entrance and had to stop further up the road, looking in the rear vision mirror I watched several large SUV’s driving into the same driveway…. Both Mark and I knew that we weren’t meeting Hans alone! I didn’t use my name in the meeting and was introduced as Mark’s assistant, knowing that it was very risky for me to be there as I was the woman who had started the downturn in their profitable business.
The meeting began nervously, sitting opposite khaki-clad men with large logos of the organisations they represented….WRSA (Wildlife Ranching South Africa), SUCO (Sustainable Use Coalition South Africa), CHASA (Confederation of Hunting Associations of South Africa), SAPA (South African Predator Association), and others. It felt like we were sitting with Formula One drivers given the branding littering their epaulettes and pockets.
After two hours of discussion, most of it contradictory, we were then driven in an open safari vehicle to look at Wessels animals. Everyone came for the long drive, which again made us incredibly nervous…would anyone find us if we disappeared?!!! Wessel’s property consists of thousands of camping and caravan sites, lodges, campgrounds, and accommodations including rondavels through to enormous houses, the property was over hundreds and hundreds of acres.
Hans proudly walked us through his “sanctuary” where he has many big cats and of course, the narrative is that they are all rescues. Tigers from a recent Bollywood movie, others saved from snares, many with cubs despite Wessels telling us he was steralising his big cats as he wasn’t sure of the future given the government’s commitment in closing down lion farming. He wasn’t keen to show us the lion breeding facility. These animals were obviously tame as he only had to call their names and they’d be up against the fence.
We made our exit after four hours with them, very keen to get back to J’burg. The parting words to Mark were “any decision made by Australia, however small, can have a dire impact on the industry so think very carefully and consider the implications before acting”. A warning?
Some of what we were told:
- International hunters are essential to ensure profitability – South African hunters only interested in animals they can eat and can’t afford the big bucks international trophy hunters pay
- 9 provinces (in Australia we’d refer to States and Territories) have their own regulations within South Africa in regard to lion farming and hunting
- Promoting whole ecosystems approach yet a farm will ask a professional hunter to kill everything on the property and restock with an animal that is more lucrative/higher value
- Animal welfare isn’t considered in regards to wildlife, not falling under any current legislation – agriculture or environment?
- “If an animal is stressed it won’t reproduce” is the guiding principle of a successful farm and how animal welfare is determined
- The media has focused on one or two unscrupulous operators who aren’t SAPA members
- Farmers will only farm what is valuable
- SAPA has 360 lion farmers as members
- A representative from the government must attend every lion hunt
- Outfitters/professional hunters must keep a register – a record of the value trail and what the hunter takes home
- Meat from hunting is used at the source and given to local communities
- eCITES being implemented for App II listed species 1 April 2023
- Part of a research trial as to whether captive lions can be released/rewilded has been carried out with captive lions taking 14 days before bringing down a kill
- Believe in the 3 P’s – people, planet, profit
- 2016 CITES CoP was an onslaught against captive lion breeders despite the demand for hunting lions ever increasing
- 600-800 lions hunted annually – urged Minister at CITES CoP to save the industry and set a quota, thereby overturning the global outcry to shut them down
- Bone farming developed because of the USA ban and is necessary to keep the industry alive
- Large NGO told hunters not to worry about hunting rhinos as China will be farming their own wildlife soon
Other revenue for farmers include:
On the following days in J’burg, we visited a lion farm that had a tourist component where they also offered cub petting – we had to see for ourselves. I’ve personally never been to one of these places, having seen horrific pics and sad stories from volunteers and friends of mine.
We ventured out to Boskoppies, another two-hour drive in the other direction to Wessel’s property and found the place deserted. We had to call and call to have someone meet us despite calling to make sure they were open. What we witnessed will haunt me for a long time.
Lions and tigers are kept together, with cross-breeding making for larger and heavier bones, which means more $ for the breeders.
Lions and tigers of varying ages, are kept in large numbers in small enclosures. Lion and tiger cubs in filthy, unattractive, hot enclosures are available for the public to handle and play with. All of the babies had sores on them, were in such poor condition and were huddled together for comfort. One little white tiger wasn’t having a bar of us and bit me on the calf and bit Mark on his …..!
Another tiny little cub kept in what looked like an aviary, fresh cuts on its face and hissing and spitting like the cornered wild animal that it is. So terrified and alone – my heart breaking to witness such cruelty.
We were shown around the farm, hundreds of lions and tigers fighting over the last remains of cow or horse carcasses. One lioness in the corner of an enclosure, on high alert, as she had been expelled from the pack and was waiting her fate. All of the cats were under high stress given the environments they were living in.
We walked past a killing shed, told it was for cow and horse carcasses to feed lions and tigers, but I felt something far more sinister…is this where they processed lions and tigers for their bones? The guide was certainly nervous about the pics I was taking. The carcasses that are fed to the lions and tigers are whole.
Then back to the entrance where we saw three tiger cubs covered in mange. Filthy, thick green sludge their drinking water and again, how not to break down and rage at the perpetrators of such negligence and cruelty. Shaking, we drove back to J’burg.
I reported what we’d seen to the authorities, knowing this is one of the hundreds that operate like this.
We left J’burg and headed to Hoedspruit and then to Kruger, essential to show Mark what a complete, healthy ecosystem looks like in South Africa.
Driving hours to get to the Kruger Gate, at the tail end of the recent cyclone with roads closed and lodges impacted by the rains. To see rivers at full capacity and running wild was quite something.
Lions, leopards, leopards, leopards and so many others…heaven!
After a couple of days in Kruger we made sure to visit Stella Horgan’s incredible project in Acornhoek. Stella is a Director of For the Love of Wildlife and has created Permaculture Explorers and a Centre for Women’s Independence, where some of you have generously contributed to building the purpose-built centre for self-defence. Women in this area face incredible hardship with water and food security an ongoing issue and violence an everyday threat.
Women who lacked a voice or any capacity to stand up for themselves are now changing the community in very real ways. Self-defence to fight off attacks and say “enough is enough” which is the name of the work being done “Sekwanele”.
These projects are incredibly difficult, in places where the municipality cut off water for up to 3 months and yet the spirit of community and the strength of Stella’s commitment shines through. If you feel inspired to contribute, you can donate here: https://zingelaulwazi.org.za
We then flew to the coast into Port Elizabeth where we were met by Ian Michler who drove us to Addo to visit the elephants and update us on his work. Ian was the first to blow open the lion breeding industry decades ago when the Cooke Report exposed predator breeders, canned hunting and the selling of lion bones. His work covers decades and with the launch of the Blood Lions campaign, thanks to the courageous work of Pippa Hankinson, he continues to consult large NGOs and conservation groups, training rangers across the globe. Ian has always generously informed our work, educating me in the conservation space and coming to Australia to assist with the Australian Government.
In Addo, we had extraordinary encounters with elephants, seeing hundreds of them wallowing in mud, babies walking close to our vehicle with black back jackals, eland, and other beauties making appearances. A beautiful time to reconnect and be informed by wildlife.
Next stop Plettenberg Bay where we met with Joan Berning and her daughter to hear about the work of Eden to Addo. Joan is committed to making sure the last Knysna (an area along the Garden Route) elephant can find her way to Addo elephant reserve by getting land owners to put aside land for wildlife, creating corridors for safe passage for not only elephants but leopards and a raft of other wildlife that have lost connection due to development and agriculture. Joan shared that the last elephant will not cross any of the new paths that are created for walking or bike riding so her area is becoming smaller and smaller (they monitor her with hidden cameras).
A day in Plettenberg Bay and onto Hermanus to meet with Dr Louise de Waal and Pippa Hankinson of Blood Lions. Pippa and I met back in 2012 and have been very close since we met as we both committed to doing more for Africa’s lions. Pippa’s documentary and campaign have gone from being ignored by the government to Blood Lions now being the lead consultants in this arena, consulting with the government on ways to transition and eradicate this vile industry. Pippa has been relentless, putting herself at great risk – personally and financially and full credit to her for turning the government into committing to closing down this industry. With Louise, the two of them are formidable and will ensure this industry collapses.
Louise took us to see the wonderful work of Panthera Africa, a true sanctuary where they house rescued big cats from the breeding mills. When you’re visiting places in South Africa, know that a true sanctuary will never let the public engage with the animals – no feeding, petting, walking or riding them. Don’t be fooled by the con artists and unscrupulous operators who willingly take money from tourists and volunteers to participate in the cycle of supply.
To complete the fact-finding trip, we finish in Cape Town where we finally get to meet with representatives from the government.
Mark and I met with members of the South African government who were meeting us on behalf of the Environment Minister Barbara Creecy. It wasn’t one of the easiest meetings I’ve attended but we were able to discuss some of the issues with closing down the lion farming. As a member of the Commonwealth, they seemed uncomfortable that Mark was wanting information to report back to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and did ask a few times if they could see the report before it is published.
They confirmed that hunting groups and breeders are influencing and advising members of the government, especially those in the scientific body.
We shared that in our meetings with the breeders that they had bragged about being able to export lions to the US as they’d found a loophole. The government’s response was they must be exporting live animals! What? How? Why?
The South African government hasn’t set a quota for lion exports since 2016 and therefore no lion body parts could or should be exported. Ummmm…then why are these farms still breeding? We asked if they could please explain where all the lions/tigers go. No response but a wide-eyed look like deer in headlights!
The government continues to work with all stakeholders (hunters and breeders are their friends!) as they wish to alleviate being sued (good luck with that!). It does seem that the government will not be ending lion farming anytime soon, dragging its heels (probably hoping that the next Environment Minister will be more sympathetic to the industry).
We discussed animal welfare as Mark is well versed in this space, and were told that the Dept of Environment doesn’t address animal welfare – it is not considered, but is now including animal wellbeing. When asked what that means, they couldn’t answer!
Some of what we learnt:
- Hunting rhino is allowed in the range states – export of rhinos for exhibition purposes only (live species to zoos)
- Only an animal that is 7 years old or older can be hunted
- Anyone farming wildlife must keep stud books with the department examining records, and export of any animal must include a DNA profile paid for and carried out by the owner
- The government issues 21,000 permits a year covering 200 species (mostly crocs and parrots).
- Launched CIPS (electronic permitting system) on 1 April 2023
- The wildlife forum is held quarterly with hunting groups (closed meetings)
- A member of the department must attend a lion hunt (hunting season March – July and they employ extra personnel for that period)
- Robust and solid regulations
- Many locations where stockpiles of rhino horn are kept
In regards to lion farming:
- The industry began organically with people rescuing lions and saw the opportunity to make a profit
- The sector grew from this with lion breeding, captive hunting, cub petting
- Criminals became involved and created canned hunting – despite the terrible media, nobody has been able to provide the government with evidence to convict those criminals so they cannot prosecute
- No lion quota has been set for the past 4 years – no lion parts or derivatives can be exported
- Newborn cubs must be registered with the department
- Each province knows how many facilities and how many lions there are
- Tigers aren’t included in closing the industry as they are exotics
Approximately 400 lion facilities which include:
- Petting zoos
- Tourism facilities
- Private concessions
The government wants to repurpose the industry to make sure employees are looked after, the lions are considered and a range of options are on the table.
What is certain (credit Don Pinnock):
- There is no conservation benefit to captive breeding of lions or the lion bone trade;
- The captive lion industry is damaging to South Africa’s image as a conservation leader and poses a substantial risk to our tourism industry;
- The use of lion bones and body parts and derivatives for traditional medicine is one of the major threats to wild lions and serves as a cover for illegally wild-sourced lion and other big cat parts;
- There’s a general abhorrence of the industry across multiple sectors including animal welfare, animal rights, conservation and hunting organisations which echo the South African public sentiment.
Read more here: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2023-01-17-captive-lions-in-south-africa-this-is-what-their-fate-depends-on/
The government expects international help to transition the industry (why can’t the sector who have profited for decades pay?). They seek funding to pay for euthanising, retiring and sterilising 10,000 or more lions.
The following day we met with Shadow Environment Minister David Bryant who invited us to Parliament and on the tour, shocked to see a large part of Parliament had been burnt down. A homeless person managed to enter and light a fire to keep himself warm, taking out one of the historic buildings and apparently, the enormous wine collection kept under the building.
David is in full support of closing down predator breeding and works closely with Minister Barbara Creecy but does expect it will take another three years. We shared our findings and what we were told by the industry especially that members of the government and Scientific Authority were in bed with the hunting industry.
The biggest issue for the government he believes, is the poaching crisis with nowhere near enough rangers to assist with the porous borders of Kruger, including corrupt officials in SANParks who manage Kruger. Abalone theft and succulents are also of grave concern – abalone dried and shipped to China. In regards to lion farmers, he said they are challenging the newly introduced term “well-being”. And we haven’t even discussed zoonotic diseases!
Mark and I then met with Anthony Mitchell, Chief of Staff to Narend Singh of the Inkatha Freedom Party who fully supports the closure of this dirty industry and were part of the very first protests against “canned hunting”. We again shared what we’d learnt from stakeholders we’d met, hoping it assists in fast-tracking the process. He shared innovation and technology to deal with crime and trafficking with the issue of training people in being able to use it.
To finish our trip, we met with Dr Ross Harvey of Good Governance Africa who is a wildlife economist with a PhD in economics. He told us there is no wild lion hunting in South Africa, it is all done on private reserves, that private conservation is not working, and corruption seeping into the hunting business model.
We learnt from Ross a great deal in regards to elephants like there’s no such thing as a surplus bull (or no longer reproductive male) which is the tale told by hunters. Breeding amongst elephants is very balanced and an old bull keeps the young males in line, teaching them how to behave and suppressing the musth in younger elephants. If there’s an old bull younger males will not crop raid, for example, and they keep the matriarchal herds intact. 40-55-year-olds are the best breeding years for elephants. Creating corridors for wildlife will help alleviate the human/animal conflict. Hunting also does not reduce the human/animal conflict – removing males from the system is problematic.
He knows of hunters baiting animals out of wildlife reserves such as Kruger (we all know the story of Walter Palmer who lured Cecil out of Hwange National Park) with a young lion recently lured out of Kruger and shot.
He challenges the “fair chase” rhetoric as key stock is removed by hunting (no hunter wants an old scraggy animal). This is not conservation as taking out keystone animals impacts the genetics. There are fewer big tuskers as they’ve almost all been shot.
Ross states that the government does not have good processes in place – with little data or detailed information available. You can read more here.
In regards to job creation (again, a tale told by hunters), there are approximately 1200 jobs with employees being subjected to dangerous conditions. It’s all about making money under false pretences with volunteers paying to work – it’s misleading and dishonest
A lion carcass for the bone trade is around $1500 a skeleton. Whilst this industry continues, wild lions will continue to be poached.
He makes a very strong point that demand reduction campaigns cannot work if the stockpiles in South Africa continue to grow (ie ivory, rhino horn, lion/tiger bones) sending a clear message that “South Africa is open for business”. Ross is clear that South Africa must stop stockpiling and cease breeding which tells the East that South Africa is no longer open for business.
We discovered during our travels that lion cake is another product that is exported with a recent investigation finding lion bone, opium, macaque monkey, turtle shell and mountain goat antler.
Whilst in South Africa, great news from the UK who have committed to banning hunting trophy imports. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/mar/17/bill-banning-import-of-hunting-trophies-into-uk-passed-by-mps
Reflecting on this trip, lion farming is just one species. When you consider just how enormous the legal trade in endangered species is, one of the most lucrative trades in the world, how many animals must be suffering. How vulnerable are humans to zoonotic diseases? The trade mechanism to monitor and regulate this vast trade hasn’t been modernised since the 70s and needs a massive overhaul – if this is of interest to you, please look into the work of Nature Needs More.
I’ve been profoundly impacted by this trip. One, because I’d vowed never to step foot on a lion farm and two, I hoped I would never have to meet hunters who shoot lions. Despite this, I’ve learnt an enormous amount from this trip but the depths to which this industry will go to protect their profiteering and abusive practices is mind-blowing.
I’m grateful to Mark for the opportunity to be in South Africa with him and trust he can use this knowledge to make significant changes. He’s witnessed animal exploitation, cruelty and abhorrent abuse of wildlife, heard the lies and seen the corruption.
We must put an end to this cruel and barbaric industry, and end the trade in endangered species. We are in an extinction crisis, and biodiversity loss is an enormous threat to us all.
I stayed on in South Africa to spend time with Stella Horgan so we could map and plan our work for the coming months and years.
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