Cape Town - The issue of canned lion hunting has never received as much attention than before the death of Cecil the lion or the controversial SA based-documentary Blood Lions.
And while many strides have been made over the last two years against the unethical practices of canned lion hunting - questions have remained around what the future would be for SA's estimated 7 000 lion in captivity if the practice was banned outright.
SEE: #ShockWildlifeTruths: SA's 2 000 wild lions vs its 7 000 canned lions - who is more at risk?
The recent announcement by the department of environmental affairs of an approved 2017 quota of 800 lion skeletons, unfortunately seems to indicated exactly what that future might be.
The DEA says the export will only be from captive-bred lions as per the specific parameters approved by Convention in the Trade of Endangered Species (CITES).
But it's a case of dammed if you do, with the DEA reiterating its concern that "if the trade in bones originating from captive bred lion is prohibited, lion bones may be sourced illegally from wild lion populations."
Lions in South Africa are listed under Appendix II which means their products can be traded internationally but only “if the trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.” The numbers of African free-range lions have declined alarmingly over the last few decades with only 20 000 remaining today, down from 30 000 just two decades ago.
Criticism has been leveraged against the sale, saying it would imperil wild lions as it is feeding demand within the market - as well as raising ethical concerns around the canned lion industry and the perpetuation of other industries associated with it.
Lion bone trade promotes canned lion hunting
According to a Conservation Action Trust report, in 2016, according to Panthera, 90% of lion carcasses found in the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique all had their skulls, teeth, and claws removed while rates of poisoning lions specifically for bones increased dramatically in Niassa National Reserve in northern Mozambique. In Namibia, 42% of lions killed in the Caprivi had their skeletons removed.
According to wildlife investigator, Karl Amann, the trade is fueling the demand in Asia. The south-east Asian country now dominates the lion-bone market.
Amann says the CITES trade data base shows that between 2009 and 2015 Laos has bought over 2000 complete lion skeletons from South Africa. This excludes the 2 300 bones and 40 skulls sold separately as incomplete skeletons”
Lion bones arrive in Laos but are then illegally exported to Vietnam without the requisite CITES export permits. Here they are boiled down, compacted into a cake bar and sold at a price of around US$1000 (currently R12 830 - R12.83/$) to consumers who add it to rice wine.
"The DEA’s move is widely regarded as open support for the controversial practice of canned lion hunting. A captive lion breeder – one of 300 in South Africa – can be paid anywhere from US$5000 (R64 150) to US$25 000 (R320 750) for each lion permitted to be shot. Now they can add an additional $1500 (R19 245) per skeleton permitted to be sold to Laotian buyers."
SEE: SA's controversial lion bones quota: Home truth of the canned lion life cycle you have to see
So how is the quota determined and what impact assessments were done?
A zero quota on the export of bones derived from wild lion specimens was taken at the Parties to CITES at COP17 in Johannesburg in 2016, says the DEA.
Further to this the DEA put a stop to lion bone and other derivative exports at the beginning of 2017, until a quota had been set and the management process thereof had been determined, which it now has. It says the quota will be managed at a national level, with applications still dealt with and assessed via the provincial nature conservation authorities level.
SEE: #ShockWildlifeTruths: Lions fail to get uplisted at CITES CoP17
"The South African population of Panthera leo (African lion) is included in Appendix II of CITES. In terms of Article IV of the Convention, an export permit shall only be granted for an Appendix II species when a Scientific Authority of the State of export has advised that such export will not be detrimental to the survival of that species, says Molewa.
During COP17 the CITES listing for lion was amended to include the following annotation, which SA agreed to as a risk-averse intervention.
“For Panthera leo (African populations): a zero annual export quota is established for specimens of bones, bone pieces, bone products, claws, skeletons, skulls and teeth removed from the wild and traded for commercial purposes. Annual export quotas for trade in bones, bone pieces, bone products, claws, skeletons, skulls and teeth for commercial purposes, derived from captive breeding operations in South Africa, will be established and communicated annually to the CITES Secretariat.”
Added to this, the DEA says a 2015 study commissioned by TRAFFIC raised concerns around the shift in lion and tiger bone trade; namely that when the trade in tiger bone was banned; the trade shifted and bones were sourced from South Africa, available as a by-product of the hunting of captive bred lions.
"A well-regulated trade will enable the department to monitor a number of issues relating to the trade, including the possible impact on the wild populations," says Molewa.
SEE: #ShockWildlifeTruths: SA ignores outcry and gives go ahead to sell 800 lion skeletons to Asia
Quota allocations going forward?
The DEA says the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) will conduct a 3-year-long study aimed at increasing the understanding of the lion bone trade in South Africa and the captive lion breeding industry - as well as inform the Scientific Authority on a sustainable annual quota.
"It will investigate how the trade in captive produced lion bone under a quota system affects wild lion populations, and will further strengthen the evidence base for the annual review of the quota in order to ensure it is sustainable and not detrimental to wild populations.
“The decision on the annual export quota was reached following an extensive stakeholder consultation process during which the Department considered all variables, including scientific best practice. It cannot be said, therefore that this determination was made arbitrarily or in a non-transparent manner,” says Molewa.
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The decision continues to spark international condemnation from conservationists and local stakeholders alike.
“It is irresponsible to establish policy that could further imperil wild lions,” says Dr Paul Funston, Senior Director of Panthera’s Lion Programme earlier this year when the DEA first proposed its plans.
Those who included their voice of concern include Singita together with other prominent safari operators &Beyond and Great Plains Conservation, warning how it was damaging the safari industry.
Panthera also called it "irresponsible to establish policy that could further imperil wild lions—already in precipitous decline throughout much of Africa—when the facts are clear; South Africa’s lion breeding industry makes absolutely no positive contribution to conserving lions and, indeed, further imperils them."
But the DEA insists they are acting within the environmental law, and says a "well-regulated trade will enable the Department to monitor a number of issues relating to the trade, including the possible impact on the wild populations".
Panthera has warned legalisation of a trade in lion bones will stimulate the market and endanger both captive and wild lion populations.
"There is significant evidence that South Africa’s legal trade in captive-bred lion trophies is accelerating the slaughter of wild lions for their parts in neighbouring countries and is, in fact, increasing demand for wild lion parts in Asia — a market that did not exist before South Africa started exporting lion bones in 2007."
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