“High-Level Panel Report on Lions, Rhinos, Elephants & Leopards” recommends turnabout in national wildlife policy
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa––A South African government wildlife policy study recommends an end to breeding captive lions for cub-petting, trophy shoots of captive-bred and raised lions, and exports of lion bones for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
The paper also recommends that South Africa should stop lobbying the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species for permission to sell ivory from elephant tusks.
The almost 600-page “High-Level Panel Report on Lions, Rhinos, Elephants & Leopards” was commissioned in October 2019 by Barbara Creecy, minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment for the government of South Africa.
Completed in December 2020, the “High-Level Panel Report” was not released to media until May 2021.
“It’s merely a report of course, albeit a massive and comprehensive one, and many reports have been buried and forgotten in the past,” cautioned Don Pinnock, author of Our Rhino War (2012) and The Last Elephants (2019.
“Tectonic shift” from apartheid-era policies
“What started in Parliament must now end in Parliament as law, and that still lies ahead,” Pinnock reminded readers of the South African newspaper The Daily Maverick.
Nonetheless, Pinnock assessed, the “’High-Level Panel Report on Lions, Rhinos, Elephants & Leopards’ marks a tectonic shift from apartheid-era exclusive ownership and use of wildlife to a more inclusive and transformative approach, that acknowledges community stewardship of conservation and the sentience and welfare of animals.
“It’s not all the way there, but it’s a remarkable start,” Pinnock wrote.
Creecy told media that her ministry would recommend that all suggestions in the “High-Level Report” that were ratified by the majority of the 26 report authors be adopted into national policy.
“Necessary consultations” ahead
Said Creecy, “I have requested the department to action this accordingly, and ensure that the necessary consultation for implementation is conducted.”
The “necessary consultation” is to include public hearings and opportunities for comment by the various economic stakeholders, including participants in the various wildlife use industries that the “High-Level Panel Report on Lions, Rhinos, Elephants & Leopards” addresses.
This is where political momentum favoring the “High Level Panel Report” is likely to collapse.
According to Humane Society International, 104 of the 306 exhibitors selling trophy hunts at the 2021 Dallas Safari Club annual convention, held online, were selling hunts in South Africa.
Most of those hunts are believed to be of captive-bred and reared animals, especially lion hunts.
More than 75,000 animals are believed to have been bred in South Africa specifically to be hunted over the past decade, including as many as 12,000 lions, compared to about 10,000 left in the wild.
Wildlife trophy exports from South Africa have reportedly increased from circa 200 a year before the end of apartheid in 1990 to about 3,000 a year now. As well as shooting lions, trophy hunters visit South Africa to kill Nile crocodiles, hippopotamuses, elephants, white rhinos, zebras and exotic sheep––and sometimes non-native captive-bred species, including bears and wolves.
The export of bones from lions killed for trophies began relatively recently, but rapidly grew into a traffic in lions specifically bred and raised to be shot for their bones as soon as they reach full adult size. Unlike trophy lions, who are bred and raised for appearance, “bone lions” are often severely malnourished, a South African National SPCA investigation and the 2018 film Blood Lions disclosed.
By then breeders were believed to have already exported more than 6,000 lion skeletons from South Africa since the trade began circa 2008.
Other wildlife exploitation industries are also expected to vehemently oppose implementation of the recommendations of the “High-Level Panel Report on Lions, Rhinos, Elephants & Leopards.”
“Meat Safety Act”
While Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment minister Barbara Creecy appears to favor less consumptive use of wildlife, a February 28, 2020 government proposal to update the 20-year-old Meat Safety Act, called for expanding to 104 the list of animals “that can be slaughtered as food for humans or for animal consumption.”
Nominated for addition to the list were zebras, red hartebeest, wildebeest, springbok, dik dik, lechwe, kudu, duiker, gemsbok, eland, impala, both black and white rhinos, hippos, giraffes, elephants and crocodiles.
Creecy appointed the “High Level Panel” fourteen months after a colloquium on captive lion breeding in August 2018 recommended an end to lion breeding in South Africa.
Who’s on first?
Headed by World Wildlife Fund South Africa board member Pam Yako, the “High Level Panel” was specifically assigned to examine the lion bone trade, hunting of captive-bred lions, elephant culling and the disposition of the national ivory stockpile, and trade in rhinoceros horn.
The 26-member panel was to include conservationists, scientists, representatives of relevant government agencies, community leaders, economists, experts in trade and industry, legal experts, and experts in animal welfare and sustainable agriculture.
Right from the start there were allegations that the “High Level Panel” was stacked in favor of consumptive wildlife use, and that it was appointed, in particular, to provide Creecy with political cover for issuing more permits to export lion bones.
“Only money & no doubt corruption matters”
The panel appointments came, observed Melissa Reitz of Business Day Live in November 2020, “after a 2018 parliamentary committee recommended that the captive lion breeding and lion bone trade industry be closed, and after a High Court judgement that previous annual export lion skeleton quotas were illegal because they ignored animal welfare.
Charged Paul Funston, lion species director for the global conservation society Panthera, “Should the Department of Environment, Fisheries, and Forestry issue a lion bone quota now, no matter the stockpiles that are accumulating on lion breeding farms, it will send a very clear signal that the voices of public opinion, scientific reason, and of legal judgement have been ignored and that only money and no doubt corruption matters.”
The only welfare specialist named to the panel, Karen Trendler of WildCare, soon resigned, while the National SPCA, Humane Society Africa, and environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan all declined appointments.
Yako, representing the remaining panelists, delivered the “High-Level Panel Report on Lions, Rhinos, Elephants & Leopards” to Creecy on December 24, 2020.
Especially in view of the non-participation of the animal welfare community, it proved to be a blockbuster.
Responded South Africa National Parks [SANPARKS] chief executive Fundisile Mketeni to the surprisingly strong panel recommendations against “canned lion hunting,” the bone trade, and selling ivory, “This paves a positive trajectory for South Africa , considering the damaging view many tourists and conservation bodies held against these kinds of activities.
“However,” Mketeni added, “SANParks hopes that the anticipated resultant growth in tourism will not only save jobs, but will create new opportunities for those who depended on values chains linked to ‘canned lion hunting.’
“I have no doubt that this is a step in the right direction,” Mketeni said.
But only a few days later, on May 11, 2021, Mketeni, two high-ranking male SANParks employees, and a woman not employed by SANParks were charged in Skukuza, Kruger National Park, with assault and sexual assault against a 35-year-old female Kruger National Park lodging worker.
Mketeni took a leave of absence while the allegations are before the court.
“Divide & conquer”
Creecy hoped to advance acceptance of the “High-Level Panel Report on Lions, Rhinos, Elephants & Leopards” through a divide-and-conquer approach.
“Preventing the hunting of captive lions is in the interests of the authentic wild hunting industry, and will boost the hunting economy and our international reputation, and the jobs that this creates,” Creecy told media.
The “High-Level Panel Report on Lions, Rhinos, Elephants and Leopards,” Pinnock wrote, “has followed the wheel tracks of documentaries such as Blood Lions, forensic and innovative reports from the Born Free Foundation, Humane Society International/Africa, and the Cape Leopard Trust, legal challenges by the National Council of SPCAs, and high and Constitutional Court findings against cruelty and on the sentience of animals.”
However, Pinnock noted, “The panel could not reach consensus on how to tackle captive lion breeding, and only two thirds of its members supported these recommendations.
“Kicked the can forward” on rhinos
“On rhinos,” Pinnock continued, “it has kicked the can forward to the Rhino Committee of Inquiry. This debate is urgent, but has a backstop in that the international sale of rhino horn is not permitted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species [CITES}, and it is there, not within South Africa, that the struggle will take place. Meanwhile, support is needed for independent [rhino] owners battling with soaring protection costs,” necessitated by poaching occurring at the rate of almost 1,000 rhinos per year since 2010.
“With elephants,” Pinnock said, “the ‘High Level Panel’ has signaled a pause in the country’s drive with other southern African states to push for exceptionalism in the sale of ivory stockpiles at CITES. This signal will be heard loud and clear across our borders in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Eswatini.
“For many years,” Pinnock elaborated, “environmental organizations have been saying that permitted ‘fire sales’ of ivory stimulate demand in Asia and therefore poaching. This is also true of rhino horn. The ‘High Level Panel’ appears to have heard and understood.
“With leopards,” Pinnock added, “the issue is exclusively local and more complex. Religious movements like the Shembe Church and many traditional leaders see leopard-skin cloaks as essential ritual items. The report’s endorsement of hunting ‘problem-causing’ leopards, given how this has been exploited in the past with all iconic animals, is frankly disappointing.
“Overall, however,” Pinnock finished, the ‘High Level Panel’ report signals a new direction in wildlife management and a remarkable degree of cooperation and accord across previously antagonistic platforms–– an outcome that is surprising, remarkable, and unexpected by all of us who feared the worst.
“The report now needs all the support it can get to make its way through Parliament and into law.”
Born Free & Care for the Wild merger
Word of the content of the “High-Level Panel Report on Lions, Rhinos, Elephants & Leopards” began to leak to the public in mid-February 2021, about two and a half months before the official disclosure.
The leaks approximately coincided with the February 16, 2021 merger of two of the longtime institutional critics of the South African captive wildlife industry, the Born Free Foundation and Care for the Wild International. The combined organizations will operate under the Born Free Foundation name.
Both founded in 1984, the Born Free Foundation and Care for the Wild International have long worked together on various projects. Both were headquartered in Horsham, West Sussex, an outlying suburb of London, England.
The Born Free Foundation, begun by actress Virginia McKenna and her son Will Travers, in 2008 absorbed the U.S.-based Animal Protection Institute, founded by Belton Mouras in 1968, which became Born Free USA.
Care for the Wild was founded by wildlife veterinarian Bill Jordan. Jordan left the organization after a 2002 split that also included the departure of his son Chris Jordan, who had been general manager.
Jordan in early 2004 founded the Bill Jordan Wildlife Defence Fund from the original Care For The Wild International headquarters, at his home in Rusper, West Sussex.