Johannesburg – Karen Trendler first realised the horrific welfare implications of South Africa’s captive lion industry 15 years ago when two critically ill lion cubs were dumped on her.
At the time, she was running a wildlife rehabilitation centre, Wildcare which started in the 1980s from her kitchen. It was largely devoted to healing injured small mammals and birds.
“We were wet behind the ears (with lions),” laughs Trendler, gently. “The two cubs had been taken away from their mother. It was the start of the lion petting industry in South Africa.
“They had the most horrific nutritional deficiencies, were suffering from convulsions and had weak bones. I just remember looking at the cubs thinking: ‘This is unbelievable’.”
In the intervening years, Trendler and her team would tend to more sickly lions from captive facilities and would form part of an NGO coalition that petitioned the government to tackle the welfare crisis facing lions in captivity.
“We put together a welfare report with recommendations and costing for sanctuaries,” she recalls.
“We met the Department of Environmental Affairs and raised our concerns about the lion bone trade, which was starting and warning how it could open the floodgates. We offered to euthanise lions that couldn’t go into sanctuaries and that we’d take all the flack for it. The government laughed off our concerns about welfare and the lion bone industry.”
But this week, the National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA), where Trendler heads the wildlife trade and trafficking portfolio, won a landmark court case against the Minister of Environmental Affairs and the South African Predators Association (SAPA), over controversial lion bone quotas for 2017 and last year, which the NSPCA argued ignored welfare considerations.
On Tuesday, the high court in Pretoria ruled that the 2017 quota for 800 lion skeletons and last year’s quota for 1500 skeletons, both of which have been exported, were illegal and unconstitutional, and that due process was not followed in how these quotas were set.
Judge Jody Kollapen found the DEA, now the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) and the former minister, had erred when they disregarded the welfare of captive wild animals.
“It is inconceivable that the state could have ignored welfare considerations of lions in captivity in setting the annual export quota,” Judge Kollapen’s judgment read.
“What in essence occurs is that the quota is a signalling to the world at large and the captive lion industry in particular that the state will allow exports in a determined quantity of lion bone. It cannot be correct to assert that such signalling can occur at the same time as indicating to the world at large and to the same industry that the manner in which lions in captivity are kept will remain an irrelevant consideration in how the quota is set.”
This is “illogical , irrational and against the spirit of Section 24 and how our courts have included animal welfare concerns in the interpretation of Section 24”.
Welfare consideration and animal conservation together reflect intertwined values, Kollapen said.
“Even if they are ultimately bred for trophy hunting and for commercial purposes, their suffering, the conditions under which they are kept and the like remain a matter of public concern and are inextricably linked to how we instil respect for animals and the environment of which lions in captivity are an integral part of.
“Certainly in South Africa, their numbers are double those of lions in the wild and it would constitute a contradiction if we are to suggest that different standards and considerations should apply to our treatment of lions (depending on whether they were in the wild or in captivity).”
The captive lion industry, Kollapen said, “is said to generate about R500 million” and “exists mainly in South Africa”. Around 8000 captive lions are housed in more than 200 facilities.
South Africa, too, is the world’s largest legal exporter of lion bones and skeletons, sold in Asia as tiger bone wine or cake.
“It still hasn’t quite set in,” says Trendler of the judgment. “It’s been two years and such an intensive complicated case. We took this matter to court because we didn’t have an option.
“We fought for so many years, not just the NSPCA, but so many groups, who begged, pleaded and challenged this industry but have only seen the cruelty increase.”
She salutes the NSPCA and the “incredible” legal team, who took on the case on a pro bono basis.
“This is a precedent-setting judgement, which has much broader implications beyond the lion bone trade. The government cannot just say our policy is that you can intensively breed rhino, or intensively breed lion and that welfare doesn’t matter.”
Aadila Agjee, an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights, says: “Our courts are repeatedly recognising the public concern for the welfare of wild animals, and confirming the view that the regulation of the welfare of wild animals is inextricable from constitutional conservation imperatives.
“This judgment confirms the well-being of wild animals in captivity requires the same protection as the well-being of those in the wild. We call on the DEFF and Agriculture, Rural Development and Land Reform (DARDLR) to expedite legislation and enforcement to ensure the equitable treatment of captive wild animals.”
Yolan Friedmann, the chief executive of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, terms the judgment a “turning point for a trajectory of decision-making in recent years that has treated our national wildlife heritage as a resource for pure commercial exploitation at industrial production levels”.
Blood Lions hopes the ruling will “spark an entirely new discussion around these horrific industries and the awarding of lion bone quotas”.
“The captive breeding of lions and subsequent sub-sector of lion bone trade has been allowed to explode into an unmanageable and under-regulated industry which doesn’t account for any animal welfare considerations,” says Fiona Miles of Four Paws Animal Welfare Foundation.
Deon Swart, the chief executive of SAPA, says it is studying the judgement. “We accept it and will see what impact it has on the industry.”
Chris Mercer, of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting, says many lions are kept in appalling conditions in South Africa.
“The lion bone trade wants bones so a skeletal lion is much more profitable than a healthy animal who needs to be fed better to remain healthy Conservation officials in South Africa are so incompetent and dysfunctional that they falsify and unlawfully narrow their own mandate to avoid upsetting their masters in the hunting industry.
“My guess is this judgement will be honoured more in the breach than in the observance by South African government conservation structures. They will continue to support lion farming and the export of lion bones and rely on the fact that anyone challenging their thumbsuck quotas will have to take them to the high court.”