Ian Michler is Director of the campaigning group Blood Lions.
Sunday May 2nd, 2021, will go down as a momentous day for lions and conservation in South Africa.
After decades of campaigning, and months of deliberations by a High-Level Panel (HLP), we heard the words so many of us feared we would never hear. Barbara Creecy, the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment announced it was her decision to accept the majority recommendation of the HLP.
“The panel recommends that South Africa does not captive breed lions, keep lions in captivity, or use captive lions for or their derivatives commercially. I have requested the department to action this accordingly and ensure that the necessary consultation for implementation is conducted,” she said.
After so many setbacks in the past, I felt a rush of mixed emotions, including disbelief. But moments later came the realisation that her announcement was in fact a significant shift in thinking – one that now has to be grasped in order to see these recommendations put into law.
Despite grey areas in the report and some reservations over the future process, the Minister and the HLP, as well as all those that made submissions to the panel, should be congratulated. Every sector and stakeholder in South Africa made representation – and there were also influential voices from the international community, Lord Ashcroft being one of them. For the first time, expert opinion and science has trumped the powerful lobby and commercial interests of the breeders, hunters and tourism operators.
Some of us have waited a long time for this decision. I started my research and investigations into the breeding and canned hunting industries during the late 1990’s, a short while before an episode of the Cook Report was released on British television in 1997. This exposé of a lioness being killed against a fence brought the horrors of canned hunting to the world’s attention.
Since then, opposition has grown steadily, and with the launch of Blood Lions in July 2015, a platform providing a co-ordinated effort was set in place. The film provided a powerful visual narrative showing the brutality and the extent of the industry, and it also exposed the misinformation and lies used as attempts to justify their activities.
While Blood Lions has continued to be an umbrella portal for the campaign providing updated information and exposés, it’s ultimately been the expert input and the science that has swayed the Minister and her panel. She has listened to the conservation community and the lion scientists that have countered the conservation lies. She now understands the brutality and cruelty exposed by welfare experts, sanctuary owners and vets. And she has listened to the responsible tourism sector who have made it clear that Brand South Africa was being significantly damaged.
We also must acknowledge the efforts and compelling voices of the international community. Born Free, IFAW, For the Love of Wildlife and WildAid amongst the conservation and welfare community, the governments of Australia, France and the Netherlands at the political level, the constant pressure that came from international media outlets, and then the work of Lord Ashcroft and his team that carried out the most recent exposé that became the basis of his book, Unfair Game. In some ways, the work of Lord Ashcroft served as a tipping point, since the book was released as the HLP was about to sit. It reached wide audiences both locally and abroad.
However, all involved understand much work still needs to be done. Before we see the end of this industry, those voices that have become the majority opinion will need to step up in support of the Minister and her departments work. Final closure may well still be a few years from now.