South Africa Signals Policy Shift That May End Support of Legal Rhino Horn Trade, Ivory Trade, and Captive Lion Breeding

A New Report Kindles Hopes of New Policy in South Africa

On 2 May, 2021 the Minister of South Africa’s Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries announced a decision to use a nearly 600-page report as guidance for future directives on management and policy towards wildlife and the environment. The report, recently made available but published internally in December 2020, was written by the department’s High-Level Panel formed on 10 October, 2019.

The report highlights activities and concerns related to the management, legal hunting, breeding, and trade of South Africa’s five most iconic mammals. With this special emphasis on the African savanna elephant, lion, leopard, black rhinoceros, and white rhinoceros, the Panel engaged with a limited number of the public, both with local and regional interests, and took into account studies relating the most recent data on land usage, threats to wildlife, threats and concerns to humans, and wildlife populations and ranges.

In May of 2021 the Minister stressed the need to prioritize the “improved inclusion of marginalised groups, especially communities living with or adjacent to these species.” Additionally, they stated that South Africa should strive to be a leader in bringing Africa to a consensus on the elephant ivory trade and that the country would not oppose the international ban on the rhino horn trade. This was a major departure from the stance taken by South Africa and its neighbors over the last twenty years. Southern African nations in 2002 and again as recently as 2016 had taken unusual positions against measures that many world governments and wildlife NGOs saw as means of stemming demand for illegal ivory and that would have a ripple effect on transnational organized crime. In 2016 South Africa had also reinstated the legal sale of rhino horn within its borders, a controversial move that was seen to supply illegal Asian demand, not South African. If the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries follows through with its new priorities, South Africa has the opportunity to restore the country’s reputation among tourists and to maintain a key leadership role in megafauna conservation.

More Captive Lions Than Wild in South Africa

For perhaps the first time, the South African government has recognized that “the captive lion industry poses risks to the sustainability of wild lion conservation resulting from the negative impact on ecotourism which funds lion conservation and conservation more broadly, the negative impact on the authentic wild hunting industry, and the risk that trade in lion parts poses to stimulating poaching and the illegal trade.” Additionally, “there was a predominant view that the captive lion breeding industry did not contribute to conservation and was doing damage to South Africa’s conservation and tourism reputation.”

The move has garnered praise from Born Free Foundation, which has been working for decades to improve the welfare of captive lions and to end questionable breeding practices in the country. WildAid has also celebrated the announcement and hopes that South Africa’s move will embolden Asia to take strict measures to reduce the sale and trade in African-sourced lion bones that have been used as an alternative to tiger bones in traditional folk medicines. According to WildAid, there are 8,000-12,000 lions living in captivity in South Africa, many of them farmed for their bones or for the trophy hunting industry. Fewer than 4,000 wild lions are left in South Africa.

Disease Transmission and the Future of Global Environmental Tourism

South Africa’s announcements comes after increased concern about disease transmission between wildlife and humans across the globe. In May 2021, concern over COVID-19 transmission in India led to the closure of all tiger reserves, sanctuaries, and national parks in the country. With local communities bordering tiger reserves, India sees a necessity in preserving the health of their wildlife and eco-tourism opportunities by taking strong mitigation measures to avoid human-wildlife contact and spread of COVID-19 between species. In April of 2020 several tigers and lions at New York’s Bronx Zoo tested positive for COVID-19.

During its own lockdowns, South Africa had on one occasion had vacant police stations and significantly reduced ranger patrols. Many private reserves also were forced to reduce activities of their private rangers. While 2020 saw an unprecedented decline in the number of poaching incidents reported, COVID-19 related restrictions in the country have lifted and a corresponding uptick in poaching incidents has been observed. Continued spread of the disease has damaged environmental tourism across the globe, but South Africa likely hopes to encourage a return of foreign tourists to its national parks and tourist venues by making the policy shift recommended by the High-Level Panel’s report.