Africa’s wild lion population is estimated to be between 20 000 and 30 000. Researchers have good reason to believe that the real number is closer to 20 000. This puts lions in the “vulnerable” category of threatened species.
The categorisation masks important realities. The only growing populations are those in fenced reserves with small wild managed populations. This is not only a species crisis. It’s also an ecological and economic crisis. Lions are apex predators, which means that entire food chains and ecological systems depend on healthy populations. Lions are also a significant tourism drawcard, and tourism is a significant employer.
South Africa, uniquely, also allows the breeding of lions in captivity, most of which have no conservation value. It has an estimated 7000 to 8000 lions in captivity across roughly 300 facilities. These lions are predominantly bred for canned hunting and the Asian predator bone market.
A report prepared by by EMS, an activist charity, and the lobby group Ban Animal Trading, shows that lion bones are sold on the black market as tiger bones. The bones are dropped into rice wine vats and sold as tiger bone wine which is promoted in Asian markets as a treatment for rheumatism and impotence. The bones are also used to produce tiger bone cakes, an exotic small bar of melted bones mixed with additives like turtle shell.
The report argues that most lion bones come from captive-bred lions in South Africa.
Captive breeding is perfectly legal, if distasteful. But there are limits on the trade of lion bones. In 2016 the 17th CITES Conference of the Parties decided that no bone exports should be allowed from wild lions. But the conference also agreed that South Africa should establish a quota for skeleton exports from captive-bred lions. Captive breeding only occurs at scale in South Africa, so no other country is permitted to export lion bones.
A year later the Department of Environmental Affairs set an annual lion skeleton export quota at 800. It raised this to 1500 in July 2018. It did so without public consultation or the support of research. Even an interim report prepared for the department by the South African National Biodiversity Institute did not specify grounds on which to establish, or expand, a quota.
On top of this, there’s poor regulation of lion breeding facilities. The department doesn’t have a working database so doesn’t know how many facilities there are, or what the total number of captive-bred predators is.
In my new report, I discuss how breeding facilities are linked to the trade in lion bones.
The facilities arrange hunts that cost in the region of $22 000 for a male and female combination. Wildlife researcher, Karl Amman, describes how trophy taxidermists then sell the lion skeletons (without the skull) on to buyers. These are usually in Asian countries. A skeleton can fetch $1500.
The importer then sells the bones on for between $700 and $800 per kg. A 100kg lion yields about 18kgs of bone, worth roughly $15 000 at this point in the supply chain. The bones are then imported into Vietnam, boiled down in large pots to yield 100g bars of cake which are sold for roughly $1000.
Conservationists are concerned that South Africa’s quota provides an incentive to breed lions not only for the bullet, but also for the bone trade.
The 2017 quota was fully subscribed within weeks while a newly released report prepared for CITES suggests that 3469 skeletons were exported that year, nearly double the allocated number.
This rise in the trade of lion bones shouldn’t come as a surprise. In 2016 the US banned the import of captive-origin lion trophies from South Africa. Breeding facilities began looking for alternative markets. Selling lion carcasses was an obvious option given that a lioness skeleton fetches roughly R30 000, and a male skeleton about R50 000, when sold to a trader.
The predator breeding industry in South Africa argues that captive lion populations serve as a buffer against wild lion poaching because it can satisfy the demand for bones.
But those who oppose the trade in lion bones cite evidence that suggests the opposite is true. If anything, the quota could fuel the demand for lion products and provide a laundering channel for illegally sourced wild lion parts. This may imperil already vulnerable wild lion populations elsewhere in Africa. It also makes law enforcement extremely challenging: officials cannot be expected to distinguish between legal and illegally sourced bone stock.
The public outcry over an apparently arbitrary quota has been notable. The backlash against canned hunting and the bone trade has been similarly vocal.
The arguments against the trade have been put on the table at a two-day colloquium in South Africa’s parliament. The question being asked is: does the captive lion breeding industry harm, or promote, South Africa’s conservation image?
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Ultimately, it is parliament’s job to hold the government to account. The colloquium may go some way towards doing so. It may even end the brutality of captive predator breeding.
The world is watching the unfolding Cape Town water crisis with horror. On “Day Zero”, now predicted to be just ten weeks away, engineers will turn off the water supply. The South African city’s four million residents will have to queue at one of 200 water collection points.
Cape Town is the first major city to face such an extreme water crisis. There are so many unanswered questions. How will the sick or elderly people cope? How will people without a car collect their 25-litre daily ration? Pity those collecting water for a big family.
The crisis is caused by a combination of factors. First of all, Cape Town has a very dry climate with annual rainfall of 515mm. Since 2015, it has been in a drought estimated to be a one-in-300-year event.
In recent years, the city’s population has grown rapidly – by 79% since 1995. Many have questioned what Cape Town has done to expand the city’s water supply to cater for the population growth and the lower rainfall.
Australia’s largest cities have often struggled with drought. Water supplies may decline further due to climate change and uncertain future rainfall. With all capital cities expecting further population growth, this could cause water supply crises.
The situation in Cape Town has strong parallels with Perth in Australia. Perth is half the size of Cape Town, with two million residents, but has endured increasing water stress for nearly 50 years. From 1911 to 1974, the annual inflow to Perth’s water reservoirs averaged 338 gigalitres (GL) a year. Inflows have since shrunk by nearly 90% to just 42GL a year from 2010-2016.
To make matters worse, the Perth water storages also had to supply more people. Australia’s fourth-largest city had the fastest capital city population growth, 28.2%, from 2006-2016.
As a result, Perth became Australia’s first capital city unable to supply its residents from storage dams fed by rainfall and river flows. In 2015 the city faced a potentially disastrous situation. River inflows to Perth’s dams dwindled to 11.4GL for the year.
For its two million people, the inflows equated to only 15.6 litres per person per day! Yet in 2015/6 Perth residents consumed an average of nearly 350 litres each per day. This was the highest daily water consumption for Australia’s capitals. How was this achieved?
Perth has progressively sourced more and more of its supply from desalination and from groundwater extraction. This has been expensive and has been the topic of much debate. Perth is the only Australian capital to rely so heavily on desalination and groundwater for its water supply.
Australia’s next most water-stressed capital is Adelaide. That city is supplementing its surface water storages with desalination and groundwater, as well as water “transferred” from the Murray River.
Australia’s other capital cities on the east coast have faced their own water supply crises. Their water storages dwindled to between 20% and 35% capacity in 2007. This triggered multiple actions to prevent a water crisis. Progressively tighter water restrictions were declared.
The major population centres (Brisbane/Gold Coast, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide) also built large desalination plants. The community reaction to the desalination plants was mixed. While some welcomed these, others question their costs and environmental impacts.
The desalination plants were expensive to build, consume vast quantities of electricity and are very expensive to run. They remain costly to maintain, even if they do not supply desalinated water. All residents pay higher water rates as a result of their existence.
Since then, rainfall in southeastern Australia has increased and water storages have refilled. The largest southeastern Australia desalination plants have been placed on “stand-by” mode. They will be switched on if and when the supply level drops.
Many Australian cities also store very large volumes of water in very large water reservoirs. This allows them to continue to supply water through future extended periods of dry weather.
The three largest cities (Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane) have built very large dams indeed. For example, Brisbane has 2,220,150 ML storage capacity for its 2.2 million residents. That amounts to just over one million litres per resident when storages are full.
In comparison, Cape Town’s four million residents have a full storage capacity of 900,000 ML. That’s 225,000 litres per resident. Cape Town is constructing a number of small desalination plants while anxiously waiting for the onset of the region’s formerly regular winter rains.
This article is the third in a series The Conversation Africa is running on invasive species.
Alien species have been introduced to Africa for a variety of reasons. They provide food, raw materials for industry, ornamental plants, recreation in the form of sport fishing, hunting and pets. Some that are highly valued have been moved around widely. And in some areas they now form prominent components of societies and ecosystems like the domestic cat for example.
Many alien species bring considerable benefits. But some have become invasive, causing a loss of biodiversity, changes to ecosystems, economic losses and, in some cases, even affecting people’s health.
The shrub Prosopis or mesquite is an example. It was introduced to South Africa to provide fodder, firewood and shade in arid parts of the country. But it’s also a major water user. And two trout species (S. trutta and O. mykiss) are used for recreational angling and commercial aquaculture. But they’ve also been implicated in having a negative effect on the environment.
Managing invasive species is therefore critical. In South Africa the movement and use of 552 listed invasive species are managed under the Biodiversity Act and regulations attached to it. But not all the species on the list are equally harmful. Several may in fact be relatively harmless.
All the listed species under these regulations require management. Given that the capacity is limited, regulations should arguably focus on priority species because not all are necessarily harmful to the extent that would justify spending large amounts of time and effort on keeping them under control.
The question then is: are there some species that could be removed from the list? In our recent study we set out to answer this question by classifying species as inconsequential, beneficial, destructive or conflict generating species. This was done by assessing the relative degree of benefit they brought and their negative effects.
The classification was done by using a simple scoring system. It had two categories for the negatives (ecological and socio-economic) and two for the benefits (economic and intrinsic).
Inconsequential species: these make up 55% of the species listed under the act and in the regulations. They were associated with relatively low costs and low benefits to society. Species in this group had limited distribution or no known impact and were largely introduced as ornamentals or pets. Some examples include the eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), European perch (Perca fluviatilis), and the Père David’s Deer (Elaphurus davidianus).
Destructive species: these make up 29% of the list. They don’t bring substantial benefits to society or the environment, but they have a highly negative impact. Many were introduced accidentally and are regarded largely as pests and weeds. Examples include invasive rodents like the black rat (Rattus rattus) which causes damage to infrastructure and transmission of zoonotic diseases and pitch canker (Fusarium circinatum) a growing threat to pine plantations and forests worldwide.
Beneficial species: they make up 10% of the list and have clear social or environmental benefits. For example the jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia) is an iconic tree species in the city of Pretoria where the species is regarded as part of the identity and “sense of place” of the city. Active management is not necessary or should only be done in particular cases.
Conflict-generating organisms: these can be either beneficial or destructive, depending on one’s perspective or what value is placed on them. They make up only 6% of the list. There’s huge disagreement about whether these species should be controlled, or how they should be controlled. Examples include woody plants introduced for forestry, erosion control, sand dune stabilisation, agriculture and as ornamentals. Acacias and pines are examples. Animal examples include species like the Himalayan tahr which was introduced to the Table Mountain National Park. The goat has been the focus of eradication attempts, despite strong opposition. It also includes species introduced for aquaculture like maroon and brown trout. Managing trout has been highly contentious with conflicting views about whether they pose a risk, or deliver a benefit. This has led to them being listed and delisted. The trout fraternity refuse to acknowledge that trout are invasive species and highlight the lack of scientific evidence of the risks they pose.
We need to keep sight of the fact that there is general agreement on 94% of listed species. By identifying the small number that are generating the greatest tension, it’s more likely discussions can be held to reach common ground on regulation.
Most countries in Africa don’t have invasive species regulations. But there’s growing recognition that they’re needed. South Africa offers useful lessons on how this could be done.
The control of species listed under the country’s biodiversity act is compulsory. This means that plans to manage them have to be drawn up and implemented. But this doesn’t seem sensible given that not all are equally harmful and resources are limited. Our study suggests that some of the species currently regulated could be removed from the list.
Countries wanting to set up a system of managing invasive species could start by classifying a prospective list of candidates. Policymakers could then quickly bring out legislation against the most damaging and destructive ones. At the same time, discussions could be had on the ones that generate conflict with the aim of reaching consensus.
This would allow managers and regulators to focus on the most destructive species – as well as those that are at the centre of fierce disagreement.
Rhinos are one of the most iconic symbols of the African savanna: grey behemoths with armour plating and fearsome horns. And yet it is the horns that are leading to their demise. Poaching is so prolific that zoos cannot even protect them.
Some people believe rhino horns can cure several ailments; others see horns as status symbols. Given horns are made of keratin, this is really about as effective as chewing your finger nails. Nonetheless, a massive increase in poaching over the past decade has led to rapid declines in some rhino species, and solutions are urgently needed.
One proposal is to take 80 rhinos from private game farms in South Africa and transport them to captive facilities in Australia, at a cost of over US$4m. Though it cannot be denied that this is a “novel” idea, I, and colleagues from around the world, have serious concerns about the project, and we have now published a paper looking into the problematic plan.
The first issue is whether the cost of moving the rhinos is unjustified. The $4m cost is almost double the anti-poaching budget for South African National Parks ($2.2m), the managers of the estate where most white rhinos currently reside in the country.
The money would be better spent on anti-poaching activities in South Africa to increase local capacity. Or, from an Australian perspective, given the country’s abysmal record of mammal extinctions, it could go towards protecting indigenous species there.
In addition, there is the time cost of using the expertise of business leaders, marketeers and scientists. All could be working on conservation issues of much greater importance.
Bringing animals from the wild into captivity introduces strong selective pressure for domestication. Essentially, those animals that are too wild don’t breed and so don’t pass on their genes, while the sedate (unwild) animals do. This is exacerbated for species like rhinos where predation has shaped their evolution: they have grown big, dangerous horns to protect themselves. So captivity will likely be detrimental to the survival of any captive bred offspring should they be returned to the wild.
It is not known yet which rhino species will be the focus of the Australian project, but it will probably be the southern white rhino subspecies – which is the rhino species least likely to go extinct. The global population estimate for southern white rhinos (over 20,000) is stable, despite high poaching levels.
This number stands in stark contrast to the number of northern white (three), black (4,880 and increasing), great Indian (2,575), Sumatran (275) and Javan (up to 66) rhinos. These latter three species are clearly of much greater conservation concern than southern white rhinos.
There are also well over 800 southern white rhinos currently held in zoos around the world.
With appropriate management, the population size of the southern white is unlikely to lose genetic diversity, so adding 80 more individuals to zoos is utterly unnecessary. By contrast, across the world there are 39 other large mammalian herbivore species that are threatened with extinction that are far more in need of conservation funding than the five rhino species.
Rhinos inhabit places occupied by other less high profile threatened species – like African wild dogs and pangolins – which do not benefit from the same level of conservation funding. Conserving wildlife in their natural habitat has many benefits for the creatures and plants they coexist with. Rhinos are keystone species, creating grazing lawns that provide habitats for other species and ultimately affect fire regimes (fire frequency and burn patterns). They are also habitats themselves for a range of species-specific parasites. Abandoning efforts to conserve rhinos in their environment means these ecosystem services will no longer be provided.
Finally, taking biodiversity assets (rhinos) from Africa and transporting them to foreign countries extends the history of exploitation of Africa’s resources. Although well-meaning, the safe-keeping of rhinos by Western countries is as disempowering and patronising as the historical appropriation of cultural artefacts by colonial powers.
Conservation projects are ultimately more successful when led locally. With its strong social foundation, community-based conservation has had a significant impact on rhino protection and population recovery in Africa. In fact, local capacity and institutions are at the centre of one of the world’s most successful conservation success stories – the southern white rhino was brought back from the brink, growing from a few hundred in South Africa at the turn of the last century to over 20,000 throughout southern Africa today.
In our opinion, this project is neo-colonial conservation that diverts money and public attention away from the fundamental issues necessary to conserve rhinos. There is no evidence of what will happen to the rhinos transported to Australia once the poaching crisis is averted, but there seems nothing as robust as China’s “panda diplomacy” where pandas provided to foreign zoos remain the property of China, alongside a substantial annual payment, as do any offspring produced, for the duration of the arrangement.
With increased support, community-based rhino conservation initiatives can continue to lead the way. It is money that is missing, not the will to conserve them nor the expertise necessary to do so. Using the funding proposed for the Australian Rhino Project to support locally-led conservation or to educate people to reduce consumer demand for rhino horn in Asia seem far more acceptable options.