Conservation discussions at parliamentary level

I recently attended a Parliamentary Colloquium entitled “Captive Predator Breeding for Hunting – Harming or Promoting the Image of South Africa?”. Many experienced stakeholders in the South African conservation community attended and expressed their views on this highly contentious subject. Naturally, I was in the group opposed to these ethically dubious activities.

I was quite worried before the meeting. I had serious misgivings about attending a session in parliament over a subject that is so hotly debated in the media. I imagined delegates jumping out of their seats and punching each other, or worse, hitting one another with chairs… these are not unfamiliar scenes to our parliamentary proceedings of the recent past. I admit I was slightly terrified!

After two days of presentations, questions and statements from the floor, and opinions from the Chairman and members of the committee, I was left in admiration of just how well-organised our parliamentary system actually is, and how effectively our parliamentarians are running what is clearly an extremely complex system of meetings, colloquiums and debates. I was impressed by the level of professionalism and the sheer organisational capacity of our parliamentary machine. Many citizens who preach doomsday rhetoric about South Africa and our democratic system should do themselves a favour, and go and attend some of the parliamentary meetings that are happening every day on a variety of topics that look into every aspect of our society.

I was deeply encouraged by the open and vigorous debate that was happening about a topic that has extremely high combat potential, but that was handled in a civil and mature manner where proponents from every side of a story were given an opportunity to make themselves heard.

My lasting impression, although admittedly I am biased towards my own views, was that there seemed to be overwhelming support from all parties (except a few remaining die-hards), that the captive predator breeding industry is not one that is benefitting conservation. It is likened to industrial scale farming and should therefore be scrutinised carefully from an animal welfare point of view.

On the subject of captive breeding of predators for hunting, and particularly on canned hunting, our position at Tanda Tula is absolutely against these practices and I personally support the views of all of the parties at the parliamentary meeting, including the Timbavati, who stood up against these activities.

Other than the obvious opposition to the main subject of the meeting, two other issues stood out for me. These need to be looked at very carefully to ensure that we are not unwittingly promoting or supporting practices that are not in the interests of conservation or responsible tourism.

The first of these is “voluntourism”. The reason that this was brought up in the meeting, is that many well-meaning tourists are hoodwinked into participating in the captive predator breeding industry by being told that they are contributing to conservation by caring for young cubs and other animals in these facilities. However, beyond the clearly problematic issue here, the subject of “voluntourism” in general has begun to gnaw away at my own thoughts around tourism in South Africa. I believe that we all need to be careful of the unintended negative impacts of any type of “voluntourism”, even if applied to the most benign and well-intentioned NGO’s.

The issue here is that if tourists are offering to work for an organisation for free, they may be crowding out the opportunities for local people to participate in jobs that could stimulate the local economy. Whilst the intended outcome may be that voluntourists bring much needed infrastructure or other services into rural communities, the reality may instead be that they have denied locals of the opportunity for employment, something that is greatly needed in our rural areas. I would therefore respectfully caution anyone who is considering embarking on a voluntourist holiday to consider carefully whether what they are offering is empowering the local people by transferring skills or whether they are simply going to be replacing a local. If it is the latter, perhaps it would be better to spend your money on traditional tourist activities in those areas where the revenue is used to employ and up-skill local people.

The second issue that stood out for me was that of “animal welfare predator facilities”. Here I am referring to facilities that are specifically set up to rescue certain threatened species, especially predators such as lions and tigers. What made me think more carefully about these was the well published scientific data that always stresses how well these animals survive in captivity compared to their survival rates in the wild. Lion survival rates to adulthood in the wild are somewhere around 30%, with a breeding frequency in females of once every 2 years. In captivity, without the competition from other prides and other predators, such as hyena, survival rates are understandably higher, with breeding cycles in females increasing to as often as every year. This begs the question: What happens if the breeding success of captive animals outgrows the facilities that house them?

Once again, for tourists who wish to visit such facilities and for those who are asked to contribute, I would respectfully caution them to investigate carefully how these facilities contribute to the greater conservation effort. Do they have established channels for re-introduction of their animals into bigger reserves? Do they have established protocols to ensure that the animals that they do transfer out of their care are in fact going to the right places? There is no doubt that there are definitely some well managed and compliant organisations in this sector doing excellent work, but there is still the need to do some background checking before one commits to possibly supporting a project that has no conservation value.

In closing then, I have come away from these parliamentary meetings not only feeling encouraged that the conservation community came together to debate an important issue. Also, more nuanced issues have come to light from this debate and we, as a tourism community in the conservation arena, must act responsibly and regulate our own activities to ensure that we are supporting the causes of conservation and sustainable development, and not harming them.