Wildlife on the back foot

Nowhere else in the world does legislation exist classifying wild animals and livestock or domestic animals under the same grouping. Except here in South Africa.

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The well-being of 33 wildlife species has been grouped together with that of livestock and domestic animals following a far-reaching amendment that parliament made to the Animal Improvement Act of 1998 (AIA). It was pushed through in May last year without any public hearings. White and black rhinos, lions and cheetahs are among the wild species affected with licensed breeders that can now use genetic manipulation to improve production or performance.

This legal development may just be the lifeline controversial rhino farmer John Hume has been looking for.  In September last year Hume proclaimed that he is as good as done. That was after his latest attempt to save Buffalo Dream Ranch, his farm in Northwest with more than 1 700 rhinos, failed spectacularly. He then said he can’t see himself surviving for longer than six months. 

According to a statement from the Department of Environmental Affairs, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), the amendment was made following a request from breeders’ associations in the industry to facilitate game farming. Artificial insemination, the collection of semen and embryos as well as the transfer of embryos and other genetic material are permissible according to the amendment. It can also be packed and sold. The department says the breeders will still have to comply with the requirements of the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act (NEMBA) as the animals in question still fall under the jurisdiction of the department and offenders will be severely punished.

It is especially the breeders of lions and rhinos in captivity, such as Hume, who have been grinning from ear to ear since the change to the AIA. Another hurdle has now been cleared for them to facilitate their operations, especially with regards to the trade in rhino horn and canned hunting.

But the well-being of the 33 wildlife species now referred to in the same breath as certain canine and tame goat species is a major concern for conservationists. They do not fall for the department’s appeasement that NEMBA is there to exercise proper control.

Karen Trendler, the National Wildlife Protection Association’s wildlife trade manager, says it’s all just cold bait. There are still no adequate regulations in place that look after the welfare and management of wild animals in captivity or control intensive breeding with these animals.

“The wildlife industry has been insisting for a long time that the breeding of wild animals should be classified under agriculture. And this creates several complications. Wild animals bred in captivity in South Africa are still not protected by any specific law and are constantly exploited despite the Animal Protection Act.

“This intensive breeding places increasing stress on the animals and consequently increases the risk of a variety of diseases. John Hume is a single example because of the scale on which he farms with rhinos. He already suffered because of this when he lost a lot of animals in one year due to Clostridial. ”

This incident occurred in 2014 and Hume lost 35 rhinos as a result of the bacterial infection. Ecologists were then of the opinion that the unnatural conditions under which the rhinos were kept and the fact that there were too many animals for the size of Hume’s farm contributed to the deaths.

Hume himself said in 2016 that out of 181 calves born, 10% died due to, among other things, “stillbirths” and “natural abortions”. There has also been reports about a rhino calf with only three legs born on Hume’s farm.

Hume however maintains that the rhino is properly cared for on his farm and that the animals are still wild.

“These rhinos are wild animals that roam here. There are four hectares per animal, so a cow and a calf together have eight hectares. With the drought, they are fed in a specific area, but they remain wild.”

Hume has continuously spewed fire about the bureaucratic red tape that has been haltering his efforts in obtaining the necessary permits for trade in live animals as well as for the registration at CITES of BDR as a facility for the breeding rhinos in captivity.  According to Hume this has been dragging since September 2018.

“We can’t speak on behalf of the department, so I can’t tell you why it has been delayed for so long, just that it is extremely detrimental to our huge herd of over 1 700 rhinos.”

But now the world’s largest rhino farmer could probably benefit from the amendment to the AIA and the reclassification of the 33 wildlife species. This legislation is common practice in farm animals and is applied with relative ease, the same is envisaged for the re-classified wild animals. In addition to continuing with its rhino breeding on a large scale, the new legal development opens another door through which Hume can get rid of his almost seven tons of stockpiled rhino horn. This is significant, especially in light of the DEFF’s statement that the request for a change to the legislation came from the game industry and its role is, among other things, “to define and measure characteristics of economic importance”.

There are about 330 private rhino owners in South Africa, 297 belong to the Private Rhino Owners Association (PROA). About 50% of white rhinos and over 35% of black rhinos in South Africa are privately owned. Private rhino farmers welcome the reclassification of rhinos. According to Pelham Jones of PROA, dehorning is by no means detrimental to the animal.

“We firmly believe that with the international trade in stockpiled rhino horn, we can sell a legitimate product at a much lower price than what is currently happening on the black market. International trade can take the advantage out of the hands of the syndicates and then we can plow back into rhino conservation and help with poverty alleviation. People need to remember, rhinos are dehorned without any impact on the animal’s welfare, so the demand can be met and at the same time the species is saved from extinction.”

The possibility that Hume and other rhino farmers may now have it much easier to trade rhino horn, inside and outside the borders of South Africa, is a further headache for the concerned in environmental circles. Questions are asked, such as how the horns of a wild animal would be distinguished from that of an animal bred in captivity. 

Michelle Pickover, director of the EMS Foundation and author of Animal Rights in South Africa, says that farming with rhinos is simply another attempt to make a wild animal a tame animal.

“It raises an ethical question – should we do it at all? In other words, is it really necessary for the environment or for the survival of a species? The answer is unequivocally no. The breeding of wild animals in captivity and in the case of rhinos largely for their horns, is simply creating a growing demand in the market.”

According to Susie Watts, program director of WildAid, the success of Hume’s plan was dependent on lifting the ban on the international trade in rhino horn.

“If his attempt to slip into the back door is successful, it will cause exactly the same chaos and have the same negative affect on rhinos. It is not only South Africa’s rhinos, but the rest of Africa’s population that will suffer.”