In 2003 canned lion breeding and hunting was still in its infant shoes. Our country’s conservation departments seemed ill prepared for this highly unethical and rapidly growing industry. Most newly appointed officials seemed to care little about the welfare of the animals they were suppose to protect and conserve; those that did care found themselves ostracised by their peers and soon it would be a situation of either supporting the captive breeding and hunting of large predators of packing your bags or finding yourself a new job.
It was with this political background that the SanWild Wildlife Trust became more and more informed about the many unethical activities that were taking place in the South Africa’s wildlife industry and we started working closely with the law enforcement branch of the Limpopo Nature Conservation Departments – supply information about the many illegal and irregular activities.
One of the many frustrations the department had at the time was that they did not have the facilities or the funding to construct a holding facility where confiscated large predators could be held pending the outcome of criminal proceedings. If an individual therefore committed a crime by transporting, breeding or holding large predators illegally they were not in a position to confiscate such predators.
The SanWild Wildlife Trust raised the necessary funding from a UK-based charity to construct this holding facility and offered our help to the conservation departments to assist them with their law enforcement duties. The Cats’ Rescue Centre was completed in October 2003 and the first group of lions rescued from the canned lion breeding and hunting industry arrived in November 2003.
Jespha’s pride was confiscated by the conservation authorities from the Shelanti Lion Breeding Project in Limpopo Province. Edwin Claasens owned another lion breeding farm in the Free State and applied on a number of occasions to the Limpopo Nature Conservation Department to set up a similar project in Limpopo Province. Despite his permit applications being turned down on a number of occasions he decided to go ahead and imported lions from the Free State into Limpopo Province to set up a breeding project to supply captive bred lions to trophy hunters
A wildlife veterinarian, an assistant and SanWild’s founder trustee set off with the conservation departments in the early hours of the morning to be at the Shelanti Lion Breeding Project at daybreak. The veterinarian was there to immobilize the lions and oversee their transportation to SanWild.
On arrival at Shelanti the conservation department and police criminal investigations division proceeded to inform the farm manager that they had a warrant to confiscate, seize and remove the lions and while legal attempts to retain and overturn the said warrant were executed by both sides the lions were darted and loaded into a dilapidated truck – the only transportation the conservation officials was authorized to use. We knew then it was going to be a difficult, uncomfortable and emotionally challenging 8 hour return trip to SanWild.
The truck and some very emotionally and physically weary people arrived at SanWild that night at 23h50.
The off-loading of the animals proceeded without any problems and by 04h30 the next morning all the lions had recovered from the anesthetic and we could return to the camp for breakfast and a hot shower. Little did I know that for the first time now I would soon be exposed to the ugly side and politics of the animal welfare industry.
Jespha’s pride included two adult lionesses named Ntombi and Nikana and her three cubs. Unfortunately the three cubs had already been removed from their mother for some time and we were unable to reintroduce them safely back into the pride.
In captive breeding projects, it is standard practice to remove newborn cubs from their mothers to ensure that the lioness comes into estrus again so that she can be mated (again) to produce even more cubs. In short, it is akin to a lion breeding factory.
Nikana conceived again after her cubs had been removed and Rongo and Aroha were born shortly after the pride arrived at SanWild. They have grown into two beautiful young lions that remain with their pride.
The other three young cubs known as the “Three Sisters” were kept in a separate enclosure and were later introduced to another pride of lions.
In July 2005 the owner of the lions, was found guilty of the illegal importation and breeding of lions in the Limpopo Province. He received a suspended sentence and his lions were all forfeited to the Limpopo Department of Environmental Affairs, Economic Development and Tourism.
THE MORNING AFTER THE CONFISCATION:
As with most stories I guess there are the heroes and the villains in each story.
The story of the successful prosecution and confiscation of the 1st ever group of illegally held lions rest squarely with individuals in the Department of Environmental Affairs and the South African police services criminal investigations unit. The respective individuals on that particular morning was overjoyed that this group of lions arrived at SanWild and that the individual animals were safe for now. They also knew that it was now up to them to ensure the long-term welfare of these animals because if their investigations and criminal proceedings failed the animals would be returned to their owner.
When SanWild raised the funds to construct the large predator rescue center we knew that the only role animal welfare would play in the matter was to facilitate an intermediate and possible long-term holding facility and sanctuary were confiscated and rescued animals may find a new safe home and we understood the role we would play clearly and that the prosecutions and executing of the criminal proceedings were best left in the hands of the authorities. At the time we conveyed this understanding to our donors and sponsors who we believed also understood the sensitive nature of the criminal proceedings that was to follow. How wrong we were and for the 1st time we were confronted with the hidden agendas and political strategies of some of the large international animal welfare charities.
Despite the agreement reached between the SanWild Wildlife Trust and the conservation department in October 2003 that SanWild would be given the opportunity to ensure the lions’ long-term welfare by being party to the decision made as to the end destination for the pride, this did not occur.
In November 2005 the department put the lions up for sale on a public tender along with some other lions, wild dogs and a Bengal tiger held at another facility.
We here at SanWild were informed by a member of the public and immediately instituted legal proceedings to prevent the tender proceeding. We were appalled that Jespha’s pride, which had been supported by donors’ funding since their arrival in November 2003, was to be sold to hunters and breeders. After pressure from their legal team and wide media reports, the Department of Environmental Affairs, Economic Development and Tourism agreed to remove “the Claasens lions” from the tender documents, but chose to go ahead with the tender process on the rest of the animals that included other confiscated lions as well as a single Bengal tiger.
Inquiries in January 2006 showed that no tender had been submitted and the department received no formal offer for any of the other lions or the wild dogs. The only formal tender submitted was for the Bengal tiger by a private zoo close to Johannesburg. In 2006 the lions were once again placed on a public tender, but this time the Department offered to “donate” them to a suitable applicant. Their whereabouts and fate remains unknown.