This year the poaching of more than 430 rhinos in South Africa has rightly dominated the news. The massacre of these animals has forced the government to respond with more rangers in Kruger and stronger surveillance at the airports. Sadly the energy and hand-wringing to protect one species is not extending to another. South Africa’s lions are down to the last few prides with just 2 000 living in the wild. But the failure to curb the nascent but burgeoning trade in lion bones could see this drop even further.
According to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, between 2009 and 2010, exports of lion bones from South Africa have boomed by 250%. Hundreds of thousands of people have called on the government to act to save these majestic creatures. The reaction so far: stubborn denials and political censorship to silence the growing drumbeat of lion campaigners.
According to Pieter Kat, director of LionAid, by creating a supply for the trade in lion bones, South Africa has created growing levels of lion poaching across Africa, fuelled in large part by the fact that a much higher premium is paid in East Asia for wild lion bone over its farmed alternative. But Environment Minister Edna Molewa has refused to acknowledge this risk, slapping a target on the forehead of the last remaining lions. The statistics are alarming. In the past 40 years the African lion population has plummeted from roughly 200 000 to about 20 000 today.
But now the siren to save the lion has been raised. More than 700 000 people, many of them in South Africa, have backed a campaign by the online campaign organisation Avaaz calling on President Jacob Zuma to save Africa’s last lions. Rather than allow the debate to flow, however, it has been gagged. When ads when went up at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg next to the baggage carousel asking President Zuma to take action, they were torn down by the airports authority.
The adverts, which were being seen by tens of thousands flying into the city, were powerful but not insulting: a picture of President Zuma looks on as a lioness stares down the barrel of a gun, with the caption reading: “Our lions are being slaughtered to make bogus sex potions for Asia. Will President Zuma save them? Urge him to stop the deadly lion bone trade now.”
These adverts break no law and are a protected form of free expression under the South African Constitution. Given that this campaign to save the lions in South Africa has been censored by the government-owned airport authority, Avaaz recently launched legal proceedings against Airports Company South Africa (Acsa) and their advertising firm Primedia (who had approved the ads before their hanging). While Primedia has declined to fight Avaaz’s claim — suggesting it fears it is a fight then can’t win — Acsa announced this week it plans to dig in its heels and defend its political censorship.
South Africa is committed to conservation and it has forcefully protected at risk species from poachers in the past, including taking swift action to save the rhino. But failing to act on lions exposes a conservation policy that can seemingly only cope with one burning issue at a time.
The first step to solving this problem is for the government to first admit that there is a problem. This is not confined to canned lions but threatens a dangerous escalation in illegal poaching. Zuma has the power right now to institute a ban. Prohibitive sentences for commercial poachers and enhanced monitoring of airports and harbours to reduce the flow of these products would go a long way towards stemming the proliferation in illegal poaching. Effective laws must be put in place to cut off any legal loopholes and extinguish this shameful trade before one of the world’s most majestic and celebrated creatures is relegated to a greed-fuelled and needless demise.
Emma Ruby-Sachs is a campaign director at Avaaz.org, a global advocacy organisation with 16 million members around the world. She is a graduate of Wesleyan University and the University of Toronto Law School. She recently published her first novel, The Water Man’s Daughter, a story of water privatisation in post-apartheid South Africa. She currently lives in Chicago.