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Trophies in a Barrel: Examining ‘Canned Hunting’

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“Canned hunting”—the sport killing of animals bred in captivity and released into enclosed surroundings with no chance of escape—seems to generate controversy wherever it is practiced, whether on game ranches in Texas or in private reserves in South Africa.

In South Africa, the controversy came to a climax last fall when a panel of experts commissioned by the country’s environmental minister recommended a total ban on the practice, which also includes the hunting of animals that are drugged, sedated or accustomed to humans. In the next two months, the South African Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism is expected to act on that recommendation by releasing for public comment the first draft of regulations on national hunting standards.

The cost could be steep. South Africa has a thriving wildlife industry that generates about $280 million a year from hunting, live-animal auctions and eco-tourism. Hunting is prohibited in the country’s 22 national parks. But, as the panel noted in its report, the revenue earned by park fees and other nonhunting wildlife activities is far outstripped by that of trophy hunting, which takes place mostly in private game parks.

The diversity of its native species makes South Africa one of the most popular international hunting destinations. Zebras, giraffes, tigers and cheetahs are among the most desirable game. Many South African hunting Web sites advertise “big five” trophy packages, which refer to safaris in which the lion, buffalo, leopard, rhinoceros and elephant can all be hunted.

But not all trophy hunts are the same. Lucrative profits have led some private hunting operators to conduct canned hunting safaris, which virtually guarantee trophies. Growing concern over the ethics of this practice led Marthinus van Schalkwyk, the minister of environmental affairs and tourism, to convene a panel of conservation and management experts to report on the underside of the country’s tourism boom.

The unsavory aspects of canned hunting in South Africa were first revealed in “The Cooke Report,” a 1997 British documentary, which showed drugged lions being shot by foreign hunters from the backs of vehicles. The public, both in and outside South Africa, responded with outrage, but in the nine years since then, no national policy on game hunting has been put into effect to stop the practice.

In the 2003-4 hunting season, almost 54,000 animals were killed by 6,700 tourists, mostly in private trophy-hunting parks, according to the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism panel’s report. Included in this figure are 190 lions, which brought in about $3.3 million, or $17,500 spent by each successful hunter. Facts and figures were obtained through public hearings, written submissions and research papers commissioned from organizations including Traffic, an international wildlife-trade monitoring group.

A primary issue with canned hunts is that a hunting outfitter may work with a captive breeding facility to provide animals to order. Cross-breeding for desirable trophy characteristics is also a concern. Zebras are bred with donkeys to produce “zonkeys,” which are slower and easier to shoot; other genetically manipulated animals include white tigers, white lions, red wildebeests and large black-maned lions. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, live white lions can fetch $2,000 to $100,000 each.

“All foreign tourists coming to South Africa, hunters or otherwise, need to be made aware of these industries,” said Neil Greenwood, a researcher for International Fund for Animal Welfare Southern Africa. “They are then empowered to ask the questions and make informed decisions on whether they want to support industries that compromise the welfare and conservation of all animals.”

The provinces now regulate the hunting of wild animals. Their legislation generally prohibits the use of tranquilizers, luring by sound and hunting in small enclosures. But vague definitions (for example, of what constitutes a “small enclosure” or a “wild” animal), inadequate enforcement and the willingness of tourists to pay to shoot big game have allowed the hunts to continue.

“One must bear in mind that certain individuals do contravene the law,” said Leseho Sello, chief director of biodiversity and heritage for the environmental affairs and tourism department. National legislation would be an effort to curb what he calls “rogues.”

Gareth Morgan, a member of Parliament for the Democratic Alliance party, raised the canned hunting issue upon taking office in 2004. “It is hoped this policy will give life to the recommendation,” he said. But he raises continuing problems involving specifying the size of enclosures and the distinction between “free-roaming” and “captive-bred” animals. Mr. Morgan said that even if a captive-bred animal were released at an early age to be classified as free-roaming by the time a hunt occurred, the previous exposure to humans may still affect its instinctive flight response.

SOME say that going to the source of the animals used in these canned hunting operations is the best way to stop the abuse. In November, the International Fund for Animal Welfare released a report of its investigation into the captive breeding of large predators to provide prey for canned hunting. The organization estimates that about 3,000 lions are held in captive breeding facilities.

“Some owners and managers of captive breeding facilities have financial and other interests in canned hunting operations,” said Helen Dagut of the International Fund for Animal Welfare Southern Africa. “For example, a hunter will request a particular animal, which is then quickly provided by the captive breeder.”

Animals in captive breeding operations, she said, are often bred in small cages or enclosures, separated from their mothers earlier than they would be in nature, and habituated to humans through regular contact.

“The banning of captive breeding other than for bona fide conservation purposes would have the effect of inhibiting hunting practices, including canned hunting,” Ms. Dagut said.

Some safari hunting operators argue that the canned hunting issue is blown out of proportion, saying that their animals are released into enclosed areas that mimic the animal’s natural habitat, with enough space and cover for it to evade capture.

About three hours south of Johannesburg, Kukuzans Hunting Safaris and Tours offers lion hunting in fenced areas of 7.7 square miles and larger, with the animals hunted on foot. “In South Africa, there are huge private game reserves as well as national game reserves, but all of them are ‘high fenced,’ the term the Texans use,” said Krys Wessels, owner and founder of Kukuzans.

Mr. Wessels said that a member from Nature Conservation, which manages wildlife on behalf of the government, attends all of his hunts to ensure that lions are hunted with the principle of “fair chase.” The environmental and tourism department defines “fair chase” as the pursuit of the animal in its own habitat, where it has a fair chance of evading the hunter with “natural vigilance” and “physical capabilities.”

Stewart Dorrington, a member of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism’s expert panel and the president of the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa (Phasa), points out that most hunters are opposed to canned hunting and the stigma it brings to the industry. “I certainly do believe canned hunting is blown out of all proportion,” he said. “Our policy at Phasa is to disassociate ourselves with any hunting of captive-bred lions.”

Because hunting is so integral to South Africa’s economy and culture—contributing significantly to job creation and acting as a viable form of land use in areas that would otherwise be economically dormant—the department has said that any policy would allow hunting with the principles of fair chase to continue.

Mr. Morgan, the member of Parliament, says he hopes to have strict definitions to give the provinces less leeway in interpretation. “The reality is that canned hunting is rife in South Africa, frowned upon by the government in general, but in some isolated cases actively aided by provincial officials,” Mr. Morgan said. “I hope it can now end, but I am not holding my breath.”

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