Tigers are bred in South Africa – often for their body parts

A tiger escaped from a home and roamed the countryside outside Johannesburg, South Africa, for four days this month. It attacked a man, killed several animals, and was eventually shot dead by authorities. Tigers are not native to South Africa and are considered an alien species. His escape underscores the country’s controversial commercial breeding industry and the key role South Africa plays in the international big cat trade. Tigers are intensively bred for tourism, hunting, and commercial trade in live individuals and their body parts.

Moina Spooner, Associate Editor at The Conversation Africa, asked Neil D’Cruze and Angie Elwin to share their insights into the industry.

What are your biggest concerns about the South African predator industry?
The recent tiger flight in Johannesburg highlights the safety risk this industry poses to workers, visitors and the public on wildlife farms. Big cat attacks in South Africa have resulted in several life-altering human injuries and deaths in recent years.

Although individual tigers can be tamed to varying degrees, this should not be confused with domestication. They are wild animals. They have biological and behavioral needs that can only be fully met in the wild.

Another concern for us is animal welfare. Big cat breeding facilities in South Africa have been repeatedly criticized for their substandard conditions.

Additionally, none of the big cat facilities in South Africa have demonstrated that they base their breeding programs on internationally recognized stud books, or have successfully released tigers back into the wild. Therefore, they currently offer no demonstrable direct conservation benefit.

In fact, there are serious concerns that South Africa’s legal captive-bred tiger industry is a harmful conduit for the international illegal trade. A large proportion of tigers are exported to China, Vietnam and Thailand as live animals and body parts. These are known hotspots for demand for tiger body parts and the illegal tiger trade.

In addition, World Animal Protection, an animal welfare organization that we also work with, has received information that suggests poachers are targeting tigers in breeding facilities. Their heads and paws are harvested and traded to meet Asian consumer demand.

Another major concern we have, according to our intelligence reports, is that some farm owners appear to be shifting their operations from lions to tigers and ligers, lion-tiger hybrids. This could be in response to South Africa’s recent announcement to end lion farming.

Is there data on the number and location of tigers in South Africa?
According to the Minister for Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, there are more than 350 private or government entities actively breeding or keeping big cat species in South Africa. These include tigers, lions, cheetahs, leopards, jaguars, pumas, caracals, servals and hybrids.

The exact population size of these species in captivity is unknown as the industry has never been fully scrutinized. Because there is a lack of appropriate and effective regulation, resources and political will. However, according to the latest unpublished data from provincial authorities (which we review as part of our research) and online research by Blood Lions, 492 tigers were kept in registered private facilities in 2022. According to published data, in 2019 permits were issued for 5,291 lions, 373 cheetahs and 176 leopards in Mpumalanga, Free State, North West and Gauteng alone.

While these numbers are only part of the picture, this is an apparent increase in the captive tiger population in South Africa. Previous reports from the Environmental Investigation Agency and Four Paws showed around 100 tigers were held at facilities in seven provinces between 2019 and 2021.

Exactly how tigers end up on commercial farms in South Africa is unclear. However, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora shows that 66 live tigers have been imported into the country over the past decade, mostly from Germany, Botswana, Romania and Lesotho. In comparison, 384 were exported live, mostly to zoos, circuses, and breeding facilities in Vietnam, China, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.

Is enough being done to manage the industry?
South Africa is one of the few countries in Africa that still allows the commercial breeding, keeping and hunting of tigers in captivity, along with their domestic and international trade. This is despite a 1987 ban on international trade in tigers and a 2007 international treaty decision prohibiting the commercial breeding of tigers in captivity for trade in their parts or derivatives. These derivatives include their bones, bile, fat, and blood, which are used in traditional medicine.

The main piece of legislation regulating big cat species in South Africa is the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act of 2004. Although provincial regulations vary widely, under the Biodiversity Act anyone with a permit can import, own, breed or trade tigers.

To comply with legal action already taken by the international community, South Africa should publicly commit to ending commercial breeding, husbandry, hunting and international trade in tigers and their body parts.

It is unclear why South Africa has not yet done so. Economic reasons are likely to be a primary reason, but this is being debated in light of the potential economic damage caused by damaging the country’s international reputation. Other reasons could be the right to private ownership of wildlife and possible constitutional issues.

A comprehensive, well-managed plan is required to ensure a responsible transition away from the current industry. This should include regular audits, inspections by the relevant authorities and proper record keeping.

This decision should be binding and be taken in step in all provinces of South Africa. It should also be extended to other big cat species that could potentially be used as a substitute for the illegal international trade in tiger bones.

The authors would like to thank Louise de Waal of Blood Lions for her informative insight and for sharing the latest data on the number of big cats in carnivore facilities.

Neil D’Cruze is Global Head of Wildlife Research, World Animal Protection, and Visiting Researcher, Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford. Angie Elwin is Wildlife Research Manager at World Animal Protection and Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Reading.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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