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A white rhino with its calf on a private game reserve in South Africa

Ann and Steve Toon/Minden Pictures

South Africa’s move to allow farming of lions and other wildlife is a bad idea, scientists say

A decision by South Africa’s government to include more than 30 wild species—including rhinos, lions, and cheetahs—on a list of animals that can be improved by breeding and genetic research could cause considerable damage to their genetic diversity, scientists warn today in the South African Journal of Science.

The decision, announced in May 2019 without prior public consultation, provides “a legal mechanism to domesticate wildlife,” says Graham Kerley, a zoologist at Nelson Mandela University and one of the paper’s authors. He says the amendment lets South Africa’s growing number of game breeders register associations that can determine what a lion, or cheetah, should look like. That creates a “loophole” that would allow breeders to select for commercially desirable traits such as longer horns or larger body size—something that isn’t allowed under the country’s legislation for wildlife, he says. Such selective breeding could have “severe” genetic consequences for the animals, the scientists write.

It’s the second time wild species have been included on the list. In 2016, the government included 12 antelope species, including wildebeests and impalas. Then, too, conservationists opposed the move, but were unable to reverse the decision. The inclusion this time of some of the country’s most iconic wildlife species has further fueled the criticism, and opponents have launched legal challenges to the amendment. 

Researchers say breeding aimed at enhancing certain traits could create genetic bottlenecks by promoting a few stud lines over the rest. That’s a common occurrence when animals are domesticated by modern intensive breeding, the paper notes. It could also result in species developing into two populations, one domesticated and one wild, it adds.

But keeping the wild and domesticated populations separate would be expensive—if it’s even possible, the authors write. “Domesticated varieties of wildlife will represent a novel, genetic pollution threat to South Africa’s indigenous wildlife that will be virtually impossible to prevent or reverse.”

When South Africa’s Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) last year published the amendment extending the reach of the 1998 Animal Improvement Act, it gave no reason for its action. In July 2019, however, it explained that it made the move following a 2017 request from the wildlife ranching industry.

Wildlife ranching for hunting, meat, and tourism is a growing industry in South Africa. In 2018, it occupied 18.7 million hectares, or 15.3% of the country’s total surface area. Wildlife auctions—where animals are bought and sold by ranchers, game reserves, or hunting lodges—contributed 1.7 billion rands ($116 million) to the South African economy in 2016, and the government wants to grow what it calls the “wildlife economy” by 10% annually until 2030.

In its July 2019 statement, DAFF said game animals are “already part of farm animal production systems” and that the Animal Improvement Act “provides for improvement of genetically superior animals to increase production and performance.”

The department also confirmed that “no research was undertaken by scientists” to inform the policy. However, a 2018 report, produced by 14 scientists and wildlife exports at the request of the country’s environment ministry, identified intensive management and selective breeding of game as a “significant risk” to South Africa’s biodiversity.

The South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association (SA Hunters) went to court in December 2019 to require that the minister for agriculture publish all documentation associated with the decision. The deadline for the minister to comply falls this week. But SA Hunters CEO Fred Camphor says that, so far, the association has heard nothing from the minister. “I won’t be surprised if we don’t find anything at all,” he says. “The whole thing is just a bloody mess.”