Andreas Späth

The commodification of South Africa’s wildlife

2015-12-07 10:55

Andreas Wilson-Späth

South Africa is witnessing a growing trend in the commercialisation of its indigenous wild animals. In the past, the main motivation for preserving wildlife was saving species from extinction. Today, an influential new paradigm is promoting a market-based model for conservation which is turning non-domestic animals into commodities to be raised, bought and sold for profit.

Changing the policy landscape

While the doctrine of ‘sustainable use’ is enshrined in the South African constitution, its interpretation is being shaped by a series of regulatory and legislative initiatives which include wildlife conservation measures alongside provisions that promote commodification. A brief analysis of some of the more prominent recent policy documents illustrates the contours of an emerging wildlife-industrial complex:

1. While the National Norms and Standards for the Sustainable Use of Large Predators appears to prohibit the controversial practice of canned hunting, particularly of lions, it does, in fact, allow for the legal hunting of lions bred in captivity, provided that “they have been certified as rehabilitated to wild status”. Today, more than 99% all lions that are killed by trophy hunters in South Africa were raised in commercial breeding facilities specifically for this purpose.

2. The Biodiversity Management Plan for African Lion (Panthera Leo)

argues that the captive lion “industry” offers protection to wild lions, promotes the “sustainable trade in lions and lion products”, identifies opportunities associated with a “growth in lion-based economic outputs” and paves the way for the officially-sanctioned and wholesale commodification of lions and lion body parts through trophy hunting of captive-bred lions and the international trade in lion products.

3. The stated purpose of the National Norms and Standards for the Management of Elephants in South Africa is “to ensure that elephants are managed in [...] a way that [...] ensures the sustainable use of hair, skin, meat and ivory products”.

4. The Biodiversity Management Plan for the Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) in South Africa includes clauses calling for an “encouragement of the sustained 'consumptive' and 'non-consumptive' use of rhinos" to “develop the means by which rhinos help pay for the cost of their conservation” and the investigation of “measures aimed at possibly facilitating a better understanding for any possible future regulated and controlled international trade in the species, and any associated by-products”.

5. The draft Biodiversity Management Plan for the White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) in South Africa suggests that while “the significant value of the rhino horn trade is currently captured entirely by organised crime”, it is time that “rhinos need to start paying more for themselves”. It argues that a legal market in rhino horn would reduce poaching and generate “significant revenue” for rhino protection and conservation.

6. A report entitled “The viability of legalising trade in rhino horn in South Africa”, which was commissioned by the Department of Environmental Affairs, proposes that “South Africa should start seriously investigating the viability of a legal international trade in rhino horn” and “must construct convincing arguments for a legal international trade in rhino horn (if international trade is indeed viable) and then begin lobbying CITES [the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] parties for support”. Equating rhinos to domesticated animals, the authors explain that the “management of rhino populations should be approached differently – i.e. as for any other valuable terrestrial agricultural livestock species that is effectively owner managed”.

7. Environment Minister Edna Molewa has declared her intention to publish so-called non-detrimental findings for several species of wild animals that are listed on CITES appendices I (Cape mountain zebra and leopard) and II (bontebok and African lion). Provided that certain conservation and management measures are implemented and these findings are formally published, this clears the way for the legal, CITES-sanctioned export of live animals and hunting trophies of these species. Non-detrimental findings imply that such actions will not endanger the survival of the species.

Interpreting ‘sustainable use’

In the past, Africa’s wildlife was part of a collectively managed and conserved commons which was used for subsistence by communities without wild animals being owned by anyone in particular. Undomesticated animals were not commodities traded in markets for their ‘exchange value’, but free resources that belonged to everyone and were prized for their ‘use value’. The community as a whole was the custodian of this wildlife commons.

With the spread of capitalism came the tendency to ‘enclose’ the commons – to privatise them and to turn wild animals into commodities to be sold for financial profit. This was supposedly necessary as protection against the ‘tragedy of the commons’, the tendency for individuals to exploit common property resources unsustainably.

In recent history, this trend has seen a global escalation with the rise to dominance of so-called neoliberal economic policies that present free-market strategies as the panacea to all challenges. When applied to wildlife conservation policies, they are part of what geographer David Harvey describes as the “wholesale commodification of nature in all its forms” in which “the market is presumed to work as an appropriate guide – an ethic – to all human action”.

A number of people have articulated, justified and promoted this neoliberalisation process, particularly in the context of the rhino poaching crisis. Conservation economist Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, for instance, considers a privatised rhino industry regulated by a legal and competitive international market as “the most sensible model for rhino conservation in Africa”. He questions whether live rhinos have any “intrinsic and other completely non-use related existence values”, emphasises “the rights of humans to the use of rhinos” and considers competitive markets as “analogous to the biological maxim of “survival of the fittest””.

But, as environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan notes in the acclaimed documentary ‘Blood Lions’, “when one defines everything that is not a human being or a corporation as property, that inevitably leads to the commercialisation of nature and its exploitation”.

Conservationist Ian Michler believes that “we need to understand that what is taking place in South Africa’s wildlife industry has very little to do with biodiversity conservation. While it is true that the numbers of certain wild species have increased on private farms, this needs to be contextualised. Farmers and businessmen are mostly selecting high-value species such as sable, rhino, lion and buffalo, while others are creating a range of colour mutants, and the sole basis for their decisions is financial in order to boost returns on what they view as an investment. Barring a few examples, there are no ecological or conservation considerations involved in the breeding and hunting component of these industries. It’s become a frenzied free-for-all where species are being subjected to intensive agricultural-type breeding practices”.

The model: lions

So what can we expect as the eventual outcome of the policies that are being enacted? The current situation of lions in South Africa suggests the outlines of what nature conservation may look like in years to come.

The model involves thousands of lions bred in captivity and representing a variety of economic opportunities and revenue streams, predominantly by being sold to trophy hunters, but also through the export of lion bones and other body parts, as well as commercial tourist venues that offer lion cup petting, walking with juvenile lions and volunteer internships.

According to a report published by the international wildlife trade monitoring organisation TRAFFIC, “the purpose of most captive facilities in South Africa is to breed lions commercially for consumptive purposes such as trophy hunting – thus animals are ‘produced’ rather than ‘protected’”.

With some imagination, similar scenarios can be envisaged for other valuable wildlife species.

An alternative

There is no doubt that around the world, wild species are under threat as a result of human activities such as habitat destruction, changes in land use, climate change, pollution, the trade in bush meats and poaching.

While it may be anathema to fans of the neoliberal dogma, the idea of a wildlife commons that is managed collectively by local communities remains a viable alternative vision. This approach sees conservation as an ethical and moral duty. It considers it our joint responsibility to save endangered species, not for profit, but for their own sake.

According to Will Travers, president of the Born Free Foundation, “the industrial-scale, commercial exploitation of wildlife under the ‘it pays, it stays’ paradigm is a relatively recent concept. It doesn’t really take into account the human condition based on greed and avarice or the massive growth in human population. There are simply too many of us and too few of them for us to continue to try and create an economic model that allows us to treat wildlife as a commodity”.

He suggests a more benign approach: “in the same way that we value the great human works of art and are willing to put state, corporate and private funding into their preservation, why don’t we do the same for wildlife by thinking of it as a natural work of art in which we invest for our own sanity as much as for protection and conservation”.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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