The South African government recently approved an amendment to its Animal Improvement Act (AIA). The AIA is responsible for governing livestock breeding in South Africa and the amendment re-categorized several endangered and iconic animals as farming stock. In other words, wild animals such as lion, cheetah, giraffe, rhino and zebra are among the 33 wild species now listed as ‘farm animals’.
This amendment was slipped through without any public consultation and under the radar of the media. There is no international precedent for such a vast reclassification and it has raised alarm bells about the increased risk of experiments on endangered species to create crossbreeds and ‘genetically superior’ animals.
The updated Act now permits “the breeding, identification and utilization of genetically superior animals in order to improve the production and performance of animals…"
It also allows artificial insemination, the collection of semen and embryos as well as the transfer of embryos and genetic material. Such material can be collected, evaluated, processed, packed and sold. This is currently common practice for traditional farm animals but carries considerable risks for wild ones and means that breeders will have more freedom to explore potential new income previously only open to livestock farmers.
In South Africa, many game species have already fallen under the category of livestock, with farmers and breeders stating that they have been restricted by conservation legislation. Indeed, ministry officials from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries have stated that the Act had been changed in response to requests from breeding societies.
AIA permits breeding societies to manipulate breeding outcomes, for example, farmed antelopes are already being cross-bred to gain unusual colour variants such as the “golden impala”, to sell to hunters or collectors. The changes could mean that this kind of genetic manipulation and breeding practice could lead to the eventual genetic pollution of the species.
The only wild animal previously listed under the act was the ostrich, and cross-breeding programmes set up to improve certain aspects of the ostrich, such as feather production, have led to reproductive problems in some cases.
There is also concern for captive lions bred for South Africa’s ‘canned hunting’ industry. Canned hunting is a trophy hunt in which an animal is kept in a confined place, such as in a fenced-in area, increasing the likelihood of the hunter obtaining a kill. These animals are already held in appalling conditions, and with the change in the category to ‘farm animals’, there is concern that about what that will mean for them.
One of the other potential issues for these re-classified wild animals, is that there is often problems associated with intensive farming, such as increased occurrence of disease and associated use of antibiotics and vaccinations and so on. This could mean that certain species will no longer survive in the wild.
What will this reclassification actually mean for these now reclassified wild animals?
Wild animals roaming free or with minimal management in national parks and private game reserves/parks will still be protected by biodiversity laws but those in captivity will become more vulnerable to breeding manipulation.
It is possible that by separating farms from conservation areas there will be an opportunity for more focus on important conservations areas.
But rhino and other significant species will no longer be afforded blanket protection. It will become difficult to differentiate between a farmed animal and a wild animal when dealing with horns and body parts.
“I believe an agriculturalised animal is lost to conservation. A rhino is not a fancy cow with a horn on its face. A sable antelope is not just a cool goat with makeup and sexy horns. The intrinsic values are lost.”
Founder, the Black Mambas
Whilst it is likely that the amendment will have been welcomed by rhino and captive lion breeders who will be eager to have their products viewed in a different light from the current one, other sectors concerned with wildlife have expressed alarm. The hunting lobby, for example, have warned that species on the list would be “at risk of genetic manipulation and genetic pollution”.
Ultimately the best way to look after wild animals is in their own natural habitat. In this way, whole ecosystems and a range of species are protected.