The government in South Africa is being criticised by animal rights groups for proposing controversial amendments to the Meat Safety Act that would green-light the economic exploitation of over a hundredwildlife species, allowing all kinds of animals to be used for commercial purposes such as meat consumption. However, the current coronavirus crisis, whose causes lie in the over-exploitation of natural resources, demonstrate that the government is courting a public health and ecological disaster.
Amendments to South Africa’s Meat Safety Act
The bill, which is currently being circulated to stakeholders for public consultation – with citizens being asked to have their say – lists over 103 species, including: elephants, zebras, red hartebeests, wildebeests, springboks, dik diks, lechwes, kudus, duikers, gemsboks, elands, impalas, rhinos (black and white), hippos, giraffes and crocodiles. The proposal also points out that “this scheme includes animals that are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of endangered species”.
Regulating the wildlife farming industry?
The South African Environment and Agriculture Ministries are moving along the path towards the adoption of this legislation, which is dotted with legal gaps. Yet conservation groups aren’t shocked by the move, as the amendments aim in part to regulate the wildlife farming industry, which supplies trophy animals to hunters and lion bones to Chinese and Southeast Asian buyers. “If passed in its present form the act opens up the possibility of massive consumption of wildlife … by inadvertently driving up the demand for bushmeat through legitimising the consumption of protected wild animals,” according to The Conversation.
Previously, in May 2019, former Minister of Agriculture Senzeni Zokwana passed an amendment to the 1998 Animal Improvement Act, reclassifying 33 wildlife species as farm animals, including lions, cheetahs, rhinos and zebras – without public consultation. This allowed said animals to be used for breeding, slaughtering and genetic manipulation in farms scattered across the country.
An irresponsible plan
The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the dangers of the transmission of zoonotic diseases from wildlife to humans. The same pattern of infectious disease “species jumping” was implicated in the origin and spread of Ebola and SARS as well. “The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb,” said a systematic review published back in 2007. While at the moment China’s government has refused to shutter wet markets permanently, it has reopened them prohibiting the sale of wild animals and promoting better hygiene.
However, experts are concerned that South Africa seems to be taking a completely opposite path, in defiance not only of the precautionary principle but of international concerns. One study centred on the Faraday Market in Johannesburg revealed that at least 147 vertebrates were being traded both for bushmeat and traditional medicine. In addition, nobody knows how many animals being sold in Chinese markets come from South Africa; the latter country is thus preparing to expand a market that has potential public health dangers and whose dimensions are obscure.
Jo Shaw, Wildlife Programme Senior Manager at WWF South Africa, says the organisation has submitted its comments on the proposed Meat Safety Act amendment. “We’re particularly concerned by the inclusion of threatened species, especially rhinoceros, which haven’t been typically harvested for meat, and the lack of clarity around how ‘animal products’ are covered by the act, especially in relation to conservation implications due to illegal trade in high-value products”.
Environmental futurist Nicholas King agrees that the amendments “attempt to further commodify wildlife like so much inanimate manufactured merchandise”. He says the draft is poor from a scientific perspective and that it is wholly unworkable, coupled by unenforceable. “This document is misleading and one wonders whether it is intended to be regulated at all,” King comments, pointing out that the amendment ends with the statement: “This Act also applies to all other species of animals not mentioned above, including birds, fish and reptiles that may be slaughtered as food for human and animal consumption”.
Lions, rhinos and cheetahs are among the wild species at risk of irreversible “genetic pollution” that could have a damaging effect on the continent’s wildlife, due to breeding experiments carried out in South Africa, scientists also warn. Game farmers can use artificial insemination and genetic manipulation to obtain animals with special characteristics, for example faster or larger ones, or of a different colour. According to a recent report published in the South African Journal of Science, novel trophy animals are increasingly being bred, including freakishly-coloured varieties such as the black impala, golden wildebeest and pure-white springbok. Some hunters pay more to bag such unusual trophies.
Presumably, the South African government should know that we can’t continue treating our delicate ecological systems as commodities. Nature isn’t ours to exploit as we wish and animals’ well-being must be respected.
The coronavirus in Africa could completely overwhelm healthcare systems neglected for years. Yet Zambia has refrained from imposing the type of far-reaching lockdown seen in nations such as South Africa.