Animal Welfare Concerns
While CITES rules are supposed to guarantee that exported live wild animals go to “appropriate and acceptable destinations,” those traded from South Africa to China may end up being used as pets, curios, food, ingredients in traditional medical practices, zoo exhibits or laboratory test subjects.
The report notes that since many animals are sold on to unknown third parties by the initial importers, their final destination is frequently impossible to ascertain.
Facilities housing imported wild animals in China are often of an inferior standard. In the case of the chimpanzees sold to the Beijing Wild Animal Park, for example, their accommodation was not yet completed on their arrival in the country and the facility did not have qualified staff to take care of them.
Many of the animals are destined for China’s thousands of government-run or privately-owned “safari parks,” zoos, theme parks and circuses for the sole purpose of entertainment. According to the report, several of these institutions have been exposed for animal abuse, poor conditions and facilities, training wild animals to perform for audiences and illegally buying wild-caught animals.
Most of the non-human primates exported from South Africa, including hundreds of marmosets, are sold to brokers, wholesalers and breeding farms, and many of them end up in laboratories conducting experiments, including vivisection, for the biomedical, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.
Morally Bankrupt Government Policies
The evidence presented in the report makes it abundantly clear that South Africa’s trade in live wild animals has no conservation value whatsoever. Given the involvement of endangered species, the frequently dubious final destinations in China and the fact that the trade stimulates growing demand, it’s more likely to have a detrimental impact on biodiversity and species survival.
The true motivation for this industry is not hard to find. The 18 chimps exported from a commercial entity in South Africa for supposedly non-commercial purposes to a commercial entity in China came at a cost of over R7.5 million (US$430,758). The report lists the going price for 100 meerkats at R600,000 (US$34,460), 57 giraffes at R7million (US$402,000) and 18 African Wild Dogs at R1 million (US$57,430).
The South African government has been actively enabling this profit-driven industry for years. It has done so through its laissez-faire disregard for CITES and its own export regulations and through its aggressive promotion of a “sustainable use” philosophy that treats wild animals as mere commodities to be bred and sold while leaving conservation concerns to the supposed benevolence of international markets.
According to Michele Pickover, director of the EMS Foundation, copies of an earlier and equally damaging EMS/Ban Animal Trading report on South Africa’s trade in lion bones clearly detailing illegal activities was sent to various domestic authorities and individuals in government.
“We never received any response from any of them,” Pickover says. “This is not a case of incompetence. They are ignoring us.”
Given the COVID-19 disaster, ignoring this issue amounts to criminal negligence. As long as the South African government continues to support and legitimise an industry that endangers the biodiversity of domestic ecosystems while exposing the entire world to novel zoonotic diseases, it bears some responsibility for the devastating ecological, human health and financial consequences it causes.
The authors call for the government to abandon its controversial wildlife trade policies and to ban the export of living wild animals and their body parts.
They write, “The report makes clear that any captive breeding and trade legitimises and normalises consumption, which renders demand reduction campaigns incoherent and ineffective, and puts wild species at further risk of exploitation.”
The authors call for the replacement of CITES with a different global agreement that would have as its fundamental guiding principle that “the trade in wild animals is inappropriate, counter-productive, unethical and fundamentally unsustainable.”