P.O. BOX 4423
28 February 2014
Tel nr +27825500561
(Directors: Charles Robertson and Pieter van Zyl)
The Honorable Mr. Daniel Ashe
Director, United States Fish and Wildlife Services
Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20240
Dear Mr Ashe
On 27 January 2013, the organization that I am a member of, South African Predator Association filed a comment on the petition to list the African lion as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Our comment is to be found under tracking number ljx-83ck-oamz. I, however still decided to take the time to compile these following notes addressed to you in a more personal capacity, being a South African Ranch Lion Farmer.
As mentioned I am a wild animal rancher, which in my country, South Africa, is known in short as a "Game Farmer". I was born into, and grew up in a 7th - generation – farmers - family. I understand that according to USFWS current constitution it is a problem for you to exempt the "SA Ranch Lion" from the legislations and protocol that regulates the African Lion – which would have been the ideal scenario for us as Game Farmers - however, I would still like to try and give you better perspective on our situation by attempting to sketch a picture for you that illustrates our position as lion farmers today, comparing it to the South African Commercial Wildlife Trade and how it benefited South African natural wildlife itself over the past 20 years or so.
My dad, Dreyer van Zyl switched over from crop and cattle to game farming in 1987 and I myself finished school and became involved in this very same kind of business - game farming and hunting, since 1993.
About five years ago, a friend of mine, Charles Robertson and myself started exploring and began to involve ourselves in the business of lion farming and breeding lions for the commercial trophy hunting market. In the beginning, we found that the idea was somewhat strangely received by others, even people in the game industry, however to me, having been involved in game farming and game hunting business for over 20 years it was nothing new.
Our family farming business (see http://dreyervanzyl.com/index.php) has been breeding so many different kinds of Wild African Animals for different markets for decades now, whether it be for the market of breeding stock, trophy bulls, pregnant females, heifers and so on; all of those markets have one thing in common: the final products’ destination is in the commercial hunting sector in one form or the other.
Since 1987, the time when our family became directly involved in this trade, wild animal numbers have seriously increased all over South Africa. There were species that used to be so scarce that we as game farmers didn’t even really know them. Twenty years ago, very few South Africans actually were familiar with The Roan Antelope.
This is despite the fact that a couple of decades ago roans used to occur in SA naturally, but today, I myself and many other local farmers and hunters can testify to how wild animal numbers were stimulated through the commercial game farming industry; for example The Sable, Roan, Bontebok, Rietbok, Black Wildebeest and so on.
So to me, lion farming immediately made a lot of sense. Lions’ numbers are known to be diminishing across Africa but now we had an opportunity to breed with them and help multiply the population of African lions, like we have been doing for so many years with so many other African animal species, but I was shocked by how people reacted to us as lion ranchers accusing us of affecting the African Lion in a negative way. This statement never made any logical sense to me; on what grounds could someone argue that our trade will be a threat to the African Lion population where all we ever do is improve the condition of the species?
I can recall a time when many game farmers estimated a South African Sable population of around 1000. We are still very unsure of the accurate number today, but it will not surprise me if that number today is 20000 or more. Whichever way one looks at it, the fact is, there are plenty sable in SA today, no doubt!!
And this increase in their numbers happened while we as ranchers have been actively and aggressively marketing Sables for the commercial hunting industry for over 20 years on an annual basis.
Every year, we as an industry have been harvesting so many sable bulls and if you monitor it closely, like we do, without exception the next year there would just be more sable bulls for sale. That is why we are so proud in South Africa about our "sustainable utilization" principle that has been proving itself over and over again, year after year.
Lion population numbers across Africa might be on the decrease, most especially in countries such as Botswana and Zambia where hunting as a commercial industry receives a lot of resistance, however, take note of the fact that in our country this can never be the case as long as there is an existence right for the South African Ranch Lion Trade.
We have been breading, rearing, multiplying lion species’ numbers for a very long time. We have been improving the quality of the African Lion as a species for so many years - even decades and we would love to continue in doing so for many decades to come… I want to make an urgent appeal to you Sir, don’t allow the stopping of the import of lion product’s into the USA.
Ninety percent of our clients are American Citizens. If we were to loose USA citizens as our client foundation, our trade will surely close down. If our trade closes down, the South African Ranch Lion would spontaneously disappear. Think of what would be the fate of our 6000 or more lions in captivity if the demand for our product was to disappear. After 20 years in this industry, I still don’t know of Ranch Lion Farmers who would be able to afford to keep their lions and fend for them if they were to suddenly loose all commercial value.
Our point of view is that we as the Lion Farmers of SA do have a great contribution to make to the conservation of the African Lion and to say that the South African Ranch Lion Trade doesn’t contribute to the conservation of the African lion as a species is such a wrong and unfounded statement. We have been introducing ranch lions into the wild by the thousands over the last decade in South Africa. These lions hunt and feed naturally after their release within days and become completely self-sustainable in a matter of months, functioning completely independent, comparing to a free roaming pride anywhere in the wild.
Our booming game industry in SA, known as the Wildlife Ranching Industry (which is regulated by Wildlife Ranching South Africa) is a testimony to this; that apart from numbers of species that have dramatically improved over the last two decades as a result of our extremely successful game and hunt industry, the quality and size of the animals have also improved significantly. For example, roan bulls over 27’ was a really exotic item 10 years ago, where today, that size bulls would go through as “harvest” for hunting stock – few breeders currently would still consider a breeding roan bull under 30’.
Not too long ago, the Sable antelope was not even commonly known by wildlife enthusiasts in South Africa. Sable bulls measuring over 42’ were almost unheard of 15 years back. Since so many cattle and sheep farmers switched over or diversified into game breeding, this is no longer the case. Sable antelope are commonly found in South Africa now and today, many breeders use 47’ + bulls. There are even a couple of 50’ + around now, and the 42/43’ bulls would typically be hunted. Sable antelope as a species is on its way back to it’s former glory thankfully tot the Commercial Trophy hunting industry and the demand that it creates for breeders to improve it’s quality.
Exactly this is also the case with us as South African lion breeders in our current time today. You can kindly have a look at pictures taken in Tanzania and Zambia, or any area where free roaming lions are hunted in recent times.
As you would be able to see from such pictures, even the large-mane - cats from these free roaming concessions cannot even closely compare with the quality animals that we from the Ranch Lion Industry can offer now, most especially when it comes to body frame and mane.
The species is being benefitted, both in numbers and quality, purely as a result of the commercial trophy hunting demand that stimulates our industry.
I hope that what I have illustrated by writing this letter to you would go a long way in helping you as USFWS to get a more clear knowledge and perspective of our industry by hearing about it from ground level. As I clearly explained, we are not new at what we do, we have been busy with this way of ranching for many decades.
I am sure you would agree, Sir, that before making your decision about the fate of the South African Ranch Lion, the right thing to do would be to try and get the full perspective. In order to do that, one would need to take in consideration The SA Ranch Lion Trade’s long-term-track-record and if you can sincerely do that, it would be extremely difficult for a person to still argue that we as a trade could be harmful to the African Lion as a species.
Pieter D. van Zyl