Cut the bullfighting

Green MEP Caroline Lucas explains why she thinks that, despite its ancient history, the cruelty of b

In the European Parliament this week, I chaired an open seminar on the future of bullfighting in the EU. Although its organisers originate from varying backgrounds – European animal welfare, veterinary science and economics – they all agree on one thing: bullfighting has to go.

Despite a considerable number of states having banned the practice of bullfighting by law – Argentina, Canada, Cuba, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United Kingdom among them – it still takes place in nine countries around the world. This is nine countries too many. Yet it is encouraging to find that even where bullfighting is legal, certain regions have begun to phase it out, such as the Canary Islands in Spain, and most of France.

Public appetite for this cruel blood sport has long been on the wane, but that doesn’t stop the Spanish government from heavily subsidising the declining industry. It has been estimated that over 550 million euros of taxpayer money is allocated to the pro-bullfighting industry per year, even though Spanish broadcaster RTVE stopped live coverage of bullfights in August 2007 and recent Gallup polls showed that the majority of Spaniards either disliked bullfighting or had no interest in it. Worse still, the EU subsidises it. According to recent reports, breeders of fighting bulls receive 220 Euros per bull per year from the EU, on top of national subsidies. Yet the EU is supposed to be a community of values – one of which is a high level of animal protection.

A cruel and unequal game

The pro bullfighting lobby puts forward a number of claims for the preservation of the ‘sport’, which need be addressed. First though, it is worth considering the reality of a typical Spanish-style bullfight. The ‘show’ begins when the bull enters the arena and is provoked into charging several times, before being approached by picadores, men on blindfolded horses, who drive lances into its back and neck muscles. The subsequent loss of blood impairs the bull's ability to lift its head, and when the banderilleros arrive on foot, the bull can expect further pain from the banderillas, spiked sticks in bright colours, being stabbed into its back.

Now weak and disorientated, the bull is encouraged by the banderilleros to run in dizzying circles before finally, the matador appears and, after a few forced charges, tries to kill the bull with his sword. If he misses, he stabs the submissive animal on the back of the neck until it is paralysed. The idea is to cut the animal’s spinal cord, but if the matador botches the job, the bull may be fully conscious while its ears or tail are removed as trophies. On many occasions, the bull remains alive until it is dragged out of the arena to be slaughtered

Thousands of bulls are maimed and killed in such a way every year. Spain puts the official number of bulls killed in official bullfights in permanent bullrings in 2006 at 11,458, but when you take into account the bullfights in mobile bullrings and the bulls killed during training and other bullfighting events, the figure is more likely to reach least 40,000 in Europe as a whole, and about 250,000 internationally.

Why do people defend it?

A continuation of the ‘sport’ has been justified on the grounds of national cultural heritage, some on ecological grounds, while others believe that it plays an important part in a country’s economy. Such claims have been effectively refuted by animal welfare organisations, as well as by politicians and economists from across the political spectrum. Even Queen Sofia of Spain has expressed her dislike for the ‘tradition’.

Some have defended bullfighting as a national tradition, seeking to preserve it as a piece of cultural heritage without which their country’s identity would suffer. Nevertheless, many others have opposed it, recognising bullfighting for what is really is – a cruel blood sport causing unnecessary suffering to the animal.

Even if you believe that bullfighting is a tradition or culture, the fact that it dates back to prehistoric times and that artists have revered it can never really justify serious cruelty to animals. Cruelty is cruelty no matter where in the world it happens. Human societies and cultures have changed over many thousands of years, as has what traditions are deemed acceptable. Our understanding of animals has improved a great deal in recent times. There is no place in the 21st century for a ‘sport’ which relies on animal cruelty for ‘entertainment’.

The ecological argument is also tenuous. The bullfighting industry points out that many fighting bulls are bred in semi-preserved areas of land called dehesas, home to several protected species and cared for as areas of outstanding natural beauty. The industry claims that these areas will disappear if bullfighting is abolished, because their business prevents the dehesas being developed for other purposes.

But the breeding of fighting bulls is not the sole purpose and function of this land, plus local authorities have never identified the bulls’ removal as a threat to populations of protected species. The owners of the dehesas can choose to use their land in a variety of ways regardless of whether or not they keep bulls, and those that do keep bulls should be compensated for loss of activity. It is the job of local authorities to ensure that such land and wildlife is protected, and the necessary laws are already in place. Furthermore, the Foro Encinal, an alliance of twenty organisations whose role is to protect the dehesas has never identified the breeding of fighting bulls as beneficial to the land’s ecological balance.

Economic concerns focus on bullfighting as a vital part of the tourist industry in Spain; as a generator of money and as an employer of people. Yet, tourists will visit Spain regardless of whether or not bullfighting exists, and as people become more ethically aware on their travels, tourist attendance at the shows looks set to fall even further. Indeed, a ComRes poll commissioned in April 2007 found that 89% of the British public would not visit a bullfight when on a holiday.

Like most industries, the profits from bullfighting end up in the hands of a very small number of people in a bullfighting elite. Even more importantly, the subsidies that prop up this declining industry take money away from serious social problems such as access to public health, education, infrastructures, the elderly, public safety, social housing and environmental policies.

An unpopular and unacceptable ‘entertainment’

In Spain, the country perhaps most associated with the bullfighting tradition, a 2006 Gallup poll showed that 72.10 per cent of Spaniards were not interested at all in bullfighting and just 7.40 per cent were very interested; in Catalonia more than 80 per cent showed no interest at all.

Such statistics show clearly that the opposition to bullfighting is growing throughout Europe, and that it is no longer deemed acceptable for the EU or for national governments to subsidise an activity which relies on animal abuse to make money. It seems undemocratic at best to use cash from the public coffers to prop up an unpopular blood sport, at the expense of crucial public services.

It is our responsibility to ensure that adequate protection is provided for animals in our care to prevent unnecessary suffering. I call on the European Parliament to reconsider the financial assistance given to the breeders of fighting bulls, so that the efforts to ban the ‘sport’ altogether can gather pace. The longer that bull fighting persists, the longer our standards of animal welfare will fall short of the mark.

For more information on anti-bullfighting campaigns, visit the website for the Spanish organisation Save Our Shame (SOS) or see the League Against Cruel Sports’ ‘Balls to Bullfighting’ campaign to sign a worldwide pledge to boycott the ‘sport’.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

Getty
Show Hide image

The war on poaching

More than 1,100 rhinos were killed for their horns in Africa in 2016. Quasi-military conservation units are trying to stop the slaughter.

The Savé Valley Conservancy, 900 square miles of pristine wilderness in the Lowveld of south-eastern Zimbabwe, seems like a paradise.

Drive along its dirt tracks, past flat-topped acacias and vast-trunked baobab trees, and you scatter zebras and warthogs, impalas and wildebeest, kudus and waterbuck. Elephants lumber through the bush, leaving destruction in their wake. Giraffes placidly return your stares. Baboons cavort in the trees. A crowned eagle flies overhead with a rock rabbit in its talons. A pack of exquisitely patterned wild dogs lie on the warm red earth. There are lions and leopards, too, but out of sight.

My guide and I meet Bryce Clemence, the stocky, bearded outdoorsman who heads the conservancy’s Special Species Protection Unit (SSPU), by a muddy waterhole so that he can show us the most special of those species. He and a couple of his armed men lead us a few hundred yards into the bush before silently motioning us to stop. We wait, move on, stop again. Clemence points. Thirty yards away stands a two-tonne rhinoceros, a 15-year-old bull. It cannot see us, for rhinos have poor eyesight. It cannot smell us because we are downwind. But it senses our presence. Its ears revolve like miniature satellite dishes.

As we study this magnificent, primeval beast through our binoculars, one thing quickly becomes apparent. It has no horns. Normally it would have two, weighing seven kilos or more, but they have been removed in an effort to protect it. Rhino horn fetches around $60,000 a kilo in China and other east Asian countries, where it is considered an aphrodisiac and a cure for diverse ailments. This animal’s horns would have been worth more than $400,000 – a fortune in Zimbabwe, where the average household income is $62 a month and unemployment exceeds 90 per cent.

Sadly, not even de-horning works. Poachers will kill de-horned rhinos for any residual horn. In February 2015 they shot a six-month-old calf for just 30 grams of horn, Clemence tells me.

Savé Valley may look idyllic, but it is a front line in a war against rhino-poaching. More than 1,100 of the animals were killed across Africa in 2016, leaving barely 20,000 white rhinos, classified as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and 5,000 “critically endangered” black rhinos. What distinguishes Savé Valley is that it has begun to turn the tide, but only because it has access to the sort of funding that most African national parks can only dream of.

Clemence’s quasi-military operation consists of 35 highly trained men, all expert trackers, supremely fit and equipped with semi-automatic rifles and radios. Working in pairs, they do ten-day stints in the bush, monitoring the conservancy’s 168 rhinos from dawn to dark and endlessly searching for human tracks – or “spoor”.

They are supported by a canine unit whose two Belgian Malinois dogs can track at night and over rocks; a substantial network of paid informants in the surrounding communities and beyond; four 4x4 vehicles and 12 motorbikes; and nearly 100 armed scouts employed by the two-dozen private ranches that make up the conservancy.

Even that force is insufficient, Clemence says. The poaching gangs are growing more sophisticated. They now use high-powered hunting rifles with silencers to shoot the rhinos, and AK-47s to ward off the rangers. Sometimes the poachers use AK-47s against rhinos too: in 2014 one was hit 23 times.

They have begun using poison. One poacher was caught after laying oranges and cabbages laced with the pesticide Temik in the path of a rhino – Temik is nicknamed “Two-step” because that is how many steps an animal takes before dying. Another poacher planned to poison a waterhole, but was thwarted by an informer. “Poisoning is disgusting because it’s totally indiscriminate and has the potential to do massive harm,” Clemence says.

He has also caught poachers preparing to use the sedatives ketamine and xylazine. Having darted a rhino, they would then hack off its horns before it woke. They once hacked off the horns of a rhino that had been knocked out by a bullet and it woke with half its head missing. The creature survived for a week before Clemence’s unit found it. Vets had to put it down. “When you catch a poacher you want to beat him to death with a pick handle and very slowly break his bones, but you have to be professional,” says David Goosen, manager of the 230-square-mile Sango ranch, which forms part of the conservancy.

The odds are stacked against the SSPU in other ways, too. The poachers are paid well by the syndicates that run them – perhaps $5,000 each for a kilo of rhino horn. And even if caught, their chances of escaping punishment are high. Thanks to bribery or incompetence, just 3 per cent of prosecutions for rhino poaching in Zimbabwe end in convictions.

“You have to virtually catch them in the field red-handed, and even then they often get away with it,” Goosen says. “As soon as they get to the police station, a well-connected lawyer turns up, which means someone higher up is looking after their interests.” The maximum sentence for intent to kill a rhino is nine years for a first offence – less than for stealing cattle.

The SSPU is prevailing nonetheless. In the first three months of 2012, when Clemence arrived, the conservancy lost 14 rhinos. In 2015 it lost 12, last year three. It has also defeated Zimbabwe’s most notorious rhino-poaching gang.

Tavengwa Mazhongwe learned his craft from his older brother, “Big Sam”, who was killed poaching in 2009. Mazhongwe was responsible for at least 150 rhino killings, including many in Savé Valley. In December 2015 Clemence learned he was planning another attack and put his rangers on alert.

They found the gang’s spoor at 6.30 one morning, and tracked the four armed men in intense heat for nine hours. The gang took great care to cover their tracks, but late in the afternoon the rangers found them resting in a river bed. The rangers opened fire, killing one and seriously wounding a second. Mazhongwe and one other man escaped, but he was arrested near Harare two weeks later and given a record 35-year sentence for multiple offences. A judge had to acquit an officer in Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation who drove the gang to the conservancy in a government vehicle because, he complained, the police did not dare investigate govenment officials. The rangers recovered an AK-47, a Mauser rifle with silencer, an axe, rubber gloves, a medical kit, tinned food and a phone-charger pack.

“You’ll never get to where you say ‘we’ve won’, but we have won in the sense that we’ve brought poaching down to a manageable level,” Clemence says. “We’ve taken out some of the most notorious syndicates. Victory will simply be breeding more than we’re losing and having sustainable numbers to pass to the next generation.” He hopes that the conservancy’s rhino population will reach 200 within two years, enabling it to relocate some animals to other parts of Zimbabwe where the battle is going less well.

The SSPU’s success comes down to skill, motivation, organisation and – above all – resources. The unit costs $400,000 a year, and is funded mainly by foreign NGOs such as Britain’s Tusk Trust. It receives practical support from the conservancy’s private ranches, some of whom – given the dearth of tourism – have to generate the necessary funds by permitting limited elephant and lion hunting for $20,000 an animal.

Zimbabwe’s national parks have no such resources. That is why private conservancies have 80 per cent of the country’s rhinos but 1.5 per cent of its land, while the parks have 15 per cent of the land but 20 per cent of the rhinos. Within a few years most of those parks will have no rhinos at all.

Martin Fletcher’s assignment in Zimbabwe was financed by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting