Becoming an owner of a tiger is surprisingly easy, at least in Gauteng, thanks to legal loopholes and a disturbing lack of accurate legal wildlife jargon.
This was made evident in the latest incident involving exotic pet ownership in the province, after it was discovered that two white Bengal tigers were residing at a home in Impala Park, Boksburg, east of Johannesburg.
One of many issues with this is that just across the fence and wall is a nursery school, where children run around.
The presence of the tiger had the province abuzz, including animal welfare groups and the Boksburg SPCA, who assured they were “investigating the situation”.
Although the Boksburg SPCA is keeping a close eye, they said their jurisdiction and authority is limited to welfare concerns of the tigers, and if any cruelty was taking place – not so much the ethical concerns of them being kept as pets.
In a social media post, the SPCA made it clear it did not support the keeping of any wild animal in domestic environments.
“Although the Boksburg SPCA may agree with safety concerns of surrounding and nearby residents and the public in general, this can only be dealt with by Saps [South African Police Service] or Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality in terms of any by-laws or personal safety laws that may or may not have been contravened or seen as a possible threat to others.”
The SPCA can therefore only lobby from afar and make sure the tigers are being kept in a good condition.
National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA) wildlife unit manager Doug Wolhuter told 94.7 on Wednesday morning there was a stark gap in legislation.
It is illegal, for example, to keep a wild, indigenous animal such as a lion.
All one needs to own a tiger in Gauteng is a transportation permit and an import permit. The latter permit is only needed if the tiger was purchased in a different province. All permits are issued by the provincial conservation authority in question.
The chief director of sustainable environment in Gauteng, Loyiso Mkwana, said the department did not have an import permit for the tiger’s owners, identified as Mr and Mrs Kruger.
This means that if the transaction was legal, the tigers were likely purchased from within the Gauteng province.
If the tiger’s owners were to breed or re-sell the tigers, they would require additional permits to do so, Mkwana said.
Wolhuter explained that although by-laws were scant, there were still requirements to owning an exotic animal, especially one as large as a carnivorous tiger.
Fences keeping tigers in should be at least 2.4m high, with electrical strands angled at 45 degrees towards the inside of the enclosure. Electrical wiring must also be present at the bottom of the fence.
At first glance, it does not seem as though the current fence meant to keep the Boksburg tigers in their enclosure is high enough to prevent them from jumping over.
Tigers are still wild animals
Another significant concern is that tigers are naturally solitary creatures, who in the wild occupy a range of 150km2.
In an urban setting, tigers experience air and noise pollution, and will likely not eat their usual, varied diet of wild boar, deer, small animals and birds.
A varied diet is important because tigers cannot process vitamin D from the sun, Wolhuter explained.
Zoonotic diseases being spread to the tiger’s owners are also a concern, along with the problem of veterinary visits.
Wolhuter said a qualified vet experienced in large carnivores would need to dart the tiger just to treat it.
Tigers are also cats after all, hunters with a trigger predator response. This means they will likely be triggered by people running around them – an added concern for the neighbouring nursery school.
Lock the kids up
The nursery school owner, who remained anonymous, told 94.7 on Wednesday they only knew of the tigers’ existence two weeks ago while children were playing outside, and teachers spotted one of them poking their heads over the wall.
As a precaution, the school locks all the children up during playtime, as their safety cannot be guaranteed, the owner said, adding the school had been on the property for six years.
She explained that as soon as they saw the tigers, they went next door to talk to the owners, but got into an argument.
She said there was no indication at all that tigers would become the nursery school’s neighbours, and feared the “kids are starting to trigger [the tigers]”.
Not only is the nursery school right next door to the tigers, but there are also a number of other schools, old age homes and elderly neighbours in the area.
She said the tigers did, however, look healthy, but she believed they should be removed and put in a sanctuary “where they can be safe”.
Ekurhuleni mayoral spokesperson Phakamile Mbengashe told 94.7 the municipality was taking the case seriously, but lamented that things were moving rather slowly at the moment.
Mbengashe said the municipality’s environmental and health team contacted the Krugers, but received a “hostile response”.
He said when the municipality looked into the by-laws, they found the most problematic loophole to be the issue of terminology regarding wildlife and pets.
At the moment, tigers fall more into the pet than wild animal category, he explained.
As such, a legislative draft is set to be introduced at the next council meeting on 15 October, after which it will go out for public participation.
He said tigers should be classified as wild, and exotic animals, to ensure the safety of citizens, and to prevent big cats from living next door to citizens.
The Krugers’ lawyers maintained to 94.7 in a letter that all laws were complied with, and there was no reason for them not to have their tigers living on the property.