The Lion Bone Trade

Male lion trying to escape from his cage - Image credit @ BLOOD LIONS
Male lion trying to escape from his cage – Image credit @ BLOOD LIONS

Asian traders only started taking an interest in South African lions in 2008 when the decline in tiger numbers became acute. The demand for cat bones in Asia has suddenly become so great that “many farmers who practiced illegal lion hunting in the past and buried the carcasses are now digging up these carcasses to sell to people in the Far East.” Although South Africa’s captive big cat industry has long claimed that lions bones were simply “a by-product” of its globally criticized trophy hunt practices, The Extinction Business Report debunks this justification, noting that the exported skeletons include skulls.

We have clear evidence that 91% of the ‘lion’ skeletons exported from South Africa in 2017 included skulls. Thus showing that South Africa’s lion bone trade is not a by-product of an existing industry (i.e. trophy hunting) but an entirely separate industry.

South Africa allows both lion and tiger farming for commercial trade in animal parts. The proliferation of lion and tiger farms in South Africa and the associated trade from such facilities undermines enforcement efforts to end illegal tiger trade and stimulates demand for tiger parts and derivatives. Given consumer preferences for wild-sourced tiger parts, this also sustains poaching pressure on wild tigers.

Confiscated Lion Skull
Confiscated Lion Skull

South Africa’s Department of Environment will be issuing 1500 permits to export lion bones in 2018. Yet the demand for wild lion bones is much higher than for lions in captivity. With the tiger supply-side unable to keep up, buyers will increasingly switch to lions that are still in the wild, including elsewhere in Africa.

The very lucrative industry has grown and continues to grow. The trade with bones offers another chance of monetizing the captive lion stock, which started to pile up after U.S. hunters were’nt able any more to import their trophies to their home country since 2016.

In 2018, about 10.000 lions are currently living behind bars in South Africa in estimated 260 facilities. Raised in captivity at hidden private breeding farms or at SCAMTUARIES , some of these animals are petted as cubs by tourists, who feed and care for the young lions or even walk alongside with them. Additionally, an increasing number of tigers are raised in captivity in South Africa. There appears to be a growing trade in tigers and their parts and products from South Africa. An emerging concern is that Tiger bones from South Africa may be laundered as Lion bones.

Trade in bones isn’t a small, minor business any more. The move to increase numbers by South Africa’s government is clearly intended to broaden the market for the captively bred lions in the country. Cases of lions being poached from easy targets in wildlife sanctuaries were seen. This will spread further into the poaching of the already threatened wild lion populations. Between 2004 and 2010, 2950 Lions were registered as having been hunted in South Africa – yet CITES export permits indicate 4088 trophies for the same period, a difference of more than 1100 trophies.

Trading in lion parts is not much different from the ivory trade or rhino horn trade. The presence of a legal trade will drive more and more poaching of wild lions. It goes without saying that bones of captive-bred lions are absolutely indistinguishable from the bones of lions in the wild, which creates an implementation nightmare for law enforcement.

Many consider the breeding of lions to supply the bone trade to be ethically unacceptable. Being aware of the negative image of killing iconic wildlife for scientifically unproven treatments, China has banned the use of tiger parts in traditional Chinese medicine already in 1993.

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