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The Lion Bone Trade

Back in December 2009, "Anger over lion bones sales" was the first newspaper article in South Africa to highlight the existence of a legal trade in African lion bones that were being used as a substitute for tiger bones in East-Southeast Asia.

This brought to light the debate about whether measures adopted to protect tigers and Asian big cats had inadvertently threatened the African lion species instead.

An investigation by TRAFFIC in 2005 found evidence that African lions were an ingredient in supposedly "tiger" bone strengthening wine. "The Xiongsen Wine Producing Ltd in Guilin, Southeast China, was given permission to produce 400,000 bottles of "wine". While the name sounded like "tiger bone wine" and the bottle was in the shape of a tiger, the approved ingredient was "Panthera leo" bones – which only experts knew referred to lion and not tiger (Nowell and Ling, 2007). When the Chinese government subsequently conducted an investigation in October 2006, they reported that ‘only 16 legally obtained lion carcasses were found, and no tiger bones were used to produce the wine’ (Nowell and Ling, 2007)."

As it was known that cat bone traders were prepared to accept lion bones as an alternative to tiger bone, and as it is difficult to distinguish between lion and tiger bones, the conservation world started to become increasingly nervous about where the trade might be headed and what impact it would have on wild populations.

Another concern was that wild populations would be affected because consumers in East–Southeast Asia are allegedly prepared to pay more for bones from free-ranging lions because of a belief that the effects are more potent than those of captive animals (Macleod, 2012a).

However, it appears that besides lion trophies, South Africa has issued permits to export 19 other categories of lion products since 1977. And in mid-2008, South Africa issued its first export permit for 50 lion skeletons destined for Lao People’s Democratic Republic that were obtained from captive-bred lions.

From 2008 to 2011, the official number of skeletons legally exported with CITES permits totalled 1,160 skeletons (about 10.8 metric tonnes).

As the North West, Free State and Eastern Cape are the only provinces issuing export permits for lion bones, and the lions in these provinces are nearly all captive bred, it appears that lion skeletons of South African origin are almost definitely derived from captive bred, not wild, animals. The Free State province itself is the epicentre of the captive lion breeding industry and has about 3,000 lions in 70 breeding and two hunting facilities.

There are several potential sources of skeletons for the lion bone trade that don’t affect wild lion populations. These include: natural mortalities, euthanised/culled lions, exhumed carcasses that had previously been discarded, and trophy hunts.

The trophy hunting industry is the main source of carcasses once the trophy hunter has taken the skull and skin. Most lion trophy hunting in South Africa is from captive-bred animals. Thus there is little evidence that the lion bone trade is currently adversely impacting the wild lion population in South Africa.

However the value of a lion skeleton is determined by the completeness of the "set". The value of lion bones generated as a secondary by-product of the trophy hunting industry has allegedly motivated farmers to exhume carcasses that were disposed of prior to 2008.  And, whereas lionesses formerly had little to no value to breeders for trophy hunting, the lion bone trade has created a new found value for females.

A concern raised during the research for this report was the incentive to breed lions solely for the lion bone trade. However, various representatives are firm that there is currently no economic incentive to farm lions solely for bones, especially given the costs involved in raising lions compared to the current prices paid for skeletons.

Meanwhile, reports of poaching incidents involving wild South African lions are sporadic and have not been conclusively linked to the lion bone trade. Poaching has instead been associated with rural communities, for example the African traditional medicine trade.

Called iBhubese in Zulu and iNgwenyama in Xhosa, lion body parts are used in African traditional medicine ("muthi") preparations. Lion "fat" (most of it imitation) is most prevalent in the markets compared to the skin and bones. The expansion of human settlements on the western boundary of the Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga has been cited as a cause of the recent increase in lion poaching for African traditional medicine (CITES Scientific Authority, 2013).

In conclusion, the trade in lion bones currently has a negligible impact on wild lion populations in South Africa, and, when asked if the government would consider the banning of the export of lion bones, the minister said: "No. The banning of the export of lion bones will only be considered if the export has a negative impact on the survival of species in the wild. This is not currently the case" (National Assembly, 2010b).


Lion bones are hung up to dry

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