Conservation groups are searing over a decision to double the annual export quota of captive-bred lion skeletons. South Africa’s decision to increase the legal export quota to 1,500 lion skeletons a year has raised a new storm. But the Department of Environmental Affairs argues that restricting the supply of captive-bred lion bones to the East could drive up illegal killing of wild lions.
Will the decision to sell hundreds of South African lion skeletons to Asian buyers help or harm the future of the once mighty king of the beasts? That’s the big question raised again this week after Environment Minister Edna Molewa announced that she had approved an annual export quota of 1,500 captive-bred lion skeletons, almost double the number set last year.
Along with skeletons from their feline cousins, the Asian tiger, the bones from African lions are crushed and added to lion/tiger bone wine as traditional medicine potions in several Eastern nations. Researchers report that the bones are boiled for several days to condense them to gelatine form.
Earlier this year, Molewa published a report compiled by South Africa’s Scientific Authority on the legal and illegal trade in wildlife, concluding that hunting and selling captive-bred lion skeletons to Asian nations would not be detrimental to the wild lion population (although that report did not set a recommended quota). It estimates that there are about 2,900 adult wild lions left in South Africa (mostly in the Kruger National Park), along with roughly 7,000 captive lions kept in about 260 private breeding centres nationwide. At continental level, it has been estimated that there were about 200,000 wild lions in 1975, but more recent estimates by lion experts suggest that the number of wild lions left in Africa could now be as low as 16,500 or possibly 39,000 – but either way the entire African population could fit inside a large soccer or rugby stadium.
If there is ongoing demand for lion bone and the supply from captive breeding facilities is restricted, dealers may seek alternative sources, either through illegal access to stockpiles or by poaching both captive-bred and wild lion. Molewa suggests that there is also a growing stockpile of lion bones in the country, partly due to a decision in 2016 by the United States to ban the import of South African lion trophies.
“If there is ongoing demand for lion bone and the supply from captive breeding facilities is restricted, dealers may seek alternative sources, either through illegal access to stockpiles or by poaching both captive-bred and wild lion.”
But the Endangered Wildlife Trust and several other conservation groups strongly dispute these arguments. Reacting on Tuesday, the trust said: “There is still no evidence to show that the regulated trade in lion bones will not drive demand for wild lion products, or evidence to show that it will alleviate pressure on wild lion populations.” It said 13 captive-bred lions were poached locally for their body parts between mid-2016 to mid-2017, followed by another 31 lion killings over the last 12 months.
“These preliminary figures suggest that the poaching of captive lions in South Africa has more than doubled since the quota was established,” the trust said, adding that it was clear that South Africa was unable to ensure the adequate welfare and husbandry of lions bred for their bones. “The EWT is not aware of any formal public participation process or consultation prior to the decision to increase the annual lion bone export quota, and we have no further information on how or why this decision was made.”
While the trust supported the sustainable use of natural resources when it directly contributed to species and habitat conservation efforts, “we do not believe that farming lions for their parts is sustainable use, but rather economic exploitation to benefit a select few”.
These preliminary figures suggest that the poaching of captive lions in South Africa has more than doubled since the quota was established. Kenyan ecologist Dr Paula Kahumbu said she remained convinced that any legal trade in lion bones would serve to mask increased poaching of wild lions around Africa.
“The idea that we can commodify wildlife is disgusting and alarming,” said Kahumbu, who is visiting Durban for the Nature, Environment and Wildlife Filmmakers Congress. “Why would South Africa want to get involved in turning one of our most magnificent wild creatures into bone soup or bone wine? It won’t take pressure off wild lions. This is a very sad day because the rest of Africa often looks to South Africa for direction and we should be standing together on issues that have grave implications for species such as lions, elephants, rhinos or pangolins.”
Ian Michler of the Blood Lions campaign has also condemned the latest quota decision. “The bone trade may no longer simply be a convenient by-product of hunting. Poaching of lions, both wild and captive, is on the rise, and so is the demand for lion bones,” he said. “The Department of Environmental Affairs have missed one of the most important cautionary tones in a recent report suggesting that ‘the trade in tiger bones is an established threat to tiger conservation’. If this pertains to tigers, why would it not be the same for lions?”
Why would South Africa want to get involved in turning one of our most magnificent wild creatures into bone soup or bone wine? It won’t take pressure off wild lions. The global wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC noted in a recent report that South Africa’s captive-breeding industry for lions is currently in a state of flux due to the uncertainty caused by changes to wildlife trading regulations and lion trophy import bans by the US, Australia, France and Netherlands. There were early indications that up to 80% of lion breeders had scaled down breeding, while a significant number were reducing staff, selling off or “euthanasing” their lions.
“There have been reports of farmers burning/burying carcasses of euthanised lions as they cannot afford to keep them any longer. If the US ban continues, 52% said they will focus on trading lion bones and 29% that they will euthanise all stock.” The SA Predator Association, set up to promote a positive image of the predator breeding and hunting industry, could not be reached for comment.