Commercial Wildlife Trade

The incessant (and legal) commoditisation of captive-bred lions and other predators doesn’t end with tourism activities, as South Africa’s commercial captive predator breeding industry also feeds the wider (international) wildlife trade.

Read more about the commercial wildlife trade in this brutal industry by clicking the tabs below.

Lions per year are exported
Lions exported originating from captive bred population

South Africa exported 6,600+ lions per year as live exports, hunting trophies or skeletons between 2008 and 2017 alone.

Between 2008–2017, South Africa exported 1,895 live lions under CITES (legally) destined mostly for zoos and breeders overseas with 95% of the exported live lions originating from the captive-bred population. Top importing countries include China, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Vietnam.



Once the lions become too old and boisterous to be in contact with humans and they have become redundant in the tourism industry, the animals are often sold to holding facilities where they may be used as breeding stock, or to simply await their fate.

lion hunting trophies exported from South Africa from 2008-2017
were from captive-bred lions
0 %

USA is the top importing country of lion hunting trophies from South Africa, followed by Spain, Russia, China and Canada.

Once old enough, many enter the “canned” hunting industry, where these captive-bred and tame lions are shot and killed in confined enclosures by trophy hunters. “Canned” hunting also covers terms such as captive hunting, high-fence hunting and ranch hunting. Ethical hunting organisations around the world have condemned such practices of “canned” or captive hunting due to the lack of “fair chase”.

There is a lack of scientific data to support the claim that hunting captive-bred lions takes the pressure off the wild lion population. Wild lion numbers across Africa continue to decline and wherever it remains possible to hunt wild lions, the demand for permits remains high.

The lion bone trade is a relatively new revenue stream for the lion breeders and farmers, where a demand was created for lion bones to supplement the tiger bone trade for Traditional Medicine in Southeast Asia. Even though the lion bone trade is perceived to be a “by-product” of the trophy hunting industry, in more recent years 90% of all exported skeletons include the skulls, indicating that many facilities exist purely to supply the bone trade.

Lion skeletons exported between 2008-2017

South Africa exported these lion skeletons under CITES (legally) weighing a total of approximately 70 tonnes. The top 3 importing countries are Lao People’s Democratic Republic (48%), Vietnam (44%) and Thailand (5%).

CITES Lion Bone

Export Quota

The CITES lion bone export quota was agreed upon at CITES CoP17 in 2016 through an annotation to Appendix II. It was agreed that although a zero quota remains for wild lions, “an annual export quotas for trade in bones, bone pieces, bone products, claws, skeletons, skulls and teeth for commercial purposes, derived from captive breeding operations in South Africa, will be established and communicated annually to the CITES Secretariat”.

In 2017, the first quota of 800 captive-bred lion carcasses was set by the then Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), which was increased to 1,500 carcasses in 2018, but subsequently reduced again to 800. The setting of these lion bone quotas by DFFE lacks any sound scientific basis and is driven solely by the economic principle of supply and demand, i.e. South African lion breeders can produce more lion skeletons than the set quota and have even built up stockpiles.

In August 2019, in the High Court case NSPCA vs DEA and SAPA, Judge Kollapen ruled that the setting of the lion bone quota in 2017 & 2018 was “unlawful and constitutionally invalid”. He stated that “….it is inconceivable that the State Respondents could have ignored welfare considerations of lions in captivity in setting the annual export quota”.

Credit - EIA
Credit - Environmental Investigation Agency

Tiger bones, alongside other body parts, have been used in the production of Traditional Chinese Medicines (TCM), tiger bone wine and tonics for many years, to treat a variety of ailments including arthritis, rheumatism, back problems, general weakness, and headaches.

There is, however, no credible scientific evidence for the efficacy of the vast majority of these remedies.

Increasingly, other body parts, such as claws and teeth made into jewellery and skins sold as rugs and wall hangings, are now also in demand as luxury items.

The legal trade in lion bones legitimises the product among consumers and stimulates the demand for lion bones, mostly as a substitute for tiger bones, and compromises enforcement efforts of the illegal wildlife trade. This in turn puts pressure on wild lion populations.

In addition, the vast majority of exported lion skeletons (98%) from South Africa are destined for Laos and Vietnam, which are known hubs for illegal wildlife trafficking, such as South African rhino horn products.