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Lion bone trade: New report reveals South African government’s role

A new report has highlighted the South African government’s role in the bloody, commercial lion body part trade. Released by international wildlife charity Born Free Foundation, the report titled Cash before Conservation, an overview of the breeding of lions for hunting and bone trade, provides shocking insights into the development of South Africa’s controversial captive lion breeding industry.

South Africa, considered a top destination for trophy hunting of captive-bred lions, is the world’s largest legal exporter of lion bones and skeletons, with currently around 6,000 to 8,000 lions held in captivity in more than 200 breeding facilities across the country.

The country’s commercial lion breeding and canned hunting industries has grown over the years, and with links to wildlife trafficking there is a cause for concern. Recent scientific papers show that between 2008 and 2015, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) issued permits for the export of more than 5,363 lion skeletons, nearly 98% of which went to Laos and Vietnam – central hubs for illegal wildlife trafficking. In 2017, the DEA approved an export quota of 800 lion skeletons from captive-bred lions.

There has been an outpouring of local and international criticism of South Africa’s wildlife policies, with many conservationists and NGOs calling for the industry to be shut down based on the grounds that there is no scientific evidence that the trade in bones from captive-bred lions is contributing to the conservation of lions, and that “profits are being placed before sound and ethical wildlife management,” according to the report.

Born Free’s President and Co-Founder, Will Travers OBE, said: “As many as 8,000 lions languish in more than 200 captive breeding facilities across South Africa. These animals are cynically bred exclusively to generate money. Unwitting tourists fuel this despicable industry by participating in activities such as petting cubs and walking with lions, while unsuspecting volunteers rear cubs in the mistaken belief they are destined to be released into the wild. Once adult, many of these animals are moved to ‘canned hunting’ facilities to be shot in enclosures by ‘sport hunters’. Their bones are then sold into an international trade sanctioned by the South African government.”

According to the report, the DEA has for the past 20 years consistently facilitated the growth of South Africa’s captive predator breeding industry, and reveals the DEA’s concerns regarding captive lion breeding in South Africa: “The DEA itself acknowledges that it has only a limited understanding of the economics of lion breeding and bone trading, and also that it has no scientific evidence that the industry has any conservation value. Various conservation groups and scientists have also pointed out that there is no effective independent welfare monitoring system in place within the industry and that two Acts cited by the DEA as being relevant, the Animal Protection Act and the Performing Animals Act, were never intended to deal with the welfare of wild animals in captivity.”

Responding to the report, the team behind the global documentary Blood Lions said the following: “The report represents a key milestone in the global campaign against the unethical and immoral exploitation of lions. There is little doubt that the demand for tiger bone has contributed to the near decimation of wild tiger populations, and there’s a very real concern that the substitution of lion bone into this supply chain could accelerate the decline of wild lion populations. This report demonstrates that there is very little knowledge underwriting the current legal trade in bones sourced from captive bred lion in South Africa. It further flags the DEA’s concerns with regards South Africa’s captive lion breeding industry.”

The report also draws attention to links between the export of lion trophies and products from captive-bred lions and the trafficking of other wildlife products. It concludes that “if South Africa is to be regarded as a responsible and ethical custodian of its wildlife, and a country that cares about the safety and security of wildlife elsewhere in Africa and across the globe, urgent action is needed to end the captive breeding of lions, canned hunting and the sale of their bones and skeletons”.

Read the full report: Born Free Foundation: Cash before Conservation, an overview of the breeding of lions for hunting and bone trade