An international treaty prohibits the buying and selling of products made from any of the big cat species, save one: the African lion. If the animals have been bred in captivity in South Africa, then their skeletons, including claws and teeth, may be traded around the world.
Lion parts legally exported from South Africa usually wind up in Asia, where they are often marketed as tiger parts. This lucrative business is on the rise, and according to recent research, a ban enacted by the United States may have helped to ignite it.
In 2016, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) banned imports of captive-bred lion trophies. For many lion breeders in South Africa, skeleton exports were an obvious way to make up for lost business.
“Sometimes, you think you’re doing the right thing, but the outcome of your policy decision is that something worse materialises,” says Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford in England who has studied the trade in lion bones.
Before the ban, South Africa’s breeding and hunting facilities housed more than 8,400 captive-bred lions. Many were destined for use in “put and take” hunts, in which a captive-bred, sometimes tame animal is released into a fenced hunting camp for a hunter to stalk and shoot.