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The recent announcement by the Department of Environmental Affiars (DEA) to set the export quota of lion skeletons for Asia to 800 has important implications for the conservation of wild lions in South Africa. Legalising the trade in lion bones has been enabled by the 17th Conference of Parties (CoP17) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) failing to transfer all lion populations from Appendix II to Appendix I and thus prohibiting the international commercial trade in lions or any lion parts.

It is estimated that there are less than 20,000 wild lions left throughout Africa with a population decline of more than 40% in the past two decades. The wild lion population is at a similar tipping point as the white rhino and is fast tracking towards extinction. The main cause of lion population decline is habitat loss, with the constant encroachment of human activity into wild areas increasingly bringing humans and wildlife into conflict.

As the export of lion skeletons will be from farmed lions, the impact on the wild lion population may not be immediately obvious. The captive breeding of lions for the purpose of killing them to supply the bone trade is considered by many to be ethically unacceptable and has the potential to harm South Africa’s global image. Recognising the negative perceptions of killing iconic wildlife for scientifically unproven treatments, the Chinese themselves banned the use of tiger parts in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in 1993.

Prior to the ban, tiger body parts had been used in TCM, with tiger bone wine marketed as a potential cure for arthritis and other bone ailments. The consumption of tiger penis was also widely practiced for its purported role in the treatment of erectile dysfunction. With tiger populations also vastly diminished due to habitat loss and hunting (only 30-80 wild tigers remain in China and it is considered functionally extinct), and no legal market for the sale of their body parts, the demand has been drastically reduced.

Although their grandparents may have used tiger parts in the past, many modern Chinese consumers have rejected the use of these traditional medicines. In response to one of China’s pre-eminent public polling companies, an overwhelming 95% of respondents said that they would take action to save wild tigers,  including abstaining from the use of tiger products. Encouragingly, educated modern Chinese men are selectively switching from TCM to Viagra to treat erectile dysfunction, according to a study by an Australian university.

The proposed new trade in lion bones from Africa to Asia is clearly due to the fact that the lion is seen as analogous to the tiger by the powerful traditional medicine industry in China. This is despite there being no documented use of lion body parts in the 2,000 year long history of TCM.

The move by South Africa is clearly intended to create a market for the estimated 6,000-8,000 captively bred lions in the country. There have already been some legal sales of lion bones in much smaller numbers starting in 2008, which has confirmed the acceptability of the product to the Asian market.

The danger here is that a much larger market could be created, if the use of lion bone in TCM is validated. We have seen this before of course with rhino horn. Though rhino horn elixirs were first prescribed in TCM more than 1,800 years ago, by the early 1990s demand was limited due to trade bans and the removal of the product from most medicines. Only around 15 rhinos were poached in South Africa each year from 1990 to 2007.

Then came 2008 and a prominent Vietnamese politician claimed that Rhino horn had cured his cancer, which had gone into remission. Validated by a high level government source, demand surged across the region. The situation has now become critical and we get used to the shocking headlines such as this, where 20-30 rhinos are poached in South Africa in just one weekend.

Does the same fate lie ahead for lions? If the SA government further legitimises this trade and validates lion bones as a valuable medicinal product will we be looking at similar horrific statistics for lion poaching in the future? The signs are already ominous. Worryingly lion poaching has increased since the first lion bones were legally sold.

We are starting to see cases of lions being poached from easy targets in wildlife sanctuaries. The fear among conservationists is that this will begin to spread further into the poaching of the already threatened wild lion populations. The decision by the SA government to trade lion bones, and therefore validate their medicinal use and give them an increased economic value, is surely only going to increase this risk. This is even more frustrating at a time when there is growing evidence that demand for wildlife products can be restricted by better awareness and education programmes in the Asian marketplace.

In addition, legalising lion bone trade will encourage further captive lion breeding and its associated unethical wildlife interactions, such as cub petting, lion walking and volunteering, when the impact of the Blood Lions documentary and campaigns, such as #HandsOffOurWildlife and Wildlife.Not Entertainers, is slowly but surely starting to make some headway.