Lions, already in decline throughout Africa, face a new threat: growing demand for their body parts, including bones, teeth, and claws. These are sought after for use in traditional medicines and trinkets, mostly in Southeast Asia.
Though it’s illegal to poach these big cats, and international trade in lion parts is mostly prohibited, South Africa has legalized the export of skeletons from captive facilities where lions are bred and raised. Multiple reports on that industry have pointed to terrible conditions in such captive facillities. In many cases these businesses also allow customers to pay for the opportunity to kill lions in so-called “canned hunts,” with the option of taking the head or skin as a trophy.
On July 16, South Africa announced that it would nearly double the number of lion skeletons that may be exported, raising the annual quota from 800 to 1,500.
Wildlife experts argue that the decision is likely to do harm by encouraging trafficking in African lion and other big cat parts, in part by increasing demand and the seeming legitimacy of such a trade.
“I’m pretty dismayed by it,” says Luke Hunter, chief conservation officer for Panthera, an international cat conservation group. He adds that there is no legitimate scientific reason to export the skeletons.
Up to 8,000 lions live on farms and captive facilities in South Africa, while somewhere between 1,300 and 1,700 adults remain in the wild. A maximum of 20,000 lions survive in Africa as a whole, a number that plunged 43 percent between 1993 and 2014.
South Africa’s department of environmental affairs, which didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, said in a news release that increasing the skeleton quota is necessary in part to draw down growing stockpiles of lion bones at captive facilities.
“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,” the department stated in a release.
The government hasn’t supplied scientific data to support the idea that a legal trade in the bones may offset illegal activity, or to explain why such a large increase is warranted.
The vast majority of these lion skeletons are exported to Vietnam or Laos, according to the Born Free Foundation, a nonprofit welfare and conservation organization. These countries have been shown to be heavily involved in illegal wildlife trafficking, the foundation says. Lion bones are increasingly used as a substitute for highly coveted tiger parts to make products believed by some to have medicinal properties, such as tiger bone wine, which is considered a status symbol and alleged to impart strength and vigor.
Tigers are threatened with extinction, and fewer than 4,000 remain in the wild. Any trade in tiger products is illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the international treaty regulating the wildlife trade. (Related: “Illegal Tiger Trade Fed by ‘Tiger Farms,’ New Evidence Reveals.”)
The trade in lion bones, teeth, and claws, which look similar to those of tigers and are often mislabeled as such, increases the demand and seeming legitimacy of these products, says Aron White, a wildlife campaigner and researcher with the Environmental Investigation Agency.
The group has documented evidence of eight wildlife seizures, mostly since 2015, in which lion products have been labeled as coming from tigers. But it’s likely happening much more often, White says.
Increased demand for products from big cats provides more incentive to poach lions, and several African countries, like Mozambique, have seen an uptick in such activity during the past few years. Kris Everatt, who works with Panthera in Mozambique as a researcher and advocate against poaching, says lion numbers in Limpopo National Park dropped from 67 in 2012 to 21 in 2017. A total of 49 lions were poached, and in 60 percent of cases body parts such as faces and paws were removed, he says.
The networks through which legally obtained lion parts move are notoriously porous, Hunter says, and unless the trade is strenuously regulated, it’s extremely difficult to tell where they originated and to prevent poached parts from entering the trade chain. Having a legal trade allows traffickers to easily pass off illegal products as legitimate, as has also been seen in the elephant ivory trade, White adds.
In 2016 the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which sets the conservation status of wildlife, warned that “wild lion parts from eastern and southern Africa could be drawn into the large illegal wildlife trade to Asia centered around elephant ivory.” And that’s now happening.
As National Geographic revealed in a report about lion poaching, in June 2017 a Chinese citizen was arrested at Maputo International Airport, in Mozambique, carrying lion teeth and claws, as well as items made with ivory. Lion teeth were also confiscated in Senegal last August, as part of the biggest ivory haul in the country’s history. Later, in November, authorities in South Africa found 70 lion teeth and claws in a shipment containing a rhino horn bound for Nigeria.
The connection between lion bones and illegal traffickers doesn’t stop there. A report published this month by two South African animal welfare organizations, the EMS Foundation and Ban Animal Trading, revealed extensive links between importers of lion bones and known wildlife traffickers and trafficking networks.
“All our research and the data we collected clearly shows that the legal trade is part of the illegal trade,” says Michele Pickover, director of the EMS Foundation. “They cannot be separated.”
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.