Lion bones are hung up to dry on a hunting concession in South Africa. These bones are crushed and used in Asian medicines and ‘lion wine’.
to absorb nutrients from bones that are steeped in it, and thereby it is believed to pass characteristics of the animal on to the consumer. As far as anyone knows, all or most of the bones come from South Africa, which is legally allowed to export a certain quota every year – in 2017, it was 800 skeletons; in 2018, it was 1,500 (almost double).
But even if we can accept the idea of breeding lions like livestock, assuming it can be done in a way that is humane, the fear of conservationists is that the bone trade is fuelling the illegal poaching of wild lions. On the whole, the main threat to the species is when big cats come into conflict with people and their livestock – illegally killing lions, often using carcasses laced with deadly poisons, is a growing problem. There has also always been some commercial value for their teeth and claws in African traditional medicine, or muti. But the bone trade may have created a whole new incentive to go and take down one of Africa’s top predators.
Evidence of the trade first came to light in about 2005, according to Bones of Contention, a report published by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring group, and Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. From about 2008, it became clear that breeders were starting to exploit this new and potentially lucrative business opportunity. Captive lion numbers, the report says, are estimated to have doubled between 2005 and 2013. Bones of Contention was critical in shining a spotlight on the new bone trade, but the report didn’t find any evidence that it was having an impact on wild populations.
But what if it is? Panthera’s Paul Funston says that poaching is clearly on the increase in some areas. In Limpopo National Park in Mozambique (which shares a boundary with Kruger in north-east South Africa), they’ve seen an escalation in the illegal killing of lions over the past seven years – 49 in total in that time, reducing the population of the park from nearly 7o to about 20. “The poaching gangs decimated the white rhinos,” Paul says, “then they started on elephants, and now lions. Of the 49 lions, 38 had had their body parts removed – mainly teeth and claws – but in two cases all the bones had been taken.”
Mozambique's Niassa Reserve has also recorded 87 killings since 2013, though there is less information about why the lions were killed. But Paul is certain of one thing – the growing “neo-colonisation” of Africa by China is leading to a proliferation of traders who are interested in wildlife products, whether they are rhino horns, elephant tusks, pangolin scales – or lion bones. There’s a lucrative market in the Far East, and most traders care little about where the products are sourced.
The big question is whether farmed lions can completely satisfy the growing demand for bone products. Ron says breeding them increases supply and thereby reduces the pressure on wild populations, so “it’s not worth these guys going out and shooting these animals.” This argument is also used to justify the ranching of rhinos for their horns.
Paul isn’t convinced. “Just imagine the size of the market you have in the Far East – potentially billions of people,” he argues. “If just 0.1 per cent of this market want to buy lion bones, I doubt the market could cope, unless we have a future where tens or even hundreds of thousands of captive lions are being raised for this purpose.”
It would also be a future where wild lions are even more at risk – or so he and many others believe. “Finding evidence of a link between legal captive breeding and illegal wild poaching is the Holy Grail that everyone is searching for,” one researcher responds in an email. “If you find anything concrete, do let me know.” The future of one of our most iconic predators may just depend on it.
JAMES FAIR writes about wildlife, conservation and travel. jamesfairwildlife.co.uk
WANT TO COMMENT? Is captive lion farming acceptable or not? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
HUNTING BIG GAME: WHAT DO THE TERMS MEAN?
Technical de nitions for the main three types of hunting.
TROPHY HUNTING The killing of wild animals for pleasure – frequently big game such as rhinos, elephants, bears and lions. The 'trophy' is a part of the animal (usually the head) kept as a souvenir. It is widely and legally practised under o cial government licence.
CANNED HUNTING An extreme form of trophy hunting where animals are bred on ranches and contained in small enclosures, increasing the likelihood of a hunter obtaining a kill. It is a fast-growing business in South Africa, and is also permitted in many US states.
POACHING The hunting of wild animals without the legal permission of whoever controls the land. Hunting is regulated by the government and therefore hunters must obtain permission and permits.
BBC Wildlife 31