South Africa should push for a “decent” and “responsible” trade in lion bones to feed the surging demand in Asia, or risk losing its wild lion populations to poaching in the future.

“There is a market, a need, for lion body parts and this will grow in exactly the same manner as the market for ivory and rhino horn has grown,” remarked Dr Herman Els, the manager of hunting and conservation at the SA Hunters and Game Conservation Association.

“To continue denying the fact that there’s a market for rhino horn and lion bone continues to let prices be sky high, because these commodities become scarcer.”

Lion bones are sought as a replacement for tiger bones used in traditional Asian medicine like tiger brew wine because of the demise in the region’s tiger populations.

“The Chinese believe there’s a medicinal value attached to these animal parts and will continue to use them,” said Els. “It doesn’t help to fight the Chinese. They’re part of a cultural system that is older than 3 000 years. To say they must change their ways, well, that’s imperialism,” said Els.

He said any market that supported the farming of lions in SA to trade in Asia would help eradicate canned lion hunting. “All lion hunting is not canned hunting, which happens in small instances… There has been a big drive in the industry to clean up these types of things. That it’s a big industry, that’s true, it is growing and is financially very intensive.

“In terms of hunting ranched lion, there’s always a massive advantage to have that hunting rather than the hunting of a wild lion. We already have poaching of lion in the northern section of the Kruger National Park.

“If you don’t do a decent responsible trade in a similar vein as De Beers did to get blood diamonds out the system, we will not achieve the situation we want to where massive prices for these commodities come down. Let’s not forget these animals are commodities just like gold, eggs, chicken.”

But conservationist Karen Trendler, the co-ordinator of the Rhino Response Strategy, said this was frightening. “When lion bone was first mentioned, everyone nearly fell off their chairs and expressed revulsion and horror.

“Now it is being discussed in the same vein as rhino horn and the debate on whether and how to supply the market. It is becoming more mainstream and unacceptable… We don’t know what this market is, it’s going into a bottomless pit.”

The intensive farming of lions for their bones would lead to many “unpleasant practices”, she said. “In spite of the fact many of us don’t like canned hunting, those lions, even if they are captive bred in welfare conditions we don’t like to see, still have to be in a decent condition for the hunt, whereas once you start farming lion for bone, as is happening with Chinese tiger farming, the conditions are appalling. They just want the bones.”

An experienced hunter and conservationist in Mpumalanga, who didn’t want to be named, said there was dissension within the hunting sector. “There is a contentious element that is completely against canned hunting, legalising rhino horn and any form of (farming) lion bone. There’s a bunch of us still so devoted to true, fair chase hunting. That hunting has a place in society.

“What they are now turning our hunting into is form of farming, intensive breeding and it’s becoming a business. We are opposed to turning our rhino into cows and our lion into bones.” - Saturday Star