Bred for the bullet and skinned for their bones. Picture: Kathy Willens/AP

Concern is growing that SA's legal lion bone trade may be used to launder illegal wildlife products. With a legal export quota set by the DEA of 800 lion skeletons (with no grounding in science) from our captive bred lion population there is now also a growing body of evidence.

This evidence is contained in an alarming report titled “Cash before Conservation, an overview of the breeding of lions for hunting and bone trade” in South Africa The UK-based Born Free Foundation released on the 19th March 2018 , .

Will Travers OBE (President, Born Free Foundation) says “this important report documents the growth of this appalling industry and the support it seems to enjoy from senior politicians and officials within South Africa, in spite of overwhelming international condemnation”.

“It also highlights links between the industry and organisations involved in the trafficking of rhino horn and other wildlife products, and with the heinous and fast-expanding trade in donkey meat and skins”, Travers continues.

While our wild lions are in peril across Africa, the rapid expansion of the commercial lion breeding and associated captive lion hunting and lion bone industry in South Africa is a real cause for concern.

According to the Department of Environmental Affairs’ (DEA) recently released Non-Detrimental Findings (NDF) Assessment for Lions, South Africa holds a captive lion population of approximately 7,000 animals kept in around 260 breeding/captive facilities. This captive population has grown exponentially from just a few hundred in the late 1990s, to about 2,500 in 2005, and a current population of at least 7,000, but possibly more.

South Africa is considered the world’s top destination for trophy hunting of captive bred lions. Between 2003-13, SA exported 7,487 lion trophies, more than double the number exported from the rest of Africa.

Interestingly, SA is also one of the few countries advocating the legal export of ivory, recently re-opened the domestic trade in rhino horn, and is the largest global exporter of live cheetahs.

This commoditization of our wildlife resources has the full support of the DEA.

Even though South Africa has been exporting lion bones since 2008, when lion bones began to be used as a substitute for tiger bones in Asian fortifying “wines” and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), in 2017 the DEA set a legal annual export quota of 800 lion skeletons from the captive bred population. This makes SA also the world’s largest legal exporter of lion bones.

According to A Roaring Trade report, a complete lion skeleton with skull, teeth and claws would sell for around R20,000 to a bone agent in 2013, from where the prices would increase significantly along the trade value chain. Although current prices are believed to be between R30,000 - R50,000 per skeleton depending on its size (according to the Born Free report), aconservative estimate of 800 full skeletons is worth R16 million to the lion breeders however this could be as high as R40 million.

At this point we should stop to consider the fact that this lion bone trade is supporting a TCM industry that has no scientific basis, a trade with no history in TCM, and one that actually stimulates the demand for lion bone products.

Links to Illegal Wildlife Trade

SA issued export permits for more than 5,363 lion skeletons between 2008-15 of which the vast majority were destined for Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) (51%) and Vietnam (47%). Both countries are renowned for their role as key conduits for the international illegal wildlife trade, the Born Free report says.

The Tipping Point report stated that in 2016 “permits were issued for the export of 153 lion skeletons to Vinasakhone Trading in the Lao PDR, a company which has repeatedly been shown to be at the centre of extensive illegal trade in wildlife”.

That same company, Vinasakhone Trading, was authorized by the Lao PDR Government to traffic US$16.9 million (about R237 million) of animal products through Laos during 2014, according to The Guardian. This included 20 tonnes of ivory, 10 tonnes of lion bones, as well as 1,300 tonnes of live turtles, snakes, lizards and pangolins. 

“It is known that the illegal trade in rhino horn is operated through organized international criminal syndicates and a high proportion of rhino horns from animals poached in South Africa have ended up in these two countries [Lao PDR and Vietnam], either for use there or en-route to other markets in the region”, says the Born Free report.

Is it therefore a reasonable assumption to make that the increase in poaching of rhinos in South Africa since 2007 is linked to the growth in the legal trade of lion bones?

Is the DEA defending the indefensible?

“For the past 20 years the DEA has, except for a brief period between 2007-10, consistently facilitated the growth of South Africa’s captive predator breeding industry by maintaining legislation which enables provincial officials to issue permits for lion breeding and hunting and, since 2008, the exportation of lion bones”, states the Born Free report.

From as early as the late 1990s, our current Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, has played a prominent role in setting environmental policy in the North West, the Born Free report continues. Many predator breeding facilities and 75-80% of the captive bred lion hunts take place in this very Province.

In response to questions submitted by independent researchers to the DEA in August 2017, a full transcript available in Appendix 1 of the Born Free report, DEA confirmed that:

* It has not undertaken any scientific research demonstrating the conservation value of captive lion breeding. Neither on the impact of lion bone trade and/or hunting of captive lions on the wild lion populations in South Africa or elsewhere in Africa. No scientific data is available of the impact of the legal lion bone trade on the illegal wildlife trade.

The Department only recently commissioned a three-year research project on these issues. Nevertheless, Minister Molewa has on several occasions insisted that the lion bone trade has no impact on wild lions.

“It is alarming that the DEA has issued an export quota of 800 skeletons for 2017, and issued permits for 1,000s of skeletons and large quantities of bones since 2008, without having completed any of the research it has now commissioned. This also applies to the continued breeding of lions for hunting”, says the Born Free report.

The export quota is essentially an average of the past lion bone trade between 2008-15, a number that according Dr Paul Funston (Senior Director Lion Programme, Panthera) “...has absolutely no grounding in science”.

The DEA hereby fails to adopt the precautionary principle approach required by National Environment Management Act. This means that no major policy decisions are made, for example setting a lion bone quota, unless it can be proven that this will have no harmful consequences for the wild lion population.

It also directly contradicts the Minister’s argument she put forward in court in 2015, when she argued that it would be wrong to reopen the domestic rhino horn trade, because no adequate measures were in place to properly control trade and as a result laundering of horn into illegal markets may take place.

* It has no independent figures demonstrating the financial worth of the captive predator breeding sector to the national economy. At the same time, its contribution to socio-economic development is often used as a pro-consumptive wildlife utilisation motivation by the Department.

* It has no up-to-date figures on the number of jobs the captive lion breeding industry creates - latest estimates from 2009 show a total of 379 full time jobs (direct, indirect and induced). Whereas, the Department uses job creation as an important driver in support of the sector.

* The lack of capacity at provincial level has still not been resolved. Lack of capacity in terms of funding and skills, hindering the proper management of permits and compliance of the breeding and hunting of captive bred lions.

* A centralised database system has still not been put into place. Hence, the DEA has no independent figures on how many lions are held in captivity and fully relies on South African Predator Association (SAPA) statistics.

* There is no animal welfare legislation in place relevant to the captive predator breeding industry. Draft Norms and Standards for the Welfare of Captive Lions have been due by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) since September 2016.

This controversial sector even divided the professional hunting community. Late last year, the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa (PHASA) split over a motion put to their AGM in support of the hunting of captive bred and raised predators.

A couple of months later, both the US based Safari Club International (SCI) and the Dallas Safari Club (DSC) announced their opposition to the hunting of captive bred lions.

The Born Free report concludes that “if South Africa is to be regarded as a responsible and ethical custodian of its wildlife, and a country that cares about wildlife elsewhere in Africa and across the globe, urgent action needs to be taken to curtail the captive breeding of lions and the sale of their bones and skeletons”.

* Find the full Cash before Conservation report here.

** Louise de Waal is a sustainable tourism advisor and consultant.

*** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.