Sylvester the lion strutting around in the bomas after he was found and recaptured following a three-week search at the Karoo National Park in the Western Cape. Picture: Oupa Mokoena
Johannesburg - For the past three years Dr Kelly Marnewick has been involved in a grim body count: keeping track of the mutilated lions poached on private lion breeding farms and sanctuaries.

Mostly, it’s the feet, heads and faces the poachers are after. “It’s a relatively new occurrence and is certainly something we’re watching very closely because of our concern about the impact on wild lions,” explains Marnewick, the senior trade officer at the wildlife in trade programme at the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

This year alone, she has recorded 22 captive lions being poached. “That will be the bare minimum, but we don’t really know the full extent because there’s no empirical data.”

Captive lions bred for the bullet are especially vulnerable, she explains. “In these camps, they’re used to people and are used to being fed so it’s an easy way to get your hands on some lion parts.”

Last week, Marnewick was one of 27 authors, including leading lion conservationists and research organisations, of a letter sent to the US Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, urging its wildlife authority to maintain its current ban on the import of captive-origin lion trophies.

It was in response to an October letter from the SA Predators’ Association (Sapa) requesting the US Fish and Wildlife Services to lift the ban.

“Lion poaching was almost unheard of in South Africa until the ban took effect after which there was an immediate uptick in lions brutally slain and butchered for these parts,” stated Sapa.

But in the letter, experts like Marnewick say this argument is flawed as local legalisation does allow for lion breeders to sell lion products locally with permits. “The USFWS ban has no influence on the export of bones to Asia, which has been ongoing since 2008,” they say, noting the rise in the poaching of wild lions for their parts in Mozambique.

In the Far East, the bones are used as an apparent substitute for tiger bone in traditional medicinal products.

“Teeth and claws of all big cat species are sought for ornamental and quasi-medical purposes,” explains Michael t’ Sas-Rolfes, a research fellow at Oxford University, who studies the wildlife trade.

There is also some local demand for the bones in lion paws, as well as teeth, claws, and skin, in regional African markets.

Sas-Rolfes, too, attributes the increasing lion mutilations to the US ban. “Until late 2015, the legal export of lion body parts was largely a by-product of legal lion trophy hunts that took place in South Africa.

“Most of these hunts were of captive-bred lions and mostly performed by visitors from the US. Then the US government decided to list the African lion as endangered and USFWS applied stricter measures to lion trophy imports.”

US hunters visiting SA could no longer bring home trophies of captive-bred lions. “The South African trophy hunting market took a huge financial hit, as did the lion breeders. This has sent the industry into turmoil.

“It is only since this happened, that the lion mutilations in SA have picked up. Sapa’s claim about this is correct. We can speculate as to why this happened, but we don’t really know.

“What we do know is that many lion breeders are facing economic hardship and are stranded with live lions for which there is now a significantly reduced market.”

They may be investing less in protecting these animals. “Some have started euthanising their animals.”

Reported poaching incidents may be feeding either the local muti market, or the Asian tooth and claw market. “We simply don’t know.”

South Africa has been legally exporting lion body parts to markets in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand for the past 10 years.

“We know of no large-scale poaching of lions for bones at this time. Most reported incidents appeared to be targeted at teeth and paws/claws.

“Asian demand is most likely playing a role in this, directly and/or indirectly, but I don’t believe we can make any substantial claims about the nature and extent of this yet.”

The claim that the legal exports are “stimulating” poaching is tenuous, he says. “The demand for these products (bones, teeth and claws) is clearly already there and has been so for some time It may be that the current (already constrained by the newly imposed quota) flow of legal exports helps to satisfy some Asian demand for lion body parts that might otherwise turn to illegal sources.

“I’m not arguing that this is necessarily so, but simply that it is a plausible option that we must consider carefully. The issues of captive breeding and trophy hunting are highly emotive and so people (scientists included) may have understandably strong views.

“However, for the sake of wild lion populations, we need to avoid taking reactionary drastic, potentially irreversible, actions. Right now we have a problem and a threat, but not a poaching crisis.”

The government, he says, has adopted a broadly sensible approach in tackling this particular issue.”

This year, South Africa approved an annual export quota of 800 lion bone skeletons to countries in Asia.

The Department of Environmental Affairs says there have been a few incidents where captive-bred and wild lions were poached this year including within the Kruger.

“The primary reason does not appear to be linked to the lion bone trade, but rather to the muti trade.”

Environmental management inspectors and the police would remain vigilant to protect wild lions.

Saturday Star