The department of environmental affairs (DEA) says it has approved an export quota of 1,500 lion skeletons with effect from June 7.
A damning report on South Africa’s lion bone trade has  called for the end of the trade, a forensic investigation  into the affairs of lion breeders and a restriction on the  keeping and breeding of lions and tigers.

The report, The Extinction Business compiled by the  EMS Foundation and Ban Animal Trading, says it’s  time to discuss dismantling the big cat industry,  address criminal networks linking it to traffickers in  China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam and monitor the  CITES permitting process that allows wild animal  translocation.

Quite by chance, the report’s release coincided with  an announcement by the Department of Environmental  Affairs (DEA) that it was increasing the annual export  quota of lion skeletons from 800 to 1 500.

South Africa is already the largest exporter of lion  bones to mainly Vietnam, Lao PDR and Thailand,  countries which are at the nexus of the illegal wildlife  trade. 

The bones are mainly used for fake tiger bone  wine which is a bogus health drink.

According to the report, the bone trade is benefiting  very few people. They appear to be an interconnected  group of less than 10 South Africans, all somehow  linked to canned lion hunting and who are factory-  farming lions for bone export.

‘It is confounding,’ Dr Paul Funston of Panthera is  quoted in the report as saying, ‘that a country whose  iconic wild lions are such a source of national pride, not  to mention tourist revenue, would take such risks as to  sustain a marginal captive breeding industry that is  condemned globally for its shameful practices.’

According to information published on the internet  by DEA in 2011, importers were listed in CITES permits  as S Durosagham, Sipharpra Duarseram, Vixay  Keosovang, Jacek Raczka and Bounpasong  Paphatsalang. 

Keosavang is one of the world’s most  notorious illicit wildlife traders and the US has placed a  $1-million bounty on his head leading to his capture, a  fact that the DEA could hardly not have known.

‘The fact that South Africa was issuing CITES export  permits to criminal syndicates and questionable  destinations after they had knowledge of the Keosavang  Network speaks to gaping loopholes in CITES  permitting mechanisms,’ the report notes.

When the original quota was legalised in South  Africa, the DEA claimed the bone industry was merely a  by-product of the trophy hunting industry. 

If so, the  skull, jaw and clavicles would be absent from the  skeleton exports because they’re required to mount a  trophy. 

However, Extinction Business researchers found  that 91% of the skeletons that went out in 2017 included  skulls:  ‘It can, therefore, be concluded, contrary to claims  from government, that South Africa’s lion bone trade is  not simply a by-product of the canned trophy hunting  industry. Big cats are being commercially bred for their  bones.’

The shift from hunting to bones has necessitated industrial-scale killing. Earlier this year a  whistle-blower disclosed the existence of a lion  slaughterhouse in the Free State established to kill lions  for their skeletons. 

It is situated on the farm Wag ’n  Bietjie in the Glen district outside Bloemfontein and  owned by Andre Steyn. 

Lion farmers told Beeld  journalist Marietjie Gericke in that there were more lion  slaughterhouses in the Free State – including one in the  Winburg district - and that at least 400 lions had been  killed there in the past year.

There is also evidence, says the report, that some of  the local traders are cheating. 

"Given that the mean  average of a full lion skeleton is nine kilograms, our  examination of a sample of 10 skeleton consignments  exported in 2017 indicates that the individual skeletons  actually exported on average weighed between 11 and  30 kilograms, indicating multiple skeletons per  consignment."

This means exporters are exceeding the  quota – unchecked by CITES.

Concerns around commercial lion breeding appear  to have reached the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee  on Environmental Affairs. 

On August 21/22 it will be  hosting a colloquium on the issue entitled Lion breeding  for hunting in South Africa; destroying or promoting  the conservation image of the country?

The Extinction Business report echoes his concern: " DEA’s peculiar (and many would argue  incomprehensible) interpretation of ‘sustainable use’  means the industry is de facto fully supported by the  State, despite widespread opposition to the practice  which is considered extremely cruel, linked to  international criminal networks, a threat to Africa’s  wild animals population and run by a small monopoly  of operators purely for financial gain."