South Africa's captive big cat industry is an international pariah, but instead of limiting and closing it the government is steadfastly supporting it.
This is one of the charges levelled against the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) in a new report released this week, "The Extinction Business, South Africa’s Lion Bone Trade".
“It (the government) is facilitating its conversion into an even crueller industry: captive breeding and farming lions so they can be slaughtered solely to feed the problematic big cat bone trade in Southeast Asia,” say the report’s authors, the EMS Foundation and Ban Animal Trading.
“This is evidenced by the emergence of lion slaughterhouses in South Africa, as well as the fact that we have clear evidence that 91% of the ‘lion’ skeletons exported from South Africa in 2017 included skulls. Thus showing that South Africa's lion bone trade is not a by-product of an existing industry (trophy hunting) but an entirely separate industry.
“Consequently, a trade in wild animal body parts with links to international criminal networks in countries where they are attempting to lower demand for big cat body parts is being stimulated,” it said.
The report was released last week as the DEA announced it had doubled the number of captive lion skeletons to be exported, from 800 to 1500 a year.
The report found substantial loopholes in the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) system.
“There is a lack of verification. One example is that more than the 2017 set quota of 800 skeletons went out of South Africa with legal Cites permits.
“There is a lack of required due diligence by the Cites management authorities on both the exporting and importing side in profiling and authenticating exporters, importers, addresses and destinations.
“This has created a situation where the legal trade in ‘lion’ bones is fuelling the illegal trade in lion and tiger bones and providing laundering opportunities for tiger bones in Asian markets.
“This is brewing into a toxic mix, particularly when it is placed in the context of the widespread overlap between those involved in international lion trade, trade in tigers and other Cites-listed species, and the routine leakage of imported lion products into illegal international trade.”
South Africa, it recommends, should place a zero export quota for lion and other big cat body parts for commercial purposes, including from captive sources, and should undertake a forensic investigation into the financial affairs of all lion breeders and lion bone traders.
“It should restrict the keeping and breeding of big cats; review and improve animal protection and welfare legislation and undertake targeted intelligence-led enforcement operations in co-operation with China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to dismantle the criminal networks involved in the transnational lion and tiger trade.”
The report notes how in a letter announcing the quota, the DEA said the decision was based on findings from a survey (in year one of a three-year scientific research process) by the SA National Biodiversity Institute.
“The survey - Interim Report 1: South African Lion Bone Trade - mentions only the 800 quota. One of the study’s key researchers seemed startled by the 1500 claim.
"The wording of that quota letter is a bit unclear concerning our involvement. All decisions were made by the scientific authority and DEA and we provided no input on what the quota should, or should not, be.
"We correctly excluded ourselves from this process and we’ll clarify that soon,” says the report, quoting the researcher.