When Dr Paul Funston and his colleagues evaluated the threats to Africa’s lions a few years ago, there was no legal bone trade in South Africa - or illicit trinket trade to the Far East.
But Funston, the senior director of the lion programme at Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organisation, believes South Africa’s contentious lion bone trade is now imperilling the continent’s dwindling wild lion populations.
“I can’t understand why the government is being so stupid and ignorant by making decisions and supporting an industry that is clearly not supported by the world one that is having a massive knock-on effect on the poaching of wild lions in other African countries.”
Funston was reacting to the announcement this week by Environment Minister Edna Molewa that she had approved an annual export quota of 1500 captive-bred lion skeletons - nearly doubling last year’s 800-skeleton quota.
“What we’re seeing now in many other African countries is that they poach the lions and just cut the face and feet off for the teeth and claws as trinkets,” Funston explains.
“That’s not the bone trade, but it’s the same traders and the same people involved. This is happening prolifically now in Mozambique and is spreading into all southern African countries, and right up to East and West Africa quite significantly.
“A decade ago there were no specific lion-related products in Asia on the market - now there are, and I blame the government 100% for that. They opened up Pandora’s Box and I believe they are responsible for the demise of lions in many protected areas in Africa that are already so stretched trying to save them.”
Conservation organisations like Panthera have maintained there is significant evidence that South Africa’s legal trade in lion bones is accelerating the slaughter of wild lions for their parts in neighbouring countries and increasing demand for wild lion parts in Asia, where they are used as a subsitute for tiger bone wine and other products.
“Look, we can’t prove statistically with absolute surety that the legal trade in body parts in South Africa is stimulating the trade in lion poaching and therefore the illegal lion body part trade in other African countries. But, intuitively, it stands to reason that if you have traders working illegally they know the product and they’ve set up merchandise and the marketing for these lion products in the East,” says Funston.
Lions are ilsted under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), permitting trade only if it is not detrimental to wild populations.
The DEA points out there has been regulated trade in captive-produced lion bones from South Africa since 2008, which was in response to an already-existing demand in Asia for tiger bones and suitable substitutes.
“There is no evidence to suggest trade over the past 10 years has driven demand for wild lion products. From 2008 to date, there has been a limited amount of poaching of wild lion,” it says.
“These have concentrated on paws, claws and faces, which is not consistent with trade in bones, and may be linked to threats other than demand for bones.
“The setting of the quota also needs to consider the contrary threat that removing a legal and regulated trade in bone and other parts will increase the risk of poaching of wild lion in order to supply demand from Asian markets.
“The ban on trade, as called for by various NGOs, could stimulate an illegal trade in lion bones and other parts. As a result, South Africa has adopted a risk averse approach that is considered to be in the best interests of the conservation of the species.”
Dr Kelly Marnewick, the senior trade officer at the wildlife in trade programme at the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), too, worries about the fallout for wild lions.
She argues there is still no evidence to show that the regulated trade in lion bones will not drive demand for wild lion projects, or that it will alleviate pressure on wild lion populations.
“We just don’t know if the legal lion trade South Africa is promoting is not going to have a negative impact on wild lion populations Field observations indicate that wild lions in southern Africa, specifically Mozambique, have been under increasing threat for their parts.”
The Greater Limpopo carnivore programme has recorded an escalation in the number of wild lions poached on the Mozambican side of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area, with a marked increase since 2015. “They report that 26% of the lion population in this park has been lost due to poaching for their body parts.”
Marnewick points out how the poaching of captive lions for their body parts in South Africa has more than doubled since the quota was established.
The DEA acknowledges there is some poaching of lions in areas “where poaching of other species is also rampant. Again, the available information indicates that the focus has been on paws, claws and faces, with no clear link to the bone trade. There is no credible evidence that the legal exports are a causal factor of this poaching”.
A report by Traffic, the global wildlife trade monitoring network, prepared for Cites’ animals committee meeting this week, found that the international trade in lion parts does not seem to be the largest threat facing wild lions, but noted “there are indications that a perception of increasing value and demand in Asia is going to lead to increased illegal poaching”.
Dr Richard Thomas, Traffic spokesperson, explains: “There doesn’t appear to be any threat to wild lion populations in South Africa from the bone trade but there is concern about what impact the lion trade may be having in other Southern African Development Community countries, about which there is very little information available.”
The DEA says the 2018 export quota is based on new evidence from a three-year research project established by the SA National Biodiversity Institute in collaboration with Wits, Oxford and Kent universities that analyses and monitors the lion bone trade in South Africa.
Its interim report found that because of quota restrictions, there appears to be a growing stockpile of lion bones in South Africa.
There has been no discernible increase in poaching of wild lion in the country, though there appears to be an increase in poaching of captive bred lions for body parts (heads, faces, paws and claws).
The captive breeding industry is in a state of flux as breeders respond in different ways to the US’s restrictions on trophies as well as the imposition of the skeleton export quota, it found.
Its research detected that facilities - there are as many as 8000 captive lions in more than 200 private breeding facilities - have responded to the US import ban by scaling down breeding (82%), reducing their workforce (61%), selling off livestock (46%), euthanising lions (29%) and focusing on the bone trade (21%).
“There have been reports of farmers burning/burying carcasses of euthanised lions as they cannot afford to keep them any longer. If the US ban continues, 52% said they will focus on trading lion bones and 29% will euthanise all stock.”
Funston remarks: “Lion breeders are basically putting a lot of pressure on the government and on Cites to up the quota so that essentially they can sell off a stockpile of lion body parts that they just can’t afford to keep anymore.”
Thomas says the increased quota doesn’t necessarily indicate a rise in demand. “Obviously, a higher quota does place an additional burden on enforcement agencies charged with regulating the trade as more products will be in trade, and there are considerable challenges to be met - such as detecting and preventing the laundering of bones into trade from animals (both lions and tigers) not derived from legal sources.”
Wild lion populations are sharply declining with only 20000 remaining, largely because of human conflict, bush meat poaching, habitat loss, unsustainable trophy hunting and the emerging threat of poaching for the illegal wildlife trade, says Panthera. The Environmental Investigation Agency points out how the lion parts trade is connected to Asian criminal networks associated with ivory, rhino horn, pangolins and tiger farming.
“The export of lion skeletons is fuelling the business of these criminal enterprises and South Africa should be held to account for propping them up.”
The DEA acknowledges that at least one known criminal network has been linked to the lion bone trade in the past. “The criminal networks have focused on products where legal trade is banned such as ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales. At present, legal trade in lion bone is regulated through a permit system but the removal of legal trade will mean that illegal trade could be the only option for supplying demand.
“If lion part trade is indeed connected to criminal enterprises then such enterprises will simply continue to trade if legal trade is stopped. When such enterprises turn to illegal sources as their only option, they are more likely than before to target wild lion populations as their legal captive lion sources dry up.”
South Africa has a “good reputation” in wildlife management. “The issue of captive bred lion farming has been controversial but any solution to the issue of lion bone needs to consider the consequences of removing a legal source and the risk of increased poaching of wild lions,” it says.
Chris Mercer, of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting, says “everyone knows that the existence of a legal trade promotes and stimulates illegal trafficking”.