Illegal Trade

As far back as 2012, Julian Rademeyer in his book Killing For Profit made the connection between the lion bone trade and rhino poaching, where both lion bones and rhino horn were being shipped via Thai national, Chumlong Lemtongthai, to one of the biggest wildlife traffickers in the world, Vixay Koesavang. The latter is the kingpin of the Xaysavang syndicate. In 2013, the US Government announced a US$1 million reward for information “leading to the dismantling” of this key wildlife crime network.

According to Williams et al. (2017), Xaysavang’s involvement in the lion bone trade precedes their involvement in the rhino horn trade. The company started legally procuring lion bones from farmers as early as February 2008, when the first CITES export permit was issued.

However, supply and demand dynamics of illicit wildlife trade are difficult to establish without reliable data, as criminal syndicates and illegal retail outlets are not in the business of making audited financial statements publicly available.


  • CITES identifies that “the significant increase in trade in produced animals has given rise to some concerns related to the control of the production and trade, including false or incorrect declarations of the source of the animals”.
  • Many of South Africa’s lion bone traders sell through bone agents or intermediary traders in either South Africa or internationally, which gives an indication of the potential for parallel illegal markets and/or potential laundering of the proceeds of trade in illegal products.
  • Legal international trade in lion bones from captive-bred lions could serve as a cover for illegally wild-sourced lion (and other big cat) parts.
  • It is clear that a parallel illegal market has been in place for some time and the connection of bone traders to organised crime is well established, according to the EMS Foundation and Ban Animal Trading.
  • Research by World Animal Protection (WAP) highlighted that several brokers of Chinese origin operate out of Durban and Johannesburg exporting bones illegally via both shipping routes and cargo airlines.
  • By 2017, there were just four South African exporters listed on CITES permits, namely SH Rothman, Hatari Taxidermy (Klerksdorp), MP Steyl (associated with Williamson Savuti Taxidermy) and Andries van Tonder (Krugersdorp), and seven importers in Vietnam, Lao PDR and Thailand. Although the official CITES export permits contain a name and address of the supposed exporter and importer, many of the destination addressees and addresses could not be satisfactorily verified, and telephone numbers and identification or passport numbers were often missing, according to the Extinction Business report.
  • There are also discrepancies between permits issued in South Africa, exports recorded on the CITES Trade Database and what the importing country records as having been received.
  • Further anomalies have been suspected in the lion bone trade with the number of CITES permits issued allegedly exceeding the actual 2017 quota. Williams and ‘t Sas-Rolfes (2017) confirm the there is indeed “sufficient reason to believe that some consignments had more bones than allowed by the [CITES] permits”. The Extinction Business report showed an average weight per exported skeleton of between 11-30 kg, whereas a full lion skeleton weights on average only 9 kg. One consignment of 71 lion skeletons weighted 1,580 kg or an average of 22 kg per skeleton!
  • Clearly these discrepancies cannot all be clerical errors, which leads to the conclusion that there are illegal shipments taking place on a regular basis.
  • WAP also has evidence that lions are poached from national parks, particularly Kruger Park, which are sold to lion breeders/dealers for about ZAR 45,000 per animal.

Tigers and ligers

  • Many of the lion breeders now also breed tigers and their bones are being shipped out as lion bones.
  • Tigers are also being crossed with lions in order to create bigger animals and thus more skeleton, so that the carcasses will fetch a higher price. 
  • Sale of tiger bone products is illegal in Southeast Asia. Hence, South Africa is complicit in the illegal trade by not only illegally supplying tiger bones, but also lion bones in ever increasing quantities, knowing that they are finally sold to the end user as tiger bone. 

Legal and illegal slaughterhouses

  • In 2018, a whistle-blower, Armand Gerber, disclosed the existence of a lion slaughterhouse on Wag ’n Bietjie farm in the Free State, established purely to kill lions for their skeletons.
  • Later that year, an illegal Vietnamese lion and tiger bone syndicate operating in the North West Province was uncovered. A joint Task Force saw the arrest of eight people and a ninth suspect handed himself over to police after the operation, which exposed the killing of allegedly 40 lions at a lion farm near Klerksdorp. Six of the suspects are Vietnamese nationals.
  • Several lion farms have their own in-house processing plants and lion bones are boiled into “cakes” before being shipped, thus circumventing the need for bone permits.

Regional and cross-border trafficking

  • Sources have confirmed that lions are also illegally trafficked by organised crime syndicates into South Africa from the SADC region, to maintain the supply of animals in the lion breeding facilities, and to meet demand for body parts.
  • A typical example is a lioness killed in Botswana, her cubs smuggled across the border to SA and the carcass taken out via a different route. A key problem, as explained by one customs official, is that once the lions reach their destinations in South Africa, it is virtually impossible to prove their point of origin.
  • This shows that South Africa’s captive lion industry poses a direct threat to wild lion populations in Southern Africa.

The illegal activities described above are only a glimpse into what happens in reality. However, it is clear that the total number of lion (and illegal tiger) skeletons exported from South Africa far exceeds the legal quota of 800.