Since 2008, more than 6,000 lion skeletons weighing a total of approximately 70 tonnes have been exported from South Africa to Southeast Asia for use in Asian traditional medicine practices. Since 2017, the Department of Environmental Affairs (now Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF)) has set a legal annual export quota of 800 lion skeletons, making South Africa the largest legal exporter of lion bones and skeletons.
The setting of this legal lion bone quota lacks a sound scientific basis and is driven solely by the economic principle of supply and demand, i.e. South African lion breeders can produce more lion skeletons than the set quota and have built up stockpiles. Mr Mpho Tjiane (Deputy Director CITES Policy Development & Implementation – DEFF) confirmed this during the Colloquium on the Captive Lion Breeding Industry in August 2018.
Since the failure of attempts to push through restrictive legislation in 2010, DEFF has effectively facilitated the growth of the industry through enabling provinces to issue permits for lion breeding, canned hunting and more recently bone exports.
Even though the South African lion bone trade is perceived to be a by-product of the trophy hunting industry, a study of skeleton exports by the EMS Foundation & Ban Animal Trading in 2017 found that 91% included the skulls, indicating that many facilities exist purely to supply the Southeast Asian bone trade. This was confirmed in a study by Williams and ‘t Sas-Rolfes, who found about one-third of the facilities breed and keep lions for the trade of bones and other lion products, even though their respondents’ numbers represent only a small section of the industry.
It is not clear that exploiting surplus captive-bred lions for their derivate parts can satisfy market demand. To the contrary, legally available supply may both fuel demand and provide a laundering channel for illegal supply. This is especially concerning since the vast majority of exported lion skeletons (98%) are destined for Laos and Vietnam, which are known hubs for illegal wildlife trafficking, including South African rhino products and/or derivatives.
The lion bone trade also absorbs ‘surplus’ animals that are often in ill health or otherwise suffering the effects of poor treatment, highlighting the serious welfare concerns associated with this industry.