Lion Bones for Traditional Chinese Medicine

Although tiger bone, alongside other body parts, have been used in the production of traditional medicines and tonics for centuries as a general tonic and to treat a variety of ailments including arthritis, rheumatism, back problems, general weakness, and headaches, there is no credible evidence for the efficacy of the vast majority of these remedies. Where experimental evidence suggests that tiger bone may have beneficial health effects, for example as an adjuvant treatment for breast cancer, calcium and collagen are identified as the likely active substances, and they can easily be obtained from alternative sources.

China banned the use of tiger bone in traditional medicines in 1993 and removed tiger products from its Traditional Medicine Pharmacopoeia. However, since that time tiger farms have expanded rapidly across parts of China and other Asian countries and thriving black and grey markets for tiger bones and other products exist.

Although lion body parts are sought locally in some parts of Africa as ‘muti’ (traditional African medicines), lion bones have never been a recognised ingredient of traditional Asian medicines. Nevertheless, the demand in Asia for lion bones as an alternative to tiger bones has increased in recent years due to decline in tiger numbers and a ban on the use of tiger products. There is evidence of a growing demand specifically for lion bone.

A ban on the export of lion bones and other body parts derived from wild lions was agreed at the 17th Conference of the Parties to CITES in 2016. However, lion bone derived from captive breeding facilities in South Africa can still be traded legally into international markets under a quota determined by the South African authorities. This sends confusing messages to potential consumers specifically, as well as to the wider public.

The TRAFFIC report entitled ‘The Legal and Illegal Trade in African Lions’ acknowledges that poaching of lions for trade in body parts is an emerging threat. It also highlights that increasing demand for lion bone and other lion products in Asia may have an impact on wild lion populations across their range, as well as on other big cat populations.

Surveys of consumers in Beijing by Zhao Liu et al. (2016) identified a preference for wild-sourced products over farmed products, because of increased perceived effectiveness. This is a direct threat to wild lion populations. Levels of actual or potential demand for traditional medicines are not well understood, but product legitimization resulting from ongoing legal sales of captive-bred lion bones could bring a great many consumers into the market, providing opportunities for poachers and traffickers to target wild animals and thereby frustrating enforcement efforts.

The dynamics of endangered wildlife populations can be dramatically influenced by disease, especially when these populations are small and isolated, with increased risk of inbreeding, such as is typical of captive lion breeding facilities. Professor Paul van Helden, Stellenbosch University, states that the organism that most commonly causes lion tuberculosis (TB) is Mycobacterium bovis (M. bovis), which causes bovine TB. M. bovis can infect other mammals, including humans. He adds that this differs very slightly from that species most often causing human TB.  However, this organism has the propensity to cause TB in humans often in organs other than the lung, making it very difficult to diagnose.  

Similarly, Mycobacterium tuberculosis is also transmissible from humans to a wide range of domestic and wild animal species, most frequently living in close, prolonged contact with humans e.g. in captive settings from cattle to captive elephants. The bacillus is very difficult to eradicate as it can survive extremes of temperature and moisture. Professor Emeritus Modlin adds that the export of infected lion bone carcasses would represent the potential for introducing a TB epidemic in individuals working with and ingesting contaminated bone (letter available upon request).

The captive lion breeding industry therefore poses a significant risk to human health and safety by zoonosis including tuberculosis, parasite transmission and possible exposure to lethal immobilising compounds (if the animal is humanely immobilised before being shot) that may have deposited in the bones (see also Section Zoonosis).

The Assembly of the World Health Organization (WHO) announced in May 2019 that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) will be included in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). Panthera, the worldwide wild feline protection association, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Wildlife Conservation Trust asked the WHO to censure TCM’s use and its part in the decline of wild animal populations around the globe.

With WHO endorsement, growth of TCM is expected, potentially increasing the pressure on species such as lion. In August 2019, the Consortium for Globalization of Chinese Medicine (CGCM) is hosting a symposium in Shanghai, China. The “Chinese Medicine Resources” category includes “Protection and Substitutes of Endangered Species”. With the significant threat to human health and safety, it is clear that substitutes are critical to conserve biodiversity. 

By continuing to set quotas for captive-bred lion bones, South Africa is encouraging consumers to continue to seek products for which there is no proven efficacy, and puts humans, wild lions and other big cats at increased risk.