There is a real and substantial risk of zoonosis in the lion bone trade. Zoonosis is an infectious disease caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites that is transmissible from animals to humans under natural conditions, including tuberculosis (TB). As indicated in the previous section, there is a particular risk of zoonosis from M. bovis, which causes TB in lions. The WHO estimated that M. bovis is the causative bacterium in 3% of all TB cases. The PPCEA mentioned this issue in Point 7.9 of their adopted report following the Colloquium in August 2018.
- Wild animals serve as reservoirs for M. bovis and nearly all warm-blooded animals are affected. In South Africa, M. bovis has occurred in baboon, blesbok, buffalo, bushbuck, bush pig, cheetah, common duiker, eland, honey badger, hyaena, impala, kudu, large spotted genet, leopard, lion, and suricate.
- Game ranging in South Africa is expanding and approximately one-third of farmers have both domestic and ‘game’ animals, which can increase the potential for ‘cross-over’ of diseases, especially considering that 41% have no control measures to prevent this kind of cross-infection.
- M. bovis (or bovine TB) is considered a multi-host disease and animals are infected by inhaling dust particles, as well as by ingestion of contaminated feed or water.
- According to Bekker, in South Africa there are only a few registered ‘game’ abattoirs, which are mostly used for export purposes, and that the real number and location of ‘game’ slaughter facilities located on ‘game’ farms are unknown to the relevant authorities. Almost no meat inspection is done on ‘game’ farms.
Mycobacterium bovis and the lion bone trade
- Whilst there is no conclusive proof that we are exporting M. bovis in lion bones, there is also no proof that we are not. The risk we are exporting M. bovis in lion bones is however real.
- It has never been scientifically proven how long the M. bovis bacterium remains alive in lion bones. According to Professor Modlin, both ingesting and inhaling will cause different strains of TB and potentially cancer. Tom Frieden, the head of the US Centre for Disease Control in the Obama era, stated that the dry TB bacilli can live in the pages of a book for up to seven years.
- South Africa risks finding itself in a precarious legal position should it transpire that we have exported lion bones infected with M. bovis.
- Countries like Thailand have a preference for bones with more meat on them, which means that the bones have not been properly cleaned, thus increasing the risk of zoonosis.
Occupational health hazard
- “Spillover” of M. bovis to rural communities is increasing and the risk to human health and safety of farmers, farm workers, hunters, slaughter staff, veterinarians, and processors posed by zoonosis, and possible exposure to lethal immobilising compounds, is considerable.
- The risk of contracting M. bovis TB by South African lion abattoir workers is very real and people with HIV are even more susceptible due to their compromised immune systems.
- There are no health and safety precautions (e.g. face masks) at a hunt or at the taxidermists, so workers are potentially exposed every time a lion is killed.
- There is a further problem of illegal abattoirs that are springing up around the country, where health and safety precautions do not exist.
- The M. bovis bacterium will also be present in any meat and organs that may be given to farm workers.
- Very possibly we could be sitting on a human rights issue too, with all the farm, slaughterhouse, and taxidermy workers, who have no idea they may be at risk of contracting TB from the lion bones they are working on. Both DEFF and the lion farm owners could find themselves cited in a class action suit.
- Recently, there has been an outbreak of TB in domestic cats in the UK, where several owners of individual cats were infected.