Today (Wednesday 29 July) is International Tiger Day, an event designed to raise awareness to the dire circumstances facing the world’s largest cat. There are fewer than 4000 tigers left in the wild and they now are found in only about four percent of their original range.
The last thing these endangered creatures need is more threats to their existence but unfortunately the South African government’s policies on the captive breeding of tigers and lions amounts to just that – a major conservation problem which is contributing to the plight of wild tigers in Asia.
According to several South African based NGO’s there are between 1000 – 1500 tigers held, often alongside lions, leopards, jaguars and other cats, in at least 60 breeding facilities around the country. There are between 8 000 – 12 000 lions held in captivity in South Africa.
“Although, as most people know tigers are not indigenous to South Africa, they are bred here for live export top zoos elsewhere in the world, for their skins and even for their bones which are used in traditional Eastern medicine,” Blood Lions, one of several organizations campaigning against the continued captive breeding and trade in big cats.
Due to the fact that tigers and an exotic species in South Africa they receive no specific protection under South African law.
The EMS Foundation and Ban Animal Trading say that in 2018/2019 at least 45 tigers were exported to “zoos” or “farms” in China and that tiger bones and skins are also exported.
“South Africa is playing an increasingly relevant role in both the legal and illegal trade in tigers,” these NGOs state in a report, “Breaking Point – Uncovering South Africa’s shameful wildlife trade with China,” published in May 2020.
The WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature) points out that “leakage” or deliberate movement of tiger products into illegal markets has help grow demands for tiger products.
South Africa is also the world’s largest exporter of lion bones and since 2008 some 7 000 lion skeletons and an unspecified quantity of bones have been exported to the East for use in traditional medicine. Lion bones are used as a substitute for tiger bones but consumers are often not aware of the replacement.
The bones of tigers bred in South Africa are sometime mixed in with lion bones to escape the attention of customs officials. Tiger skins are also exported illegally and have been found hidden amongst consignments of donkey skins destined for China.
Most lions in captivity in South Africa are bred to be hunted or for the bone export market. Lion cub petting is also a popular attraction for tourists, most of whom are unaware of their final fate.
The South African government does nothing to end tiger breeding in the country and actively promotes the captive lion breeding industry and trade in their bones. These practices combine to present a threat to tigers which are classified as “endangered “by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). There are only two other classifications; “Critically endangered;” and “Extinct in the wild”.
* Cadman is an author and freelance journalist.