The Far East’s growing demand for animal body parts will fuel the export of 1,500 lion skeletons from South Africa to Asia over the next year, filling a gap in the market left by moves to protect endangered tiger species.
South Africa’s legal and controversial lion-bone trade began a decade ago, mostly to meet the shortfall in tiger body parts that have been used in Chinese medicine for centuries as cures for ills including ulcers, malaria and a diminished libido.
The South African government has justified the trade in bones as a by-product of the “hunting industry” and claimed that the quota that it allows to be sold abroad — which will almost double in the next year — has been prompted by a growing stockpile.
Authorities say that the stockpile has been created by countries including the United States imposing restrictions on imports of hunting trophies from big cats kept in captivity. “All activities involving the African lion, including hunting, possession and trade, are regulated through a permit system, part of our policy of sustainable utilisation of natural resources, which is supported by solid scientific evidence,” Edna Molewa, the environment minister, said.
The trade is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) and applications to export bones need to be logged with provincial authorities. All skeletons have to be weighed, tagged and have DNA samples taken to prove the animal’s provenance, Ms Molewa said.
Those who oppose the trade claim that increasing numbers of lions are being raised and slaughtered purely to meet the lucrative Asian market and that the official quota accounts for only part of the true business, with the rest of the market driving poaching and illegal trafficking.
Michele Pickover, director of the conservation charity the EMS Foundation, said that investigations by her organisation had revealed that “many more” than the 800 permitted lion skeletons left South Africa last year.
“We also believe that around 90 per cent of the lion skeletons that went to Asia still had their skulls, which means they were not hunted or the skulls would have been kept as trophies,” she said.
“Growing an industry which slaughters lions in abattoirs specifically for their bones is indefensible and cannot be justified.”
Paul Funston, from the charity Panthera’s lion and cheetah programme, claimed that the trade in bones would put captive and wild lions at greater risk, “accelerating the slaughter of wild lions for their parts in neighbouring countries”.
The hunting industry brings in an estimated £565 million a year to South Africa. About 9,000 trophy hunters visit the country each year, most of whom come from the US.
Lion skeletons can fetch £125 a kilo, about £3,800 a lion, with another £840 for the skull if the hunter doesn’t keep it as a trophy.
Since 2008 more than 6,000 lion skeletons from South Africa have been legally sold. About 98 per cent go to Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, where the bones are boiled down and made into a cake-like product that can sell for about £13,000 a kilo and is meant to give those who eat it the strength of a big cat.