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Quenching a thirst for lion bones

Fiona Macleod

On the back of the illegal rhino horn trade, Asian suppliers have begun sourcing a replacement for tigers, namely lions or rather their bones.

The trade in rhino horn to Asian countries has opened an avenue for the sale of lion carcasses—their bones are being used to replace those of tigers in the making of traditional Eastern wines.

Conservationists say the trade, which has taken off since 2009, has added to the pressures that have caused Africa’s lion populations to crash from about 200 000 in the 1970s to less than 20 000 today. In some range states in West and Central Africa, lions have recently been declared extinct.

Official records show that South Africa exported 418 lion carcasses to Vietnam and Laos from 2009 to 2010. Figures for the illegal trade and more recent exports were not available.

Lion ‘brews’
Conservationists have previously been aware that lion bones were being used in Chinese brews believed to have healing properties, but they have only recently become aware of the scale of the trade in other Asian countries.

Before 2009, neither Vietnam nor Laos had been recorded as importing lion bones, said Chris Mercer, head of the South African organisation Campaign against Canned Hunting.

“The trade in lion bones to Asia is a new development,” he said. “Official figures going back to 1975 show no exports of lions from South Africa to Vietnam or Laos. Similar growth in the trade is forecast from 2010 to 2011 and moving forwards.

“With fewer than 4 000 wild tigers left and commercial trade in tiger parts prohibited under international law, traditional Oriental medicine is turning to lion bone wine as a legal substitute for tiger bone wine. Asian consumers may not know this, however, as lion bone wine is frequently sold in tiger-shaped bottles.”

Mercer said the lion carcasses exported with official permits came from captive lion breeders, who owned about 4 000 lions and also supplied the “canned” lion-hunting industry.

There are an estimated 2 200 lions in the wild in South Africa, most of them in the Kruger National Park.

Evidence of the link to the rhino horn trade came to the fore with the arrest last year of two Thai businesspersons, Chumlong Lemtongthai and Punpitak Chunchom, who will stand trial with Free State game farmer Marnus Steyl in June on charges related to the illegal hunting of rhinos and exporting their horns to Asia.

Affidavits leading to their arrest said the Thais were buying “lion sets” for about R10 000 each from game farms in the Free State and North West. If the head and feet were attached to the carcass, it would fetch R5 000 more.

Lemtongthai’s company in Laos, Xaysavang Trading Export-Import, received the majority of the lion carcasses exported from South Africa during 2009 and 2010, official permits show.

More recent figures indicated the price that could be fetched for a full lion skeleton ranged between R24 000 and R40 000, according to Pieter Kat, a trustee of United Kingdom-based conservation organisation LionAid.

Kat said 54 lion-hunting trophies and 14 live lions had been exported to Laos recently, “which is strange because Laotians don’t have a history of hunting lions”.

“There are parallels to the rhino horn trade in the lion bone business,” he said. “The legal export and pseudo-hunters from Asia are followed by a huge amount of poaching. The supply and demand creates a market that becomes insatiable.”

He said that although the official trade from South Africa was legal, it would stimulate an illegal market for lion bones and derivatives that would affect wild carnivores in all African range states.

“Asian markets used to be supplied by Asian species. Those are now gone and Asia has turned to Africa,” he said.

“Asian markets put a premium on wild animal products as they are ‘stronger’ than captive-raised animals. And there are as few lions left on the African continent as there are rhinos in South Africa.”

LionAid held a conference in Johannesburg last week to establish the number of lions in Africa. Scientific and conservation management authorities from seven range states participated, but South African officials declined the invitation to attend.

Kat said pressures such as hunting, human encroachment and poaching had sent lion populations in Africa into “free-fall decline”. “Revised estimates indicate there could be as few as 500 to 700 left in all of Western and Central Africa.”

In Côte d’Ivoire, the Congo and Ghana lions were extinct, whereas Nigeria had fewer than 40 left. Tanzania had the largest population, between 7 000 and 16 000, followed by South Africa with its large captive-bred population.

Kat said some countries supported a proposal to get lions upgraded to appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species at its next meeting in Thailand in March next year, which would ensure better monitoring and protection for the big cats. But countries that gained from the commercial use of lions through hunting and the sale of their parts were resisting the move.

Gareth Patterson, South Africa’s “lion man” who played a pivotal role in the exposure of canned hunting in the 1990s, said this week carnivore experts had predicted back then that the lion bone trade would take off.

“One of my recommendations in 1997-1998 was that South Africa ban not only canned lion hunting, but also the trade in big cats and their body parts. My fear, sadly realised today, was that lions and tigers are genetically very similar and the end consumer would not be able to differentiate between their body parts, and soon lions would be affected by the trade.”

Jo’burg council declares fate of lioness a ‘cultural’ issue
A cultural catfight has erupted between the Jo’burg City Council and a conservation outfit over the future of a rare white lion responsible for killing a zookeeper in February.

The Global White Lion Protection Trust offered to relocate the lioness, called Nyanga, to a sanctuary in the Timbavati region on the western side of the Kruger Park after the incident. Founded in 2002, the trust aims to protect white lions in the wild as a “national heritage of unique conservation and cultural significance”.

At the time the trust was set up, the only white lions in South Africa were kept in captive-breeding programmes. First discovered in the Timbavati Game Reserve in the mid-1970s, their white fur is caused by a recessive gene.

Nyanga is the daughter of Thor, a white lion sold by the Johannesburg Zoo to controversial wildlife trader Riccardo Ghiazza in 2002. At the time of the sale, Ghiazza had recently been found guilty of animal cruelty in the well-known Tuli elephant scandal.

Thor’s image was used by American entertainers Siegfried and Roy to market their shows with white lions and tigers in Las Vegas. In South Africa, Thor became part of a breeding project managed by Ghiazza and the Lion Park near Lanseria.


Thor (above) is the father of Nyanga, a white lion who killed a zookeeper in February. Her future survival now hangs in the balance

Nyanga was born in February 2001 and was donated by the Lion Park to the zoo six months later. She had two litters of nine cubs that were sold to breeders of captive lions.

Linda Tucker, chief executive of the Global White Lion Protection Trust, said Nyanga was special because her mother, Marah, was the founder matriarch of the pride of white lions she had released back into the wild at the Timbavati sanctuary and conservation project. “Nyanga’s name means ‘medicine woman’ and she is named after Maria Khosa, a traditional healer who saved my life after walking through a pride of angry lions in the Timbavati bushveld,” she said.

Tucker said she had spent the past 20 years studying the mythology, symbolism and indigenous knowledge systems behind the white lions. “I can say with authority there is no cultural basis for having a lioness killed because of human error,” she said.

Nyanga bit veteran zookeeper Joe Ramonetha on the neck after security gates were left open while he was feeding her at the Johannesburg Zoo’s breeding farm in Parys. He died before reaching a hospital. Various petitions and social media campaigns exhorted the zoo not to put the lioness down after the incident. As they became increasingly heated, the Jo’burg City Council took charge and refused to discuss her fate or release photos of the lioness.

Councillor Chris Vondo, head of community development on the Johannesburg mayoral committee, said this week that a “multidisciplinary task team consisting of various experts who serve in various aspects relating to the matter” had been set up to decide Nyanga’s fate. Their findings would be presented to the committee on Thursday.

Vondo would not say whether the task team was considering the trust’s offer to release her into the wild at Timbavati.

“The reason for handling this sensitive matter in this manner is that it involves the preservation of life and has an impact on peoples’ culture, behaviour and social norms. The city does not take such issues lightly,” he said.—Fiona McLeod

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