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SA breeders embrace growing Asian demand for lion bones

Faranaaz Parker

Activists and lion breeders are again at odds over "canned" hunting - legal in SA - which some argue is no more unethical than farming chickens.

Lion bones are a sought-after ingredient used to make lion bone wine, a substitute for a traditional Asian cure-all -  tiger bone wine. (Gallo)

Desktop activists have joined conservationists to raise awareness about the growing demand for lion bones from users of traditional Chinese medicine, but breeders have defended the right to hunt lions born in captivity.

Last week, the online activist organisation Avaaz.com launched a petition imploring President Jacob Zuma to ban the trade of lion bones. "As citizens from around the world with great respect for South Africa and its magnificent natural heritage, we appeal to you to ban the cruel and senseless trade in lion bones and organs, which is encouraging an industry that could drive lions to the brink of extinction," says the petition, which garnered over 630 000 signatures in a week.

Lion bones are a sought-after ingredient used to make lion bone wine, a substitute for the traditional Asian cure-all, tiger bone wine, which fetches up to R250 000 a case at illicit auctions.

Conservationists have warned that captive breeding and canned hunting programmes in South Africa are providing a source for the lion bone trade. Canned lion hunting is legal in South Africa, as is the exporting of lion carcasses. Lion populations across Africa have been reduced by 90% over the past 50 years, but lion breeders say their operations have nothing to do with the continent’s wild populations.

The price of trophies
Breeders can benefit financially a number of times from the same lion. Cubs are often rented as tourist attractions and visitors pay to pet and interact with them. The fee paid by visitors is then fed back into captive breeding programmes. As adults, the lions are sold to hunters in canned hunting arrangements.

Farmers and hunting operators charge in the region of about $20 000 (R160 000) as a “trophy price” and hunters can expect to pay around $18 000 (R145 000) for other services, excluding taxidermy.

But the hunters are only interested in the head and skin of the lion, and often leave the bones with the breeder, who can then sell the bones, with a government permit, to Asian buyers for use in making lion bone wine.

It’s estimated that a complete lion skeleton can sell for as much as R80 000. Last year it emerged that over 1 400 lion and leopard trophies were exported from the country in 2009 and 2010.  

According to the environmental affairs minister, in 2010, 153 live lions were exported as well as 46 lion skins, 235 carcasses, 592 trophies, 43 bodies and 41 skulls. It was noted that these figures were incomplete as the provinces had not yet captured all their data. Yet there was a 150% growth in exports of lion products from 2009 and 2010.

'Amplifying an illegal industry
Chris Mercer, director of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting, said hunting captive-bred lions was "hideously damaging" to conservation. "It’s farming with alternative livestock. They're only doing it because they make more money farming lions than they do sheep or cattle. But they don't realise they're harming the wild populations by creating and amplifying an illegal industry and allowing it to prosper," he said.

Mercer said he believes the export of lion bones and in fact the entire canned hunting industry should be banned. He pointed out that there was a huge overlap between the rhino horn and lion bone trade. "Many of the Asiatic groups dealing with lion bones are the same people dealing with rhino horn," he said.

He criticised government for taking a simplistic view of the matter and overlooking the dangers the lion bone trade poses. "The very people who are doing our rhino horn [poaching] are making money out of this. You can just imagine how the illegal trade is going to piggy-back itself onto this legal trade," he warned.

Banning the entire trade will be difficult. There are almost 200 lion breeders in the country, many of whom are part of the powerful Predator Breeders’ lobby group. The breeding of lions for trophy hunting is a lucrative business. In 2009, the economic value of trophy hunting was estimated to be between R153-million and R832-million.

Rapidly going extinct
But Pieter Kat, director of the UK-based conservation organisation LionAid, said a lot could be achieved simply by placing a ban on the export of lion bones. Lions are listed on appendix two of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which means that a government permit is needed to export any lion products. "It will take a position of responsibility by South Africa to say, 'No more, we will not allow this,'" he said.

"South Africa is within its rights [to] say no more export permits," said Kat.

Kat said that while one could argue about the ethics of breeding lions just to be shot, it was important to bear in mind that whatever South Africa did in terms of its legal trade in lion bones would affect wild lion populations all over the continent.

Kat pointed out that there are only about 20 000 lions left on the entire continent – down from about 200 000 in the 1970s. In the past few years Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and the Republic of Congo-Brazzaville have lost all their lions, while countries like Nigeria, Malawi and Senegal have only a few dozen lions left.

"We're dealing with a species that is rapidly going extinct but because we are not really focused on lions – we're talking about elephants and rhinos – it’s a silent extinction," he said.

He warned that allowing the trade in lion bones to proliferate would stimulate a demand for the product. "Soon someone will [realise] it's cheaper for to poach than to pay the owner of a captive animal to get the bones," he said.

Breeding for exploitation is only human
But Professor Pieter Potgieter, chairperson of the South African Predator Breeders’ Association, defended the industry saying there is little difference between breeding lions and any other mammal. "Chickens are killed by humans. How are lions different from them?" he asked.

"In principle a lion is not more or less than a crocodile, an ostrich or a butterfly. It's a form of life. Breeding animals for human exploitation is a natural human process," he said.

Potgieter said that breeding and hunting lions was only deplorable in the eyes of the public because a "sympathetic myth has been created about the lion as the king of the animals".

He justified the practice, saying the export of lion bones is a legal trade authorised by the department of environmental affairs and denied that South Africa's approach to captive breeding and canned lion hunting was feeding into the Asian demand for lion bones. "I don't think that market is being created by the South African situation. That would happen anyhow and the more the Asian tiger gets extinct, the more people will try to get hold of lion bones as a substitute," he said.

In 2007 former environmental affairs minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk attempted to put the brakes on canned lion hunting. It was widely reported that the activity had been banned in the country but this is not the case.

Some changes to legislation were made but the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the Predator Breeders’ Association and overturned an attempt to enforce a two-year waiting period during which a captive-bred lion would be allowed to roam freely in an extensive wildlife system before being hunted, which conservationists had labeled an attempt to "pretend that the lion is wild".

The environmental affairs department did not respond to questions by the time of going to print.


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