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The lion bone scam

The commodification of captive bred lions in South Africa for their bones has been ongoing since 2008, with the skeletons predominantly exported to Southeast Asia. 

The bones are used to replace tiger bones in fortified tiger wine and in Traditional Chinese Medicines (TCM). Lion bones are also carved into jewellery, like bracelets and other trinkets.

There are currently no national norms and standards covering the breeding and keeping of wildlife in captivity in South Africa. From an animal welfare point of view, the breeding of lions for their bones is hugely problematic, as there is no incentive for the breeder to keep the animals healthy or physically in good condition, as there is for trophy hunting. Hence, regular cases of malnutrition and disease are surfacing from within the industry.

The vast majority of lions for the bone trade are slaughtered and processed in South Africa in a number of slaughterhouses that are springing up around the country. There is no legislation to regulate these slaughterhouses and hence no mandatory welfare protocols, such as stunning prior to slaughter, that apply to farmed animals in abattoirs.

In 2016 at CITES CoP17, a compromise was reached to retain lions on Appendix II with the following annotation: Annual export quotas for trade in bones, bone pieces, bone products, claws, skeletons, skulls and teeth for commercial purposes, derived from captive breeding operations in South Africa, will be established and communicated annually to the CITES Secretariat.

In accordance with this CITES annotation, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) sets an annual export quota, which so far has been 800 lion skeletons in 2017 and 2018 from the captive lion population, making South Africa the world’s largest legal exporter of lion bones and skeletons.

Despite the endless records of lions in captivity being underfed, malnourished, neglected, inbred and cruelly confined in overcrowded enclosures, DEA has so far dissociated themselves from the welfare considerations of lions in captivity.

In the 2019 court case NSPCA vs DEA and SAPA in the Gauteng High Court, judge J. Kollapen ruled that the setting of the 2017 and 2018 lion bone quota were “unlawful and constitutionally invalid”. He explained “simply put, if as a country we have decided to engage in trade in lion bone, which appears to be the case for now, then at the very least our constitutional and legal obligations that arise from Section 24, NEMBA and the Plan require the consideration of animal welfare issues”.

Since the ruling, the 2019 quota is still pending from the now Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF).

Is the lion bone trade legal in South Africa?

How big is the lion bone trade in South Africa?

The lion bone industry in South Africa has been allowed to grow unregulated and unchecked for many years. Since 2008, nearly 7,000 lion skeletons weighing more than 70 tonnes have been exported from South Africa to Southeast Asia for use in Asian traditional medicine practices.

The setting of the lion bone export quota by DEFF lacks a sound scientific basis and is driven solely by the economic principle of supply and demand, i.e. South African lion breeders can produce more lion skeletons than the set quota and have built up stockpiles.

The Minister of DEFF, Barbara Creecy, stated recently that nearly 8,000 lions in 366 facilities make up our captive lion breeding industry. However, a full national audit of all (legal and illegal) captive breeding and keeping facilities in South Africa has never been undertaken and not even DEFF knows the true extend of the industry.

Lion skeletons exported with CITES permits by South Africa. Data from the CITES online trade database.

Is the harvesting of lion bones part of the canned hunting industry?

Even though the lion bone trade is perceived to be a “by-product” of the canned hunting industry, in 2017 a study of skeleton exports found that 91% included the skulls, indicating that many facilities exist purely to supply the Southeast Asian bone trade. 

Another study found that about one-third of the captive lion facilities in South Africa breed and keep lions purely for the trade of bones and other lion products (Williams & ‘t Sas-Rolfes, 2019).

Who buys lion bones?

The vast majority of exported lion skeletons (98%) are destined for Laos and Vietnam, which are also known hubs for illegal wildlife trafficking, including South African rhino products and/or derivatives. From there the bones are sold regionally, with China and Vietnam being the biggest consumers.

Why are lion bones so popular in Southeast Asia?

Lion bones have never been a recognised ingredient of TCM, but the demand in Asia for lion bones as an alternative to tiger bones has increased in recent years due to a decline in tiger numbers and a ban on the use of tiger products.

Tiger bones, alongside other body parts, have been used in the production of TCM and tonics for centuries to treat a variety of ailments, including arthritis, rheumatism, back problems, general weakness, and headaches. However, there is no credible evidence for the efficacy of the vast majority of these remedies.

Where experimental evidence suggests that tiger bones may have beneficial health effects, the calcium and collagen in the bones are identified as the likely active substances, and these can easily be obtained from alternative synthetic sources.

Is the lion bone trade linked to illegal wildlife trafficking?

As far back as 2012, Julian Rademeyer made the connection in his book Killing For Profit between the lion bone trade and rhino poaching, where both lion bones and rhino horn were being shipped via Thai national, Chumlong Lemtongthai, to one of the biggest wildlife traffickers in the world, Vixay Koesavang. The latter is the kingpin of the Xaysavang syndicate. In 2013, the US Government announced a US$1 million reward for information “leading to the dismantling” of this key wildlife crime network.

The legal trade in lion bones legitimises these TCM products among consumers and stimulates the demand, mostly as a substitute for tiger bones, and compromises enforcement efforts. This in turn incentivises poachers to target wild lions, tigers and other big cats and launder bones and other products into these markets. The industry has also been associated with the increasing demand for and trade in donkey meat and skins.

In 2018, an illegal Vietnamese lion and tiger bone syndicate operating in the North West Province in South Africa was uncovered. A joint Task Force saw the arrest of eight people and a ninth suspect handed himself over to police after the operation, which exposed the killing of 40 lions at a lion farm near Klerksdorp. Six of the suspects, Vietnamese nationals, were later found guilty and sent home with just a fine.                                                   

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