The lion bone scam

How an unregulated and unchecked industry has been allowed to explode

How big is this industry in SA?

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.

Since 2017, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has set a legal annual export quota of 800 lion skeletons from the captive lion population, making South Africa the largest legal exporter of lion bones and skeletons. The 2019 quota is still pending from the now Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF).

The setting of this legal lion bone quota 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.

Are captive lions bred especially for their bones and/or does the harvesting of bones form part of the lion hunting industry?

Even though the lion bone trade is perceived to be a “by-product” of the canned hunting industry, a study by EMS Foundation & Ban Animal Trading of skeleton exports in 2017 found that 91% included the skulls, indicating that many facilities exist purely to supply the Southeast Asian bone trade. A recent study commissioned by the Scientific Authority and undertaken by Williams and ‘t Sas-Rolfes, found 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.

Please tell us more about the conditions these lions are generally kept in?

Serious welfare concerns persist in relation to the rearing of captive-bred lions, particularly with the increasing profit-driven commodification of lion products. South Africa has no national norms and standards for the breeding and keeping of predators in captivity to address animal welfare and/or health concerns, an issue that straddles the mandates of DEFF and Department of Agriculture, Rural Development and Land Reform (DARDLR).

Existing legislation, such as the Animal Protection Act of 1962 and the Performing Animals Protection Act, are outdated and were never intended to deal with the welfare of wild animals held in captivity.

Some of the welfare concerns around the captive breeding and keeping of indigenous and exotic predators for commercial exploitation, including cruelty, unnatural behaviour, unsuitable conditions, disease, lack of medical care, and distress, but also a disregard for the animals most basic needs such as water, food and shelter. Inbreeding is also common which creates offspring with compromised health.

In the breeding and keeping of lions for the lion bone trade there is no incentive to keep lions in a healthy condition, when all that is to be used are their skeletons. In an attempt to maximise profits, welfare is not a priority for many lion facilities and the lack of adequate basic animal welfare conditions, such as sufficient water, food, shelter and medical care, is inevitable. This leads to malnourished and diseased lions.

Earlier this year, the owner of a facility in the North West Province was charged by the NSPCA with animal cruelty. Inspectors found 27 lions with severe mange, two lion cubs unable to walk due to Meningoencephalitis, obese caracal unable to groom themselves, overcrowded and filthy enclosures, inadequate shelter, lack of water, and parasitic conditions.

Lion slaughterhouses have been established to facilitate the mass slaughter of lions to supply skeletons for international trade with no regulations in place creating a range of welfare concerns. The lions are kept in cramped cages, unable to stand up let alone turn round, and often without access to adequate food and water. Lions are kept waiting sometimes for days for their turn to be slaughtered, often shot with compound bows in front of one another, with no veterinarian present, and skinned and dissected where they fall.

The main areas of SA where this occurs?

The vast majority of lion breeders and keepers are situated in the Free State, North West province and Limpopo.

The extent of captive lion breeding in SA.

The industry as it exists today in South Africa originated in the 1990s, when lions were bred to provide trophy animals. The number of lions bred in captivity has increased markedly over past 20 years and by 2009 there were more than 3,000, according to the South African Predator Breeders Association. In 2015, DEA estimated there were 6,000 lions in more than 200 facilities. Now, there are possibly 8,000-10,000 lions in 300+ facilities. If this industry is allowed to grow further unchecked, this could well reach 12,000-20,000 predators in the next 5 years.

As well as lions, breeding facilities in South Africa house an approximate 800-1,000 cheetahs, 400-500 tigers, as well as an unknown number of ligers (crossbreed between tiger and lion), leopards, caracal, servals, jaguars and other predators.

So far, no formal and relevant national audit of all (legal and illegal) captive breeding and keeping facilities in South Africa has been undertaken and even DEFF has no idea on the true extend of the number of facilities and predators involved in this industry.

Do you think the public at large are aware of this industry?

The public at large are generally not aware of the lion bone industry and even if they have heard of its existence, we believe people don’t realise the size of this sector, how it has been allowed to grow unregulated and unchecked for this long, or the animal suffering involved.

Who are the clients of the lion bone industry?

The vast majority of exported lion skeletons (98%) are destined for Laos and Vietnam, which are 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 have lion bones become so popular during the last decade or so?

Lion bones have never been a recognised ingredient of Traditional Chinese Medicines (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.

Although tiger bone, 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, there is no credible evidence for the efficacy of the vast majority of these remedies.

Where experimental evidence suggests that tiger bone may have beneficial health effects, for example as an adjuvant treatment for breast cancer, calcium and collagen are identified as the likely active substances, and these can easily be obtained from alternative synthetic sources.

The trade in lion bones legitimises the product 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 wildlife trafficking and to the increasing demand for and trade in donkey meat and skins.

Please tell us more about the legal aspects of lion bone production?

The captive lion breeding industry and substitute lion bone trade has been legitimised through an interpretation of Section 24 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa by DEFF, referred to as the aggregative approach. This explains the right to “Environment” enshrined in Section 24 as the “ecologically sustainable use” of resources. This interpretation has protected, and even promoted, the commodification of wildlife and is utilized to justify abhorrent practices that do not benefit conservation.

In 2016, the Constitutional Court stated that the human right to environment was connected to animal welfare. It expressly recognized the integrative approach and stated: “correctly links the suffering of individual animals to conservation and illustrates the extent to which showing respect and concern for individual animals reinforces broader environmental protection efforts. Animal welfare and animal conservation together reflect two intertwined values.”

The above interpretation by DEFF of Section 24 (aggregative approach) is problematic and not in line with the Constitutional Court judgement.

Although, the captive lion breeding industry is (in theory) currently legal, the conditions in which many of these animals are kept, are arguably unlawful in terms of existing animal protection legislation, such as the Animals Protection Act.

Furthermore, the fact that this industry is legal, does not make it ethically, morally or socially acceptable. Both nationally and internationally, the industry is considered unethical even by prestigious international hunting associations and pro-sustainable use countries.

In 2016, the IUCN World Conservation Congress issued a Motion urging the Government of South Africa to “terminate the practice of breeding lions in captivity for the purpose of 'canned shooting' through a structured, time-bound process”.

Please tell us more about the practicalities of farming with lions for their bones? For example, do the clients prefer bones of male lions or not, are the bones exported in the form of whole, slaughtered carcasses or are the carcasses de-boned and the bones exported? What happens to the meat?

The vast majority of lions are slaughtered and processed in South Africa in a number of slaughterhouses for the lion bone trade that are springing up around the country. Here, the bones are prepared for export and the meat often given to the workers.

There seems to be no specific preference for male or female bones, but a recent consumer attitude survey in China and Vietnam by the World Animal Protection showed a clear preference for wild rather than farmed big cat medicine, which is a worrying development for our wild lion population.

South Africa’s Meat Safety Act provides some protection for animals processed in slaughterhouses and the humans consuming their meat. However, lions are not included in the ambit of this Act and are not subject to the mandatory welfare protocols, such as stunning prior to slaughter, that apply to farmed animals in abattoirs. This is in spite of the fact that not only the bones, but the meat and other body parts of the slaughtered lions are destined for human consumption.

It is evident from the most recent inspections, as well as other reports, that lions in captive bred facilities also suffer from diseases, including tuberculosis, which can be transferred to humans. To date, there appears to have been little concern with, let alone any regulation pertaining to, the handling of zoonotic diseases in this industry.

It is often claimed that lions were a renewable resource and that lion breeding and farming actually add to the long-term survival of the species. Does FOUR PAWS agree? 

Wild lions are classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and their population declined by 43% over the last 20 years or so. As few as 20,000 lions might now remain in the wild occupying only 8% of their historic range. In South Africa, just over 3,000 wild and managed lions remain largely in fenced reserves. In comparison, our captive lion population is estimated to be 8,000-10,000.

The most prolific threats to wild lions are a lack of safe and suitable space, as a result of habitat degradation and fragmentation, and human-lion conflict. The captive breeding of lions does not address these threats and therefore is of no conservation value.

In its 2015 Biodiversity Management Plan for the lion in South Africa, the then DEA recognised that “captive lions are bred exclusively to generate money and currently have limited conservation value”. 

In February 2016, the African Lion Working Group (ALWG) issued a statement that “captive-bred lion…does not provide any demonstrated positive benefit to wild lion conservation efforts and therefore cannot be claimed to be conservation”. The statement concluded whilst more data were needed, the international lion bone trade that is currently being supplied by the South African captive-bred lion industry, may fuel an increased demand for wild lion bones elsewhere, thereby negatively impacting on wild lion populations. The ALWG firmly stated that the captive breeding of lions, hunting of captive-bred lion and the associated cub petting industry are not conservation tools.


Over 9,000 lions are held in captivity at over 260 breeding farms across South Africa.

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