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The South African government has announced a landmark decision to end the country’s controversial captive lion industry which includes canned hunting, petting zoos and the commercial trade in lion bones. Whether the legal bone trade has stimulated poaching and laundering are fiercely debated questions among lion conservation experts. So too is whether ending the captive lion industry will put wild lion populations at greater risk of poaching, given that international demand for lion bone will persist.

The South African government made a landmark decision in May 2021 to end the country’s controversial captive lion industry. One reason given by Barbara Creecy, the environment minister, for shutting down the captive industry was “the risk that trade in lion parts poses to stimulating poaching and illegal trade”, while the official government report highlighted the risk of the “laundering of poached parts” into the legal market. The decision was also shaped by the accusations of severe neglect levelled by conservationists and animal welfare groups for years against the captive industry. The government’s assessment also found that the negative associations of captive lions were damaging to South African ecotourism.

Yet whether the legal bone trade has stimulated lion poaching, and whether bones from poached wild lions really have been “laundered”, are fiercely debated issues. So too is the question of whether ending the captive lion industry will put wild lion populations at greater risk of poaching, as international demand for lion bone will likely continue.

The rise and fall of the lion bone industry

There are estimated to be as many as 12,000 lions in captive facilities in South Africa. These lions are used for hunting, lion interactions and petting, as well as for commercial trade in lion parts, principally bones. Since the first permit to export lion skeletons from South Africa under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) was issued in 2008, an industry has emerged in which intermediary lion bone traders buy skeletons from various breeding and hunting facilities and sell them to buyers in East and Southeast Asia, where they are sold as an alternative to (or marketed as) tiger bones for use in traditional medicine. An estimated 98% of lion bone exports from South Africa between 2008 and 2015 were to Laos and Vietnam – countries deeply implicated in the illegal wildlife trafficking of species such as rhino. There is also local demand in South Africa for lion parts that are used in traditional African medicine.

The May 2021 decision acts on the recommendation of the High-Level Panel of experts on wildlife conservation. Most of the panel recommended an immediate halt to captive lion breeding, use of captive lions in tourism and the trade in derivatives such as bones, arguing that the industry causes more economic damage than benefit.

Yet the panel could not reach a unanimous position. Two minority positions were also published, which did not recognise that laundering of poached parts is a major risk to wild populations, and recommended different ways of monitoring and regulating the captive industry and bone exports.

Have wild lion bones been ‘laundered’ through the South African market?

Some interest groups have voiced suspicions that the South African market provides a cover for laundered bones. Stephen Palos, chief executive of the Confederation of Hunting Associations of South Africa (CHASA), said that he has little doubt that laundering of bones has taken place, though this is more likely to be through volumes of captive-bred bones being understated in export shipments than poached lion bones being deliberately included.

But in the view of many conservation scientists and researchers, these suspicions are not backed up by evidence. “I will state quite emphatically that both the risk of and evidence for ‘laundering’ of lion body parts through South African legal channels since [a quota was imposed by a CITES ruling in 2016] is negligible to almost nonexistent,” said Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, an economist who studies legal and illegal wildlife markets and sat on the High-Level Panel.

The legal channel for exporting lion bones via CITES from South Africa included several monitoring checks, including DNA testing of lion bones and measuring of skeleton weights, to ensure that the correct individual skeletons were included in export shipments. A 2021 study reviewing the compliance of CITES lion bone exports with these monitoring systems found that there were few instances of suspected criminal activity. In the view of Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, the review showed that the system was rigorous enough that “there really wasn’t much scope for using that system for any significant scale of illegal trade of wild-harvested lions or other big-cat products”.

Other laboratory-based techniques such as mass spectrometry can be used to differentiate between wild and captive-bred lion bones, and could provide the key to finding out whether laundering has taken place. Yet according to David Newton, southern Africa director of the wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC, these techniques remain in early stages of development and have not been widely used in lion bone exports. Now that legal exports are to end, in his view, it might never be known whether laundering really was widespread or not.

Some experts also question whether laundering would make sense from an economic perspective. The quota, imposed from 2017, was substantially lower than the number of skeletons that would be available from the captive lion industry. Laundering poached bones from wild lions would therefore involve additional cost and risk. “One has to look at the motivation for that. Why would you launder wild bones as captive-bred bones, when lions from captive populations are so easy to access and captive bones are just perfectly acceptable for the end destination?” said Newton.

However, some conservationists report that a parallel, illegal trade has emerged, which may circumvent the CITES monitoring system. According to Kerri Rademeyer, CEO of the Zambian non-profit organization Wildlife Crime Prevention, this parallel trade takes place in multiple forms including “lion cake” – a preparation of boiled down and compressed lion bone for medicinal use, which could be more difficult to track than the bones themselves.

Recent trends in lion poaching: Is there a link to the bone trade?

Some conservationists believe that the legal trade in lion parts is stimulating international demand and leading to an increase in lion poaching, particularly in countries bordering South Africa. A key piece of evidence in this debate is a 2019 study of lion killings in Limpopo National Park, Mozambique, which neighbours South Africa’s Kruger National Park. The study found that the targeted poaching of lions for body parts accounted for 61% of lion mortalities between 2011 and 2018.

“It looked like it was coinciding with South Africa’s legal export of body parts, because of its geographic nature and the fact that it was right next door to South Africa,” said Kristoffer Everatt, project manager for the Lion Program at Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organisation, and an author of the study. According to Everatt, perceptions shifted in the Limpopo area around 2013-2014, from lion bones being a comparatively “worthless” commodity, to parts such as bones, teeth and claws suddenly being perceived as high value.

Further analysis by Panthera has compared rates of poaching in Limpopo to the number of lion export permits issued per year in South Africa. “The patterns there were just so similar. I have to believe there’s a link,” said Paul Funston, Lion Program Senior Director at Panthera, though acknowledging that it is difficult to prove this link statistically.

Reports of lion poaching for parts, and seizures of parts such as bones, teeth and claws, have been on the rise in some parts of southern Africa. According to Carlos Lopes Pereira, head of Law Enforcement and Anti-poaching at Mozambique’s National Administration of Conservation Areas, illegal demand for lion parts has risen in areas across Mozambique.

Yet the data suggesting that there is a trend towards poaching for body parts – of any type – is by no means uniform. “Colleagues and I used long-term mortality data from around Ruaha in Tanzania, and Hwange in Zimbabwe, and thankfully found no evidence indicating a trend towards the killing of lions for commercial body parts,” said Amy Dickman, director of the Ruaha Carnivore Project. However, she adds, trends in different lion ranges may be very different. Others working and researching in Tanzania also argued that there was, as yet, no evidence there to suggest a trend towards poaching for body parts for international trade.

Others disagree that an increase in poaching can be linked to the South African legal trade in lion parts. Lopes Pereira, for example, argued that the increase in poaching for parts in Mozambique only began several years after the trade became established in South Africa, making it hard to establish a direct connection with the legal trade. Instead, parts from poached and poisoned lions from Mozambique are largely sold on to Asian traffickers or smuggled to neighbouring countries including Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi before being shipped to Asian destination markets.

“I personally disagree with the narrative … that the poaching in Limpopo National Park is or was driven to any significant degree by the demand for lion bones and especially that South Africa’s legal trade somehow had a causal role to play here,” said ’t Sas-Rolfes. In his view, poaching in this particular area was driven by a number of factors, such as protest-related killings of lions by communities as a backlash to the militarised approach to conservation taken in Limpopo National Park, and the presence in the area of wildlife trafficking networks that had previously dealt in rhino horn who could also have begun trafficking in other wildlife such as pangolin and lion body parts. 

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