More than a year ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reacting to a legal petition from The HSUS, HSI, and other animal welfare and conservation groups, announced that the United States was placing African lions on the list of threatened and endangered species. One consequence of enhanced U.S. protections for lions was that American trophy hunters would have a much harder time importing the heads and hides of lions they shot in Africa. They’d have to prove that killing lions enhanced the protection of the species – a tall order given that human-caused killing has been decimating lions.
South Africa, it turns out, is the center of the lion hunting industry. Trophy hunters kill a small number of wild lions there, but they kill hundreds of lions in captive hunts, in which lions bred for killing are shot within fenced enclosures from whose confines they cannot escape. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that trophy hunting of captive lions does not contribute to conservation in any way, and has not allowed any such imports since extending federal protections to the species.
It isn’t a small, sidelight business; there are nearly 8,000 captive lions living behind fences throughout South Africa. These lions are bred for cub petting and lion walks (where paying customers get to interact with the lions), and after some time, they are offered up for shooting for trophies in a guaranteed kill arrangement. American trophy hunters do two-thirds of all trophy killing of the captive lions, so the decision to not allow captive lion trophy imports has had a devastating impact on this sordid industry in South Africa.
Now, the South African lion breeders and hunters, grappling with the loss of their cash-cow enterprise of offering up lions for shooting by wealthy foreign hunters, has come up with an alternative plan – one that is perhaps equally as appalling and destructive as trophy hunting of captive big cats. Specifically, they have cooked up a plan to kill captive lions and then sell off their bones in international trade. This week, the South African government essentially blessed the idea of exporting as many as 800 captive-bred lion skeletons to some nations throughout the world (the lion parts cannot come into the United States, for the same reason that the heads and hides are restricted).
The trade in lion parts is not a new concern for many African nations. At the September meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Johannesburg, nine lion range states proposed to increase protection of the African lion under CITES, which would have prohibited all international commercial trade in lion parts. Their proposal identified trade in lion bones as one of the major threats to wild lion populations, as these products are in high demand in Asia where they are powdered and used in tonics such as “tiger wine,” which consumers mistakenly believe cures pain and disease, or works as an aphrodisiac. Just last year two lions were poached in Limpopo National Park, Mozambique, near the border with Kruger National Park, with their bones completely removed, likely for export to Asia.
But the South African government actively opposed the proposal at CITES and led the way in fending it off. In the wake of that blocking maneuver, the South Africa Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) held a meeting last week with a range of stakeholders to discuss adoption of a quota on the exports of parts from captive-bred lions.
Trading in lion parts is not much different from the ivory trade or rhino horn trade. The presence of a legal trade will drive more and more poaching of wild lions. It goes without saying that bones of captive-bred lions are absolutely indistinguishable from the bones of lions in the wild, which offers a perfect opportunity for wildlife criminals to launder wild bones as captive and creates an implementation nightmare for law enforcement.
South Africa has opened a brief public comment period to collect input on this recommended quota. South Africa’s reputation as a tourist destination has been damaged by the revelations about its captive trophy hunting industry. Now, it should face the same level of scrutiny for this mass killing and bone harvesting program.
It’s time for the world to roar and help stop this abuse of lions from occurring in the months ahead. We’re certainly raising our voices, and we hope you will, too.