Lions are losing out in South Africa, whether through trade in legally-sourced lion bones, illegal poaching, or trophy hunting. However you look at it, they can’t win. That’s because there has been a surge in the popularity of lion bones.
Since 2008, by which time there had been a huge drop in the number of tigers in the wild, traders from countries such as China and Vietnam have been taking an interest in South African lions. Chinese medicine has traditionally used the powdered bones of tigers to cure many illnesses, such as rheumatism, ulcers, and stomach aches. Tiger bones have also been credited with boosting virility in men. Apparently, now that the tiger population is waning, Chinese medicine turns toward lions.
Impact of Chinese medicine
With tiger bones increasingly scarce, vendors are replacing them with the remains of lions. Traders soon realised that South Africa could be a promising source. It is home to 4,000 to 5,000 captive lions, with a further 2,000 roaming freely in protected reserves, such as the Kruger National Park. Furthermore, such trade is perfectly legal, never mind that the population of lions in Africa overall is in steep decline.
South African officials have reported an increase in the number of permits they’re issuing for export of lion bones from certified trophy dealers. This means that tourists come to the country and pay big money to take part in a controlled hunt, but if they don’t want to keep the body or bones of the lion, the breeders can strip the lion and sell its bones for a handsome profit to Chinese and South-East Asian dealers.
What can be done about poaching?
South African officials signed an agreement with the Vietnamese government to prevent and discourage poaching. Under the agreement, there would be cooperation between law enforcement in the two countries and a mutual compliance to enforce international poaching laws within both countries.
This agreement targets rhinos specifically, since South Africa is home to about 80 percent of the world’s rhino population, while Vietnam is one of several Asian countries with a high demand for rhino horn. Clearly, this agreement should focus on lions as well as rhinos.
As with the issue of rhino poaching, there are two schools of thought: should South Africa push for a responsible trade in lion bones to feed the surging demand in Asia, rather than risk losing its wild lion populations to poaching, or should the trade in lion bones be extinguished entirely. As conservationist Karen Trendler, the coordinator of the Rhino Response Strategy, believes:
“When lion bone was first mentioned, everyone nearly fell off their chairs and expressed revulsion and horror. Now, it is being discussed in the same vein as rhino horn, and the debate on whether and how to supply the market. It is becoming more mainstream and unacceptable. We don’t know what this market is; it’s going into a bottomless pit.”