'Rhino syndicate targets lions'
The international syndicate allegedly responsible for using Thai prostitutes to "hunt" and export South African rhino horn is also said to be buying lion bones from local game farmers.
On Friday, two Thais, believed to be linked to alleged rhino horn poaching kingpin Chumlong Lemtongthai, were arrested at OR Tambo airport.
It is understood the men were trying to enter the country to buy lion bones for exporting to Southeast and east Asia for use as a substitute for tiger bones, a traditional treatment for rheumatism.
One of the men, Punpitak Chunchom, admitted in June to being in possession of lion bones without a valid permit and paid a R10000 fine.
In an affidavit, Chunchom said then that he worked for "Vichai Company" and had been sent to South Africa "to view and approve lion bones to be bought and shipped to Laos".
It subsequently emerged that "Vichai Company" is actually Xaysavang Trading Export/Import and its owner in Laos is said to be a man known as Vixay Keosavang.
Lemtongthai faces charges of fraud and contravening the Customs and Excise Act and is expected to appear in the Kempton Park Magistrate's Court tomorrow.
According to Chunchom's affidavit, the company was usually approached by South African farmers offering lion bones for sale.
And there was no shortage of takers.
From a response to a parliamentary question by DA MP Gareth Morgan about legal lion bone exports from North West between 2009 and 2010, it appears that at least five South African farmers and taxidermists have shipped at least 327 lion carcasses or skeletons, with a combined value of about R10-million, to Laos.
In every instance the importer is listed as "Vixay Keosavang".
Included on the list is Marnus Steyl, the South African lion breeder allegedly linked to Lemtongthai and who reportedly stood to make millions from supplying 50 sets of rhino horn to Xaysavang.
Steyl has previously denied any wrongdoing.
North West game farmer Sebastiaan Rothmann, another of the listed exporters, said he had dealt with Chunchom in 2009 but had not had contact with him since.
"He asked me if I would help them to get all the necessary permits in place to legally export lion bones.
"I picked up trouble when they wanted to take [lion] teeth and kneecaps on the plane with them. I advised them not to do that and to follow procedures," he said.
Another listed exporter, Jacobus van der Westhuizen, of the breeding farm Letsatsi la Africa, said all his permits were "more than legal".
Van der Westhuizen said it was the responsibility of the provincial departments of the environment, which issue permits for the export of lion skeletons, to ensure they were not shipped to people with questionable records.
"I don't have a clue what they [importers] do with the animals . if you want to mount [the bones] as an ornament that's your problem," he said.
DARK ART OF CAPTIVE BIG CAT BREEDING
IF YOU'VE ever been to a captive lion breeding project it is possible that the cub you cuddled and bottle-fed might have been shot as a hunting trophy or its carcass exported.
Fiona Miles, director of Four Paws South Africa, a lion rehabilitation programme, said captive-lion breeding is little more than "factory farming", intended to extract maximum value from the protected species.
She described how the farms operate:
- Cubs are separated from mothers three days after birth and tourists are charged to pet or bottle feed them for as much as R100 a hour. Early separation often causes stress and health problems.
- At the age of two years, females can be used for breeding purposes. Miles said a lioness comes into oestrus as soon as her cubs are taken away, so they are often continuously bred.
- Other lions are sidelined into the trophy hunting system where a lioness can fetch between R50000 and R150000, while impressive males have fetched as much as R500000.
- When the lions die, or are injured or ill, there is possibly a "niche market" for their bones. The skeletons can fetch between R20000 and R30000.