SA farmers fingered in lion smuggling
South African lion breeders are alleged to be part of an illegal network smuggling lion and cheetah cubs from Botswana to stock their farms.
At least five South African lion farmers have been fingered in investigations in which lionesses are killed in Botswana and their cubs smuggled to lion farms in South Africa, where a multimillion rand industry caters to the international trophy-hunting market.
"I don't want to say lion breeders as a whole are involved but there are definitely five or six people that I know of," said conservationist Sarel van der Merwe, chairman of the African Lion Working Group.
About 700 lions are killed in trophy hunts in South Africa each year, with the average price for a lion hunt being R360000, said Adri Kitshoff of the Professional Hunters' Association of SA.
There are about 160 lion-breeding farms in South Africa in which up to 5000 animals are held in captivity, according to Fiona Miles, of international rescue organisation Four Paws.
The hunting of captive-bred lions and the extremely lucrative trade in lion bones with Southeast Asia is legal in South Africa, despite mounting pressure for both activities to be banned. Wildlife experts believe that the canned hunting industry fuels the illegal cross-border trade in lions.
Botswana is known for its strict conservation policies. President Ian Khama, a keen conservationist, has decreed a total ban on hunting from January.
According to a report in the Botswana daily newspaper Mmegi, the trade in lion involves live animals, skins, trophies and game meat. Big cats from Botswana are fed into the "canned hunting" industry in South Africa.
"Everybody knows what is going on," said Van der Merwe.
"The guys in the Problem Animal Control Group (a government body thatdeals with "problem" predators in Botswana) all have cellphones. Instead of reporting problem animals to their superiors, they call farmers in South Africa."
If the problem animal is a lioness, she is shot and her cubs are smuggled out.
"Her carcass gets buried and later that is smuggled out too, to be sold to traders who deal with people in Asia."
Hawks spokesman Paul Ramaloko yesterday said he could not confirm any investigations or arrests in connection with cross-border animal smuggling.
Miles said the ''end-user'', as well as traders in lion bones and rhino horns, were often the same people.
A report released late last year shows that though Africa's lion population has plummeted - from about 100000 in the 1960s to only 32000 - South Africa has a stable lion population, with about 3200 wild lions in national parks and on farms, where they are allowed to roam freely.
Lions are classified as "vulnerable" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List. They are listed in Cites appendix 2, which allows limited trade in lions.
The regulations under which a captive-bred lion may be hunted are set by the provincial conservation authorities. Though the Free State has about 80% of South Africa's captive lion population, most lion hunting takes place in North West.
"In the Free State a lion has to roam free for three months before it can be hunted," said a hunting expert. "In North West, it only has to be set free 48 hours before the hunt."
Miles said: "Lions born in captivity lead a very sad life. They are removed from their mothers within a day or two of being born, hand-raised and used for petting.
"When too big to manhandle, they are put back into the breeding system and then finally end up being hunted. Generally, the living conditions of these animals is substandard and unnatural."
Canned hunting was banned in South Africa in 2007. T he SA Predator Association appealed against the banning and won the case in the Supreme Court of Appeal in 2011.
International hunters mount the animal's head after the hunt but are not allowed to take the bones and meat of the animal.
Farmers most often sell the animals' skeletons to traders who export them to Vietnam.
"We double our price, just by selling and delivering the bones to Vietnam," said a trader who legally exports lion bones.
According to Pieter Kat, of the international advocacy group Lionaid, tiger bones are used as a "health tonic" in traditional Chinese medicine and, like rhino horn, have no medicinal value.
As tiger populations become increasingly threatened - the population of wild tigers falling from around 100000 at the turn of the century to the current estimate of possibly as few as 3200 animals - lion bones are being used to replace tiger bones.
At present it is possible to export lion bones legally but traders have to obtain a permit.
A South African who trades in lion bones said he sent about 200 skeletons to Vietnam in a year.
"We've got only a small share of the market," he said on condition of anonymity. "I know of about six other people who are doing it."
- International advocacy group Avaaz will launch a "freedom of speech" case against the Airports Company of SA and media group Primedia in the Johannesburg High Court today in connection with an advertisement on a petition to criminalise the trade in lion bones that was taken down at OR Tambo International Airport last year.
The poster showed President Jacob Zuma looking on as a lioness was about to be executed with a handgun. According to Avaaz, the petition had about 750000 signatures from all over the world.