A roaring trade: 6‚000 SA lion skeletons shipped to Asia

31 October 2017 - 12:24 By Samuel Gohn
Lion skeletons, skulls and claws, and (bottom right) cleaned lion bones ready for export to south-east Asia.
Lion skeletons, skulls and claws, and (bottom right) cleaned lion bones ready for export to south-east Asia.
Image: Vivienne Williams

More than 6‚000 lion skeletons have been exported from South Africa to south-east Asia in the last decade.

The bones come mainly from so-called “canned” lions — animals bred in captivity and shot by paying hunters — according to research led by a Wits University academic.

More than half of the lion skeletons‚ skulls‚ claws and teeth exported by South Africa go to Laos‚ with the rest going to Vietnam and Thailand‚ says Vivienne Williams of Wits.

The pace of exports accelerated ahead of a Convention in the Trade of Endangered Species change restricting trade to bones from captive animals from this year.

Writing in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE‚ Williams — from the School of Animal‚ Plant & Environmental Sciences at Wits — warns that the new curb could fuel poaching.

“Of particular concern are reports of Asian nationals enquiring about lion bones in eastern and southern Africa‚ and the evidence of at least one consignment exported from Uganda to Laos in 2016‚” she says.

“This implies deliberate bioprospecting and a more organised and less opportunistic approach to sourcing and acquiring wild lion body parts and bones.”

Lion bones have replaced tiger bones in traditional Chinese medicine‚ including “bone-strengthening” wine‚ according to Williams and colleagues from Wits and Oxford University in the UK.

They estimated that 6‚058 skeletons weighing at least 70 tonnes had been exported since 2008‚ based on the Cites trade database‚ Department of Environmental Affairs data and figures from the freight-forwarding company that handles transport through OR Tambo International Airport‚ in Johannesburg‚ for South Africa’s six bone traders.

Williams said exports surged in the last quarter of 2016‚ probably because traders were buying as many skeletons as possible in anticipation of this year’s crackdown.

“Another probable reason for the 2016 increase ... was the US’s decision to ban their hunters from importing captive-origin lion trophies.” Half of South Africa’s foreign hunters come from the US.

Says Williams: “While the international market for South African lion hunts has declined markedly‚ the domestic market has allegedly expanded (partly due to hunts being sold at reduced rates); however‚ South African hunters tend not to take the skulls as trophies‚ and so complete skeletons from trophy-hunted lions are entering the supply chain more frequently.”

- Gohn is on an SIT Study Abroad programme. He wrote this story in association with Round Earth Media