Exporting lion bones is killing South Africa’s brand.

So says director of the environmental non-profit organisation EMS Foundation Michele Pickover. She was responding to the new lion bones export quota that Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa announced on Monday.

"[I am] completely gobsmacked. The fact that we are actually taking lions and killing them for their bones; shame on SA. The worst part [is] that tourists will not want to come to this country‚" Pickover said.

"They [the Department of Environmental Affairs] might be supporting it [the canned lion industry]‚ but they’re slitting their own throats‚ because they are killing brand SA and killing tourism in this country."

Molewa and the department said on Monday that 1‚500 lion skeletons can be exported a year from SA; the quota is effective retrospectively from June 7.

The department said the quota was based on new evidence from a research project by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) and the universities of Witwatersrand (Wits)‚ Oxford and Kent‚ which analyse and monitor the lion bone trade in SA.

"All activities involving the African lion‚ including hunting‚ possession and trade are regulated through a permit system‚ and our policies are supported by solid scientific evidence," Molewa said.

The Department of Environmental Affairs said the research found:

• There was a growing stockpile of lion bones due to restrictions;

• There had been no discernible increase in poaching of wild lion‚ but there appeared to be an increase in the poaching of captive bred lions for body parts such as heads‚ faces‚ paws and claws; and

• The captive breeding industry was in a state of flux as breeders responded in different ways to the US’s restrictions on trophies and the imposition of the skeleton export quota.

The department said it had informed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) secretariat of its decision in line with a 2015 decision taken at the 17th conference of the parties to Cites.

Pickover said she had not seen the research‚ but would request it "urgently". She said some of the research by these institutions found there was reason for concern.

"But the biggest question is: Why are they doing this? There is so much damning evidence to show there is a huge problem with lion bone trade‚" Pickover said.

"There just is not enough information and as a conservation agency they should be using the precautionary principle which is‚ if you don’t know enough‚ don’t do it."

Pickover said the EMS Foundation would release a report on the lion bone trade later this week. She described it as "pretty explosive".

The department said there was a demand for lion bones and‚ if supply was restricted from the captive breeding facilities‚ dealers might seek illegal ways to source bones or start poaching lions.

"SA has learnt through its experience with rhino and abalone poaching that these illegal supply chains are very difficult to disband once they become established‚ and seeks to avoid such a scenario materialising," the department said.

However, Pickover argued that once trade was legalised it became a cover for the illegal trade.

"Abalone is a perfect example of that and now we have a domestic rhino issue as well."

According to new lion bones export quota, which the Department of Environmental Affairs will regulated, the following process must be followed:

• Applications to export lion bones must be lodged with provincial conservation authorities;

• Provincial conservation authorities must then confirm the quota is available with the Department of Environmental Affairs;

• Provincial conservation authorities will assess the application and issue or deny a permit;

• The permit must show the permitted quota;

• All skeletons must be packed separately at the supplier;

• Skeletons must be weighed‚ tagged and a DNA sample taken; and

• Skeletons must be inspected and weighed when they leave the country and checked against permits.

SA is one of only seven countries that has a substantial lion population. There are 3‚500 African lions in the wild and about 7‚000 are kept in 260 captive breeding facilities.