Lions stand by a large ruler during photo-call for the annual weigh-in at London Zoo.   File picture: REUTERS/NEIL HALL
Lions stand by a large ruler during photo-call for the annual weigh-in at London Zoo. File picture: REUTERS/NEIL HALL

More than 6‚000 lion skeletons have been exported from SA to Southeast Asia in the last decade. The bones come mainly from lions killed in canned hunting — animals bred in captivity and shot by paying hunters — according to research led by a University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) academic.

More than half the lion skeletons‚ skulls‚ claws and teeth exported by SA 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 (Cites) change that restricted trade to bones from captive animals, from this year.

Writing in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE‚ Williams — from the school of animal‚ plant and 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 bio-prospecting 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 estimate that 6‚058 skeletons weighing at least 70 tonnes have 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 SA’s six bone traders.

Williams says 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 America’s decision to ban their hunters from importing captive-origin lion trophies." Half SA’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."

Grohn is on an SIT Study Abroad programme; he wrote this story in association with Round Earth Media

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