A damning report on the Commodification of Our Lions

Criminal syndicates may use the legal trade in lion bones from our captive lion population, as a cover for illegal wildlife trade, reveals a new report.

Words by DR LOUISE DE WAAL

A damning report titled “Cash before Conservation, an overview of the breeding of lions for hunting and bone trade” in South Africa, was released by the UK-based Born Free Foundation on the 19th March 2018.

Will Travers OBE (President, Born Free Foundation) says “The inauguration of South Africa’s new President, Cyril Ramaphosa heralds the opportunity for a fresh start. Along with all the many other challenges the nation must address, bringing an end, in an intelligent and humane way, to the scourge of lion breeding farms and the trade in captive-bred lions should be a priority”.

South Africa holds a captive lion population of approximately 7,000-8,000 animals kept in around 260 breeding/captive facilities and is considered the world’s top destination for trophy hunting of captive bred lions.

The export quota of 800 lion skeletons from the captive bred population makes SA also the world’s largest legal exporter of lion bones for Traditional Chinese Medicine in Asia.

While our wild lions are in peril across Africa, the rapid expansion of the commercial lion breeding and associated captive lion hunting and lion bone industry in South Africa is a real cause for concern. At the same time, commoditization of our wildlife resources has the full support of the DEA.

Links to Illegal Wildlife Trade

SA issued export permits for nearly 5,400 lion skeletons between 2008-15 of which the vast majority were destined for Lao PDR and Vietnam. Both countries are renowned for their roles as key conduits for the international illegal wildlife trade.

The Tipping Point report stated that 153 export permits for lion skeletons were issued to Vinasakhone Trading in the Lao PDR, a company repeatedly at the centre of extensive illegal wildlife trade.

The very same company was authorized by the Lao PDR Government to traffic US$16.9 million of animal products through Laos during 2014, according to The Guardian.

“It is known that the illegal trade in rhino horn is operated through organized international criminal syndicates”, says the Born Free report.

Is it therefore a reasonable assumption to make that the increase in poaching of rhinos in South Africa since 2007 is linked to the growth in the legal trade of lion bones?

Is the DEA defending the indefensible?

According to the report, the DEA has for the past 20 years consistently facilitated the growth of South Africa’s captive predator breeding industry. In response to questions submitted by independent researchers to the DEA in August 2017 (full transcript available in Appendix 1 of the Born Free report), the DEA confirmed that:

  • It has not undertaken any scientific research demonstrating the conservation value of captive lion breeding. Neither on the impact of lion bone trade and/or hunting of captive lions on the wild lion populations in South Africa or elsewhere in Africa. No scientific data is available of the impact of the legal lion bone trade on the illegal wildlife trade.

The Department only recently commissioned a three-year research project on these issues. Nevertheless, Minister Molewa has on several occasions insisted that the lion bone trade has no impact on wild lions.

“It is alarming that the DEA has issued an export quota of 800 skeletons for 2017, and issued permits for 1,000s of skeletons and large quantities of bones since 2008, without having completed any of the research it has now commissioned. This also applies to the continued breeding of lions for hunting”, says the Born Free report.

  • It has no independent figures demonstrating the financial worth of the captive predator breeding sector to the national economy. At the same time, its contribution to socio-economic development is often used as a pro-consumptive wildlife utilisation motivation by the Department.
  • It has no up-to-date figures on the number of jobs the captive lion breeding industry creates – latest estimates (2009) a total of 379 full time jobs. Whereas, the Department uses job creation as an important driver in support of the sector.
  • The lack of capacity, in terms of funding and skills, at provincial level has still not been resolved, which hinders the proper management of permits and compliance of the breeding and hunting of captive bred lions.
  • A centralised database system has still not been put into place. Hence, the DEA has no independent figures on how many lions are held in captivity and fully relies on South African Predator Association (SAPA) statistics.
  • There is no animal welfare legislation in place relevant to the captive predator breeding industry. Draft Norms and Standards for the Welfare of Captive Lions have been due by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) since September 2016.

The Born Free report concludes that “if South Africa is to be regarded as a responsible and ethical custodian of its wildlife, and a country that cares about wildlife elsewhere in Africa and across the globe, urgent action needs to be taken to curtail the captive breeding of lions and the sale of their bones and skeletons”.

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