ems foundation logo

Claws, teeth and paws: a clandestine industry reduces wild lions to mere objects and creates health risks for workers and consumers

AUTHOR Ross Harvey (PhD, Economics)

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, likely attributable to the consumption of pangolin meat at a ‘wet’ wildlife meat market in Wuhan, China, the Chinese state has imposed a ban on the sale of wildlife and wildlife products. Even though this move is motivated by a desire to mitigate contagion risk, it is in keeping with China’s desire to portray itself as an ‘ecological civilisation’. An ecologically minded civilisation does not promote the domestication of wildlife to be farmed as mere consumables. South Africa could learn a lesson here.

As Don Pinnock writes, the Chinese ban – implemented on 24 February 2020 – sounds an overdue death knell for South Africa’s lion bone industry, not least because of the extensive health risks of exporting lion bones to Asia. Workers in the industry are at risk of contracting bovine TB, giving the lie to the idea that the captive lion industry provides quality jobs to poor rural South Africans. Consumers are similarly at risk of contracting deadly diseases through drinking lion bone wine or lion bone cakes and so forth. Given these risks, detailed in a letter penned by the EMS Foundation to Minister Barbara Creecy, it is high time that the South African state terminated its captive lion breeding industry, as urged by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as far back as 2016. 

Why exactly does the South African government continue to support the industry and what myths do its proponents sell to maintain the breeding, hunting and skinning of captive lions? And why should they stop it immediately? 

Panthera leo (the African lion) is in trouble. Over the last 21 years we have lost 43% of our populations. It is likely that fewer than 32,000 are left in the wild, with some scientists favouring the lower-bound estimate of 23,000. Prey base depletion and associated habitat loss and fragmentation are the primary threats, along with bushmeat hunting, retaliatory killing for livestock predation and excessive trophy hunting. 

new scientific paper indicates that a further threat is emerging. Researchers Everatt, Kokes and Lopez-Pereira show that the targeted poaching of lions for their body parts is increasing in at least one resident lion population in Mozambique. The illegal wildlife trade, estimated at a value of roughly $23 billion a year, is one of the single biggest organised crime challenges after arms, narcotics and human trafficking. Within this malaise, the Asian demand for tiger and lion bones, and other body parts is apparently driving at least some illegal killing. From 2011 to 2018, 49 lion deaths in the studied sub-population were caused by humans. Targeted poaching for body parts destined for the illegal trade accounted for at least 35% of these. The nature of the parts being targeted also changed over the study period, with a number of later mortalities having the entire skeleton removed to feed the bone trade, although poachers appear to favour skulls, teeth and claws as this ‘optimises’ returns and reduces transport costs. 

The authors write that this emerging threat ‘has the potential to have devastating impacts on lion populations mirroring the effects similar pressures have had on wild tiger populations and may be having on jaguar populations… The targeted poaching of lions accounted for 35% of known human caused mortalities across the landscape and 61% of lion mortalities in and immediately adjoining Limpopo National Park, far surpassing the combined effects of retaliatory killings of lions following livestock conflict events and deaths associated with by-catch from bushmeat poaching.’ Lion killing, even on an apparently small scale, is devastating for a number of reasons, not least because the death of just one male lion severely disrupts pride structure (through infanticide) and social cohesion. The recent arrest of a Botswana national in possession of lion bones and a live cheetah (for sale to South African traders) also point to the likelihood that wild animals are being illegally caught and laundered into the legal system. 

Everatt and his co-authors conclude: ‘The legal export of lion parts from captive lion breeders in South Africa may also fuel an illegal trade in lion body parts to be used within Traditional Chinese Medicine markets or curios. While direct evidence linking the legal trade in captive sourced lion parts from South Africa to the targeted poaching of wild lion populations has to date been scant, there is reasonable concern of a link… Stakeholders should adopt holistic and collaborative approaches to preventing and halting the poaching of and trade in the body parts of imperilled cats.’

Far from moving to halt the trade in body parts of imperilled cats, the South African government continues to engage in a deathly roulette of allowing the breeding of lions and other big cats in captivity, which are then used for tourist interaction, followed by canned hunting and/or slaughter for the bone trade. Its rationale is that a 2018 non-detriment finding (NDF) by the Scientific Authority indicated that there is no discernible negative impact on wild lions from the captive breeding industry within South Africa. How it may affect other wild lion populations in shared ecosystems (such as those in the Mozambican section of the Limpopo National Park) is not considered. It also speculates that captive lions may provide a buffer against wild lion exploitation through satisfying some consumer demand for lion parts. It doesn’t acknowledge the concern raised by Everatt and others that demand may be inflamed through legal supply, which would in turn undermine demand reduction campaigns. 

Beyond this, the South African government is up against a powerful and entrenched lobby, the combination of the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa (PHASA) and the South African Predators Association (SAPA). In a presentation to parliament in November 2019, they tried to make the case for the conservation value of captive big cat breeding in South Africa. It fell rather flat. SAPA says that it represents 60 breeders, a rather small proportion of the 366 facilities that the government thinks exist. PHASA represents a large volume of hunters that have chosen to remain despite the organisation’s endorsement of captive-origin lion hunting. 

Their first argument is that euthanising the 8,000 or more lions currently in captivity would amount to a ‘waste of a resource’. This phraseology alone callously reduces iconic wild animals to mere ‘faunal biological resources.’ This is how it views and even defines ‘conservation’. Conservation should rather be defined as any activity that directly contributes to the survival of species in the wild (and their habitats) and does not actively detract from that end. 

Second, PHASA and SAPA contend that poaching only escalates in the absence of legally available supply. They point, for instance, to rhino poaching escalating after the imposition of a domestic 2009 ban. This is specious, as it ignores the fact that the US Pelly Amendment in 1993 saw a radical reduction in rhino horn trade right up until 2007. The parliamentarians weren’t buying the argument. The international trade has been banned since 1977, so it was unclear who domestic rhino horn buyers were going to sell to in any event. The domestic ban was simply a response to a massive poaching escalation from 2006 to 2008, driven by exploding Vietnamese demand. The ban made little difference but almost certainly can’t be blamed for increased poaching.

Third, they tried to make the case that lion breeding is valuable to local communities, and that conservation is undermined only if wildlife becomes valueless to local community members. But they failed to mention that the industry only supports an estimated 613 jobs (according to research sponsored by them) directly, nor do they reflect on the poor quality of these jobs, the risk of disease contraction through handling meat when lions are slaughtered (in unregistered abattoirs) and so forth. Killing lions for their bones is currently not covered by any South African law, which suggests that it may be entirely illegal. 

Fourth, the lobby asserted that the only people damaging Brand South Africa through this abhorrent industry are the ‘greenies’ trying to raise money on the back of false accusations regarding welfare violations. This conveniently ignores the fact that, at the parliamentary colloquium last year on this subject, both the Custodians of Professional Hunting and the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC) castigated South Africa over continuing captive big cat breeding. Dr Ali Kaka of the CIC stated that South Africa has legalised something considered unethical by even pro-hunting organisations and countries, including a respected global conservation organisation such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) (which called for the industry to be terminated in 2016). Dr Kaka concluded that captive lion breading may be legal, but it breaks moral and ecological bases and boundaries; it is bad for the reputation of South Africa at the global level; and is not good for the reputation of hunting, which is already demonised globally by false information.

Furthermore, PHASA lost its membership to Safari Club International and the Dallas Safari Club over its dedication to captive origin hunting. It further failed to mention at the November presentation to parliament that only eight hunting ranches are properly accredited by SAPA to hunt captive-origin lions, and one of these openly advertises that it baits white lions, which hardly seems like ‘fair chase.’ And exactly what is happening on all the other hunting facilities where human-reared cats are being shot? Why are they struggling so much to get SAPA accreditation? It seems to me that these organisations only have themselves to blame for the negative brand value impact that the industry is having. 

Fifth, the claim that canned hunting is banned in South Africa does not appear to be true. The Supreme Court of Appeal in 2010 ruled that it was arbitrary to rule that a captive-bred lion could be shot only if it was in an enclosure larger than a certain specified perimeter and had acclimatised to that location for more than a few days. The line between canned hunting and legitimate hunting did not suddenly appear through acclimatisation days or size of enclosure. Thus, the government’s attempts to make canned hunting illegal failed, though the court nonetheless stated that the practice was abhorrent.

Sixth, Richard York – PHASA spokesperson – preyed on the old mantra that South Africa’s conservation success story lies in the exceptionalism of its model. Placing wildlife ownership in private hands, he argues, led to the conversion of marginal land to land under wildlife conservation (predominantly through hunting). While there is no doubt that private reserves (many of which did not offer hunting) have played a significant role in white rhino population recovery, to make a blanket assertion that private game ranching has been an unequivocal good is to ignore the habitat fragmentation, inbreeding and predator persecution that such ranching typically entails. Fences are not South Africa’s success story; they will end up being the death of wild lions and elephants if many are not pulled down and wild land reconnected to recover ecological functionality. That the only lion populations which have grown over the last decade are fenced is not a success; many of these populations face severe inbreeding and other genetic challenges as a direct result of fences. 

Seventh, on the subject of genetics and reintroduction potential, York contends that there may be some genetic diversity in the captive population that is absent from the wild population. This seems a highly selective observation, given that SAPA’s own lion management plan recognises inbreeding in the industry as a significant challenge. 

Finally, given these challenges, it is hard to see how PHASA and SAPA justify the idea that reintroduction from the captive population is possible. York cites a paper by Emma Dunston and others which demonstrates that captive bred lions can hunt successfully and defend territories. This doesn’t tell us much, however, about whether they could successfully be released into the wild with existing lions. The Dunston paper ironically cites Luke Hunter’s work, but Hunter contends that there is no role in species conservation for captive origin lions. A response to his paper on the subject, by Abell and Youldon, tried to defend the captive origin case, which was then subsequently thoroughly debunked by Hunter. The point is that lions breed successfully in the wild; we don’t need to spend resources on captive breeding programmes for reintroduction that have no proven success record. We do need to create more space for wild lions to operate functionally in truly wild ecosystems. Besides, very few lions in captivity are being groomed for reintroduction to the wild; they are mostly being bred for the bullet or their bones.  

Breeding lions for the bullet under the banner of ‘conservation’ appears to be nothing more than a devious subversion by industry lobbyists. The best it has to go on is that it might serve as a buffer against wild lion exploitation. That speculation is shaky ground on which to defend an industry that is undermining South Africa’s reputation and appears to be posing a direct threat to wild lion survival in places like Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park. Moreover, with the recent shutting down of wildlife farming and bushmeat markets in China, the end of the industry is surely nigh. It would behove Minister Creecy to respond to the EMS letter and articulate the state’s plans for terminating the industry once and for all.  

© Copyright EMS Foundation 2020. All rights reserved.