Tightening the rules on the sale of tiger parts in Asia might have had worrying, unintended consequences. To fill the gap in the market to make tiger-bone wine, traders have instead looked to African lions to keep up with demand. While currently the researchers think that most of the lion bones being used are in fact a by-product of the trophy-hunting industry in South Africa, they worry that more demand will push trade into other African countries. They also suspect that it might have had a role to play in the spike in rhino poaching.
While reports of lion bones being used in the place of tiger bones is nothing new, having been suspected since the 1990s, it wasn’t proven for certain until around 2005. But what confuses things further is that actually, since 2008 at least, this trade in South African lion bones has been legal. It emerged that CITES, the organisation set up to protect wildlife against over-exploitation and attempt to control the trade in wildlife, issued lion farmers with licences to sell the animal products overseas.
Since the issuing of licenses, there has been a sharp increase in the sale of lion skeletons to Asia, rising from around 50 in 2008 to 573 in 2011. Interestingly though, this hasn’t had an impact on lion numbers in South Africa, considering that a surprising 63% of the 9,000 animals that prowl the country are actually living in captivity. The legalization of the trade in their bones even saw farmers digging up old lion trophy bodies for the skeleton.
The new report, published by both the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University and the international wildlife organization TRAFFIC, aimed to set out to quantify the scale of the trade. They concluded that the trade isn't currently a threat to lion populations in South Africa, but possibly could be if the trade in their bones continues to grow.
But there is also a worry that the legal trade in animal products gives a route through which illegal products might enter. It is often incredibly difficult to tell the difference between a lion and tiger skeleton, for example, so the researchers suggest that DNA tests should be conducted on the bones leaving South Africa to confirm that they actually are what people say they are, and not from one of around 200 tigers thought to be in captivity in the country.
They also highlighted another potentially uncomfortable link. The year in which CITES started issuing legal licences for the export of lion bones, 2008, is also the same year that South Africa saw a massive spike in the demand and poaching of rhino for their horn. The authors of the report think that there might be a potential lion-tiger-rhino trade link, and suggest that when Asian companies visited the country in 2008 to arrange for lion bone export, they saw the healthy number of rhinos and saw an opportunity to make more money.