Save our lions!

With lion bones replacing tiger bones in Asian ‘medicines’, we could be facing another serious poaching problem.

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A recent report in Farmer’s Weekly (18 May, pg 22) on a potential lion poaching problem in South Africa and the rest of the continent had me aghast. Apparently, China and several other Asian countries have long practised a tradition of brewing what they believe is a medicinal wine that can treat rheumatism. An ingredient of this drink is tiger bones.

However, now that tigers are becoming scarce, it seems that these ‘alternative healers’ are turning to lion bones, saying that there is effectively no difference between the bones of the two cats. With the commercial trade in tiger body parts banned in many parts of the world, due to the drastic drop in numbers of these beautiful animals, this revelation has me worried. Will we soon be dealing with lion as well as rhino poaching?

Captive vs wild
I turned to an activist friend to see how seriously this new threat ought to be taken, and according to him, there are links between it and the ‘canned lion’ industry. Most lion breeders use ‘canned lions’ in trophy hunts, he explains. These lions are so-called because the quarry cannot escape and the kill is therefore ‘in the can’. In some cases, breeders even drug the cats to ensure that rank amateur ‘hunters’ can shoot the animals they paid for.

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Exhuming carcasses
So what happens to the body? According to statistics from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, permits were granted for the export of 327 lion carcasses from South Africa to Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic between 2009 and 2010. In addition, we exported 91 lion skeletons to Vietnam in 2010.

According to some activists, demand for lion bone in Asia is so high that people are even exhuming lion carcasses to ‘harvest’ the bones. If traders go to such trouble, can you imagine what will happen next? Some may see little sense in paying US$5 000 (R40 000) to ‘buy’ a lion when the few remaining wild ones can simply be killed for nothing.

According to Red Data Book estimates, there are only about 2 500 lions in the wild in Southern Africa, with most in the Kgalagadi and Kruger National Parks. And, as we’ve seen with rhinos, you can bet there will be a belief that lions in the wild make the ‘medicine’ stronger. Here’s hoping our government will do what it can to prevent another poaching crisis before it begins in earnest.