Skip to content Skip to navigation

Notes from the Field: Simon Morgan - Tracing South Africa’s Roaring Lion Bone Trade

African Lion

Jordana and I are making our way back to Stanford from Cape Town, South Africa, after an incredible fact-finding mission to explore current conservation priorities in Africa to help inform how the ‘Out-of-the-Box Into-the-Cloud’ initiative at Jasper Ridge can make a meaningful impact. One of those arenas is in formulating tools to help us identify the location of where traded wildlife parts originate, using geographically distinct variants in species genomes to create a genoscape. A PhD student in the Hadly Lab, Ellie Armstrong, is doing such a range wide assessment for the African Lion.

So, while I was in Cape Town the talk of the town was about the lion bone trade, and with the NGO Wildlife ACT I attended a South African Parliamentary Colloquium on the captive lion breeding industry in South Africa. There are anywhere between 6,000 – 8,000 lions being bred in captivity within South Africa, a function of the human entertainment industry (cubs being petted by tourists, sub- adults providing ‘walk-with-lion’ experiences, and at the adult stage the same lions are shot and killed as trophies in the canned lion hunting industry – a process bought to the attention of the world by the documentary Blood Lions) and now recently as a source of body parts and bones for the Asian wildlife consumption markets, a contentious issue as discussed in a report by TRAFFIC and Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, and recently summarised by the South African Institute of International Affairs. As you can imagine the conditions that many of these lions are being bred in and slaughtered is less than ideal. This year there was a nearly doubling of the export quota to 1,500 skeletons, without any scientific due diligence and or engagement with the full array of stakeholders and public. Given the backlash from the scientific, conservation and public sectors on this news, the colloquium was called by a parliamentary portfolio committee brought together to establish the impact that this breeding industry could have on wild lion populations and whether the industry should continue in its current form. This will include a suggestion on how the annual legal permits for the export of entire lion skeletons should continue.

Our interest here will be in our ability to develop genomic based tools which could identify the difference between captive bred and wild lion coupled with which part of the country or protected area they come from. We are confident we will be able to identify these variants and through the program at Jasper Ridge strive to develop field kits which will enable the verification of traded lion parts rapidly and at source, ensuring the effective monitoring of this trade, and or should it be abolished allow the tracking of illegally confiscated lion parts. Through the Program for Conservation Genomics at Stanford, we are collaborating with a broad community of lion conservationists to access specimen samples, and a range of trade and forensic organisations working towards controlling this trade, participating in a workshop in South Africa to this effect in November.

With regards to my thoughts on the current legal trade and some background on the subject read on:

In the past I wrote about the Rhino horn trade debate and how it was futile, since it was not really an option due to other CITES members’ views and the laborious processes required to change those and potential trade country regulations in a timeous manner. It was dividing our forces, efforts and focus, all the while the poaching of rhino continued unabated.

The core of the debate was about the rights to sustainable utilisation of wildlife & international trade in their parts. We now find ourselves in a similar space – debating the rights of lion ‘owners’ to rapidly breed lion, sell trophy hunts of their lion and export their parts, in particular the skeletons to Asia as a substitute for Tiger bone wine. It is strange to me that we are having this debate, given what we know about this type of approach to sustainable utilisation. Specifically, the sale of body parts, and the potential and or realised impacts on wildlife, some of which were mentioned in our response to Rhino breeder John Hume’s local auction of rhino horn.

You can't guarantee that by starting and growing a program of trade in a place where the animal is in abundance, you won't drive the animal to extinction through illegal use where they are less well protected and numbers are unstable. This has been famously noted with the Vićuna in South America and is relevant when the cost of farming wild animals is more than the cost to illegally harvest them, as is the case of the African lion (sale cost of between $2,000 - 3,000 per skeleton). How can we accept that our profiteering from captive lions will put wild lions here and elsewhere on the continent at risk?

The infamous ‘once-off’ ivory trades which were done, specifically that of 2008, have been a catastrophic failure, stimulating illegal markets with a resultant increase in elephant poaching across the continent, which continues unabated today. International efforts to reduce the demand for illegal wildlife products are seriously hampered when we grow small, legal markets that we cannot control due to limited capacity for regulation or enforcement in both source and destination countries. We know that the Tiger have been poached to near extinction for their body parts, and that the subsequent market has been continuously fuelled by their farming and the substitution with lion parts. The 7,000+ tigers in farms has seemingly done nothing to allow the Tiger population to recover across their range, in fact on the last IUCN assessment of 2015 their population had decreased by 50% in the last 20 years, and the latest revision by WWF & the Global Tiger Forum does not change this picture by much.

So, given we have dismally failed at our attempts to control illegal markets for various wildlife species across the globe, in particular the one which the lion is currently being used as a ‘filler’ for, surely we should be using the precautionary principle and start making steps to stop the continued breeding of lions in captivity within South Africa? While we still have a chance of getting on top of the markets. Following that step we then need to work across the divide to formulate a viable plan to support those left to deal with the thousands of lions in captivity, ensuring that their body parts are not fed into a lucrative black market, growing an already burgeoning demand.

This precautionary approach should be considered across the planet as we see a growing demand for wildlife products, all the while wild animals compete for space, sip from poisoned water holes or dodge bullets.  Is the future of our charismatic wildlife, among them parrots, giraffe (yes giraffe!), rhino or lion, destined to be the inside of a fenced enclosure while they await their fate at our hands, all to feed our egos and warped perceptions of reality? “Born to be Wild”– why can we not accept that and allow that, without asking for them to “pay to stay”?

Simon MorganSimon Morgan, JRBP Research Associate