A major report on the practice has been published after South African ministers announced a near-doubling in the number of lion bones allowed to be exported.
The bones are largely sold to Asian markets for use in virility products and traditional medicines.
News of the new quota prompted outrage, with animal-welfare activists and organisations appealing directly to President Cyril Ramaphosa, saying the move would accelerate the drop in wild lion populations by fuelling poaching, and would undermine efforts to decrease demand for unscientific traditional medicines.
South Africa’s EMS conservation foundation and the Ban Animal Trading group, which together produced the report, called The Extinction Business, argue the big-cat skeletons industry should be dismantled and intelligence-led investigations should be launched into the Asian criminal networks fuelling the growing trade.
It also identified flaws in the Cites system of issuing permits for bone exports.
The controversial lion-bone trade began in the country a decade ago, and it is now the largest exporter of lion bones to Asia - mostly to Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, where bones are ground down to make medicine and wine, which is wrongly believed to be a health drink.
The market has flourished despite authorities' efforts to crack down on the use of tiger body parts for Chinese medicine.
Trophy-hunters travel to South Africa to shoot lions bred there in captivity specifically for the hunting and bones businesses. Up to 8,000 lions are kept in more than 200 “canned hunting” breeding facilities. But experts believe they are helping to fuel wildlife trafficking by creating demand.
Between 2008 and 2015, the South African Department of Environmental Affairs issued permits for the export of more than 5,363 lion skeletons, research has shown. Last year the business brought in an estimated 16m South African rand (£908,000), according to the Captured in Africa Foundation.
The new report’s key recommendations include:
- A zero-export quota on lion and other big-cat body parts for commercial purposes, including from captive sources
- A forensic investigation into the financial affairs of all lion breeders and bone traders
- Restricting the keeping and breeding of big cats
- Reviewing and improving animal protection and welfare legislation
- Ensuring that animal protection, welfare, care and respect are included in law, particularly in relation to permits for the keeping, sale, hunting and exporting of wild animals and body parts
However, the department has approved an annual quota of 1,500 lion skeletons for export, almost double the previous year’s quota of 800.
Linda Tucker‚ founder and head of the Global White Lion Protection Trust‚ wrote a heartfelt letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa‚ appealing to him to reverse the move.
“Factory farming lions for killing is not a policy South Africa can defend, neither the old nor the new South Africa,” she wrote.
“As I write to you‚ 1,500 of our lions‚ incarcerated under abysmal conditions‚ have been committed to slaughterhouses in the inappropriately named ‘Free State’.
“Once vilified for apartheid‚ our country will go down in history for legalising crimes against nature that supersede the wrongs perpetrated by the illegal trade in animal parts.
“For our international reputation and true moral compass‚ I call upon you with all my heart to repeal this heinous legacy.”
The South African government has justified the trade in bones as a by-product of the "hunting industry" and claimed the increased quota has been prompted by a growing stockpile.
Spokesperson Albi Modise said the quota was based on a research project established by the SA National Biodiversity Institute with Oxford University and the University of Kent which said there had been no discernible increase in the poaching of wild lions, although there appeared to be an increase in the poaching of captive-bred lions for body parts.
But The Extinction Business report said by calculating the weight of consignments, experts believe exporters are exceeding the export quotas – unchecked by Cites.
It stated the industry is de facto fully supported by the state, “despite widespread opposition to the practice which is considered extremely cruel, linked to international criminal networks, a threat to Africa’s wild animals population and run by a small monopoly of operators purely for financial gain".
The Campaign Against Canned Hunting believes the bone trade is one of several damaging activities involving lions: the others are captive breeding, cub petting, volunteering and lion walks.
President of the Born Free Foundation, Will Travers, said earlier this year: “Unwitting tourists fuel this despicable industry by participating in activities such as petting cubs and walking with lions, while unsuspecting volunteers rear cubs in the mistaken belief they are destined to be released into the wild.
“Once adult, many of these animals are moved to canned hunting facilities to be shot in enclosures by ‘sport hunters’. Their bones are then sold into an international trade sanctioned by the South African government.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies