Lion-bone wine latest threat to survival of Africa’s big cats

By Leon Marshall

July 2, 2010

Johannesburg–To most of us the mere thought of sipping a concoction in which animal bones soaked for a lengthy period is revolting. Yet, even in these supposedly enlightened times, the clamor for so-called tiger-bone wine in China is such that brewers are importing lion bones from South Africa as a legally obtainable and cheaper substitute.

The growing trade has environmentalists worried.

At the moment merchants are mostly getting their supplies under government permit from hunting farms on which captive-bred lions are released to be shot as trophies–itself a rather grotesque business.  One of the concerns, however, is that as the trade grows, it could lead to already endangered lion populations in the wild getting poached for their bones.  Another worry is that it could serve as further encouragement to the commercial lion-breeding industry which the government is trying to curb, not least because of the bad image it creates of a country that has tourism, particularly nature tourism, as its fastest growing industry.  The trend adds to an already grim picture in which animal species in South Africa are under threat from poachers cashing in on enduring primitive beliefs that the physical attributes of animals can be acquired by ingesting their body parts.

Rhino poaching, for export of the endangered animal's horn mainly to the Far East where it is considered a sexual stimulant, has been taking on alarming proportions.  In South Africa, vultures, known for their exceptional eyesight, have suffered from a belief that upcoming lottery numbers can be "seen" by eating their eyes. The Football World Cup has seen a spike in killings, apparently to help punters predict results.  Disquiet about the budding lion-bone commerce in South Africa was first pertinently aired in a television program titled Carte Blanche earlier this year.

Lion breeders admitted that they were selling lion bones to merchants who turned up with permits issued by government in terms of CITES regulations. It was revealed that in some cases lionesses, which are generally not used for trophy-hunting purposes, were killed specifically for the bone trade.

CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. South Africa is a signatory.

Breeders suggested they were forced to kill their lions for their bones because of government restrictions on lion hunting. Breeding for hunting is continuing pending a court case in which the industry is trying to have the regulations overturned.  One lion breeder said farmers were being placed in a difficult position because "you've bred for the hunting and now it's being stopped. What do you do with those things?"

Dereck Joubert, well known wildlife film maker and conservationist, and National Geographic Explorer in Residence, responded: "Now to switch tracks and to turn that into a lion bone industry is as ethically bankrupt. It's morally wrong, absolutely! It does nothing for conservation. All that it's doing is fueling an illegal trade."  Later in the Carte Blanche program, Joubert added:" If we create a real lion bone trade we will be fueling a massive trade in animal parts that will destroy animal populations, these big cat populations, not only lion, but tigers and ultimately leopards as well."

Rynette Coetzee, project executant of law and policy at the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), an organization dedicated to conserving threatened species and ecosystems in southern Africa, said that although it was not clear what was going on, her organization's impression was that lion bone was not all that popular and that the trade was not yet big business. There was no legislation stopping it as lion had been downgraded to the CITES 2 list, which allows trade under permit. But the situation had to be watched, Coetzee added.

Carel van Heerden, chairman of the South African Predator Breeders Association, said he was aware of the lion-bone trade. It was not permitted to kill lion just for their bones, but there were farmers who were selling the bones of lions that had been shot by trophy hunters. This was permissible, he said.  It was concerning, Van Heerden said, that there were apparently people who were killing lion for their bones. But he could not see this developing into a big business. "The price you get for lion bone is such that it is simply not worth it. There in any case are enough bone available from legal trophy hunting to meet the limited demand."

In China the demand for bone and other tiger parts helped bring the species to the brink of extinction. In some cases the entire tiger carcass gets dumped into a vat of rice wine and left to "mature" for lengthy periods before the brew is served. The prices are good as the belief is that it cures ailments such as arthritis and rheumatism.  In the 1980s the Chinese government launched tiger farms as a way of trying to feed the trade without further endangering the species. But in the 1990s it imposed a ban on trade in tiger parts.  The tigers bred in captivity have been turned into tourist attractions. But reports keep coming in of tiger-bone wine getting clandestinely sold by tiger farms and "zoos"

Nat Geo News Watch contributing editor Leon Marshall is an environmental writer in South Africa. A leading political journalist and executive editor for Africa's largest newspaper group for years, he has won numerous awards, including a 2004 Reuters-IUCN Media Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. Leon has covered climate change from a global and African perspective, having attended conferences on the issue in many parts of the world. He has written extensively on the ambitious transfrontier-parks program of the sub-continent and is now writing a book on the subject.

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