Written by Rhishja Larson
Published on October 13th, 2009
As wild tiger populations dwindle, poachers are turning to lions to feed the insatiable Chinese appetite for ‘potions’ made from big cat bones.
Conservationists are sounding the alarm about a disturbing development in the fight to save wildlife from poaching: Lions are being killed as a substitute for tigers so their bones can be sold as Chinese “remedies.”
It is no coincidence that because tigers are highly prized in Chinese “remedies” , they have become one of the scarcest creatures on the planet. And the insatiable appetite of China’s “nouveau riche” is now threatening lions, whose bones are indistinguishable from tiger bones.
Years of warning signs
The killing of endangered wildlife to meet Chinese demand is rampant in India; the proximity to China and porous borders make it easy for poachers and smugglers to operate in the region. Villagers are eager to carry out the killings on behalf of poaching organizations. Belinda Wright, head of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) says that the huge demand for tiger bones and body parts is from China, and that India is “like a supermarket.”
Unfortunately, lions are joining tigers as an essential ingredient on China’s endangered species shopping list.
Most at risk is the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica), a subspecies of the African lion (Panthera leo) found only in the Gir Forest of India. The Asiatic lion is classified as Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and has a current population of just 350 individuals.
Although the population is considered stable, a single event, such as disease or forest fire, could result in extinction of this species. And, as we are witnessing with wild tiger and rhino, if poaching increases, this small population is not likely to survive.
There are indications of poaching incidents in recent years (there are reports that organised gangs have switched attention from tigers to these lions).
The Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), warned us back in 2007 that a new phase in wildlife poaching to meet Chinese demands could wipe out the world’s only Asiatic lion population.
This serious new development points to the fact that since tigers are so scarce in the wild, these poachers are now targeting the last remaining population of Asiatic Lions. Gir’s lions are an easy target, since they are comparatively used to people and live in open scrub forest. Their bones are also virtually indistinguishable from those of tigers. There is no market for big cat parts in India, and their poaching and the trade is entirely driven by demand from outside India’s borders, for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
Also in 2007, environmental photojournalist Debby Ng wrote in asia! Magazine that both leopards and lions are now used as common substitutes for tiger bones. Ng has worked with TRAFFIC, WWF, WSPA, and EIA.
Ng stated in her article that according to Valmik Thapar, conservationist and one of the world’s leading experts in Indian tigers, 12 – 14 Asiatic lions were poached within six months in Gir National Park. Thapar said that poaching for the Chinese tiger trade was confirmed by the fact that only the bones were removed from the dead lions – just as in the case of tigers killed for Chinese “potions.”
Even earlier, Dr. A.J.T. Johnsingh, a wildlife biologist with Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, and WWF-India, reported in 2004 that Gir’s Asiatic lions were being killed by villagers working in conjunction with poachers.
In April 2004, a lion was found in the Dedakadi forest range, near the Gir headquarters at Sasan, with its right paw nearly ripped off – a sure sign of the use of a leg-hold jaw trap, which is commonly used to kill tigers. Soon officials detected organised poaching of lions, and there were reports of bones being removed from carcasses, and it came to light that tribal poachers from Madhya Pradesh, disguised as agricultural labourers, were killing the lions. The needle of suspicion pointed persistently to the TCM business as it is difficult to differentiate bones of lions from those of tigers.
While the main threat to African lions at this point is human encroachment (especially poisoning by farmers), Dereck Joubert, a National Geographic filmmaker and writer focusing on big cats, said in today’s Washington Post that African lions are also at risk of becoming commodities in China.
Big cats are in trouble everywhere. The number of tigers has dipped below 3,000. Indeed, as we look at the lion population today, it’s the shadow of the tiger’s history that scares me most. Tiger bones are used extensively in the East for medicines and mythological (read nonsense) cures for ailments or limp libidos, and the demand is increasing. A growing demand and a disappearing supply is a formula for disaster.
The solution we are seeing play out is a switch from tiger bones to lion bones, which can be easily sold off as tiger bones. It’s ironic that the most famous animal in Africa, perhaps in the world, can’t even be poached on its own value but only as a “mock tiger.”
Joubert also noted that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is meeting this week to decide whether lions, whose numbers have declined by 50 percent in the past 20 years, are worthy of protection under Appendix I.
Heed the warning – before it’s too late for lions
Sadly, one only needs to look at the decline in wild tiger and rhinoceros populations to see that CITES protections are not enough to deter poachers. Commercial poaching has become big business – thanks to the boom in population and the “new wealth” in China. And despite being a CITES signatory, Chinese consumption of products derived from endangered species – especially tigers – is flourishing.
There is no doubt that If China does succeed in wiping out our planet’s wild tigers, commercial poaching operations – funded by Chinese demand and affluence – will also push lions to extinction.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://wbigcatrescue.org