By John Harvey
THERE is growing concern that lions from the Eastern Cape are being exported to China and elsewhere in Asia so their bones can be crushed and used as substitutes in making a traditional medicine known as “tiger bone wine”. Conservationists fear the lion bone exploitation could even rival the illicit trade in rhino horn sweeping South Africa.
At the centre of the fears lies the fact that the world’s tiger population is on the verge of extinction – there are fewer than 4000 animals left – and trading in tiger parts is banned by international law.
Lion bones are now being used as a substitute in the medicine, which some Asian cultures believe is similar to a “muti”, making the user strong and curing everyday ailments.
Depending on “vintage”, a bottle can sell for thousands of rands. Chris Mercer, a Wilderness resident and founder of wildlife organisation Campaign against Canned Hunting, is in “no doubt” there are sinister operators in the Eastern Cape who are already selling lion bones to the huge Asian market.
He says it is “only a matter of time before live animals are exported, if it isn’t happening already”.
But conservationists are concerned that Asian nations – particularly Vietnam and Laos – are increasingly receiving lion carcasses from South Africa and this will “inevitably” pave the way for a trade in living lions which will be bred solely for their bones.
As these alarm bells ring in conservationist circles, though, the SA Predator Breeders’ Association believes there is “nothing wrong” if a local hunting operator decides to sell live lions to Asia.
Mercer bases his warning on government having confirmed in 2011 that between 2009 and 2010 permits were granted for the export to Laos of 327 whole lion carcasses.
“How long before they start poaching the last of our wild lions as a cheaper alternative to paying South Africa’s captive lion breeders [for bones]?
Mercer says many captive tigers in China are kept in horrendous conditions and some are allowed to starve to death.
Weekend Post reported in 2010 how 1500 tigers in Guilin – one of China’s main tourist cities – were being allowed to die at an animal park.
Camps like the one in Guilin operate in a grey area of the law. Park owners say they are using the bones of animals that have supposedly died “naturally” – including by being starved – to produce the tiger bone wine.
For SA Predator Breeders’ Association president Pieter Potgieter the question of lion bone and living lion exports is simply dependent on whether the hunting operator is in possession of a permit or not.
“You have to ask what happens to a lion carcass once the animal has been shot and the skin and head taken as a trophy. Provided the operator has a permit there is nothing wrong with selling it overseas,” Potgieter said.
“In actual fact, if this happens more, it will actually take the pressure off the Asian tigers so their numbers can grow again.”
Asked whether he believed selling living lions to Asia might affect conservation, Potgieter said: “Once the lions have been sold overseas they are no longer the operator’s problem.”
This is a shortened version of an article that first appeared in the print edition of Weekend Post on Saturday April 28, 2012.