Lion on the line

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Legal bone trade could see a spike in poaching that threatens survival of the species


  This photo taken on July 25, 2012 shows a lion carcass at the Dinokeng Game Reserve, 50 kms north of Pretoria. Lion bones have become a hot commodity for their use in Asian traditional medicine, driving up exports from South Africa to the East and creating new fears about the survival of the species. Photo: AFP

The most recent capture of four live tiger cubs in central Vietnam this week highlighted once again the undiminished craze for tiger parts, highly prized for purported "” if unproven "” medicinal qualities in the country.

But now that tigers are in precipitous decline, there has been a substitution of lion bones for those of the tigers, animal rights groups say. These bones are very much a hot commodity, appealing to the affluent middle classes, they add.

The new fad has already driven up exports from South Africa, where lion bone trade is mostly legal, to Vietnam and Laos. But conservationists are concerned that the trend could fuel a looming spike in lion poaching, threatening the very survival of the species.

"There is increasing evidence to show that there is an increase in the number of lions and lion products being exported from South Africa," said Naomi Doak, coordinator of the Southeast Asia - Greater Mekong Program at the international wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC.

The Convention on International trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) had no record of any official exports of lion parts from South Africa to Laos and Vietnam before 2008. But CITES figures show that 92 and 235 lion carcasses were exported to Laos in 2009 and 2010 respectively. Meanwhile, Vietnam imported 91 lion skeletons in 2010 alone, according to CITES figures that have been confirmed by the South African government.

The 2011 data on trade in lion bones from South Africa is awaited, but conservationists say that given the evidence of 2009 and 2010, the figures for last year are likely to be even higher.

"This is obviously a significant injection into the Asian trade in wild cat parts and derivatives that, guided by the lessons from history, is likely to increase demand for further supply of lion parts - not just from captive bred sources in South Africa, but from all sources throughout the rest of Africa too," said Chris Mercer of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting, an animal welfare group in South Africa.

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"The leap from"¦ lion carcass exports to Laos and Vietnam"¦ is strong evidence that this perceived/potential increase in demand is already well underway," Mercer told Vietweek.

Around 500 lions are hunted legally every year in South Africa, most of them from commercial lion breeding farms which also supply zoos all over the world, according to an AFP report.

Lions are captive-bred in South Africa to provide what is called the "canned hunting" trade trophy hunters come to South Africa to shoot them in a "field."

The trophy hunters are only interested in the skull and the skin of the lion, and animal groups say breeders are capitalizing on the very lucrative market to send the bones to Laos and Vietnam.

A lion skeleton can fetch up to US$15,000 from traditional Chinese medicine practitioners, animal rights groups say. They add that as of 2010, a kilo of captive bred lion bones was worth between $400 and $500.

"We are concerned that a lion poaching operation will proliferate, as poaching is much "˜cheaper' than buying the bones legally, and of course, the fact that wild lion bones command a higher price in the market," said Pieter Kat of conservation NGO LionAid in the UK.

 "As the trade is mostly legal via CITES regulations, there is no means of preventing it," Kat told Vietweek.

"The lion breeders own the animals under South African laws, and can do what they want with the animals and their products," he said.

The South African breeding industry has shrugged off the concerns and allegations of animal rights groups by defending the legitimacy of their operations.

"[We] are in the (business of) legal breeding and hunting of lions," said Pieter Potgieter, chairman of the South African Predator Breeders Association.

"We legally sell lion bone that was hunted legally under the supervision of provincial conservation authorities. I have no knowledge of what the crooks are doing," he said.

According to the AFP, around 700,000 people have signed an online petition asking South African President Jacob Zuma to suspend lion bone exports.

Breeders have bristled at this proposal.

"I hope [the authorities] are not going to clamp down on the legal lion bone trade because that would be the end of the lion species," Potgieter said.

"The lion breeding and hunting industry in South Africa has the capacity to legally supply the demand from the Asian market."

Rhino specter

Animal rights group say it is the legal rhino horn trade that has stimulated great demand, resulting in uncontrollable poaching of the animals. While Vietnam has no rhinos left, around 300 have been poached across South Africa since the start of the year. Last year, 448 rhinos were killed and their horns are suspected to have been smuggled to Vietnam.

The rhino specter could come back to haunt lion populations, conservationists say.

"We do not want to see the legal lion bone trade stimulating such poaching but already a number of Asian nationals have been arrested with lion bones at the Johannesburg Airport and in Pretoria," LionAid's Kat said.

"In other countries, lion carcasses have been found with missing body parts. This indicates to us that the poaching trade is growing."

A source from the Vietnamese environmental police told Vietweek that they were aware of the trade in lion bones in the country. "Further investigations are still underway," the source said, declining to be named.

Meanwhile, animal rights groups have slammed the lack of strong action to clamp down on the trade in lion bones as the species is not covered under the same regulations and restrictions as other "big cats" - namely tigers.

Another source has also identified several Vietnamese companies primarily involved in the trade at the moment. On paper, these firms are engaged in completely different businesses, Vietweek found through a study of their websites. None of them mention trading in wildlife parts.

Conservationists say the rising demand for lions could have to do with the fact that they are more available and when their heads are taken off they look the same as tigers.

Traditional Chinese medicines have long had a product called "tiger bone wine," an alcoholic health tonic taken to relieve symptoms of arthritis and rheumatism. The tiger bone wine is claimed to stave off chills, improve circulation, eliminate fatigue and prolong life.

It is one of the most expensive and sought-after traditional Chinese medicines, and is believed to bestow the tiger's power and strength upon the taker.

The conservation group WWF last month ranked Vietnam as the worst country for wildlife crime in its first such survey of how well 23 countries in Asia and Africa protect rhinos, tigers and elephants.

Vietnam has protested this ranking, but Vietnamese experts and politicians have also warned that the country is on the verge of an "extinction crisis" brought on by deforestation, widespread poaching and a "largely uncontrolled" illegal wildlife trade.

The nation's nouveau riche population has provided an eager market for wildlife products: from rhino horn to tiger bone paste. The products, once prized only for their alleged medical properties, have become status symbols. Wealthy businessmen and government officials are known to gift them to each other.

Ordinary Vietnamese people have also turned to such products, stretching their finances.

Nguyen Thi Nam, a 62-year-old resident of Ho Chi Minh City's Binh Thanh District, said she has spent huge sums of money on buying "almost everything," including rhino horn and tiger bone, hoping they would cure several ailments of her husband, now 82.

"Now I've just realized that I have just wasted my money," she told Vietweek.

She said a friend of hers had died last year after treating her cancer with rhino horn.

Nam had not heard of lion bones, though, and said she would not be surprised if many people flocked to procure it as a new cure.

"For Vietnamese, if you are down with an acute disease, you are tempted to believe in any treatment and try whatever it takes.

"And rumors about the treatment are even more irresistible."

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