How South Africa's trade in captive-bred lions increases the extinction threat to wild tigers

Captive-bred lions in South Africa Image credit: Pippa Hankinson & bloodlions.org
Ahead of this week's 29th meeting of the CITES Animals Committee, in Geneva, Switzerland, the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) reveals how the legal trade in lion bones from captive-bred lions serves only to exacerbate and drive the illegal trade in wild tiger parts
The world's last remaining tigers are living under severe threat of extinction, having lost 93 per cent of their historical range and suffered a population crash of 95 per cent during the past century

Asia's massive unchecked demand for skins, bones, teeth and claws continues to drive poaching of wild tigers. This demand is exacerbated by the supply of huge volumes of African lion bone, teeth and claws, sold as tiger parts to less-discerning consumers in Asia.

At the heart of the lion trade is South Africa - the world's largest exporter of lion bone, teeth and claws, and also an exporter of captive tiger parts - whose Government, in sanctioning the export of 800 lion skeletons a year to generate profits for lion farmers, has failed to take into account the wider impact of such a decision on endangered wild tigers.

In 2016, CITES Parties decided to allow South Africa to set a quota for export of captive lion parts. In June 2017, the South African Government announced an export quota of 800 skeletons (with or without skulls) obtained from captive lions in South Africa.

The Government's misconceived rationale for such trade is purportedly to protect the wild lion population in South Africa. The move, however, fails to take into consideration the fact that there are significant enforcement challenges in distinguishing between wild and captive lion skeletons and that its decision will also stimulate demand for big cat bone products.

It also ignores the failed experiment in China, where the parallel legal trade in skins from captive tigers has not put an end to wild tiger poaching. Contrary to the assertion of pro-tiger farming and trade advocates, the legal trade in skins of captive-bred tigers in China did not flood the market with cheap alternatives and failed to take into account consumer preferences

How captive Lion and Tiger exports threaten endangered wild tigers in Asia

African lions are listed under CITES Appendix II with an annotation meaning that some international commercial trade in wild and captive lion parts and products is allowed. South Africa has been legally exporting lion bone, claws, teeth, skulls and skeletons sourced from both wild and captive lions - the bodies and skeletons of at least 4,296 lions have been exported legally to Asian markets between 2005-15. In 2016, however, CITES Parties agreed to restrict this trade to specimens sourced from captive lions.

South Africa allows lion and tiger farming for commercial trade in parts and derivatives. With regard to the tiger farming operations, this contravenes CITES Decision 14.69. The country's wild lion population is dwarfed by the reported 6,000 to 8,000 captive lions held in up to 200 facilities. Both the number of captive lions and the facilities breeding and keeping them have increased, coinciding with a dramatic increase in exports of lion bone and other lion parts, especially since 2008. A number of these facilities are also breeding tigers; in 2015, 280 tigers were estimated to be in at least 44 facilities in South Africa.

The proliferation of lion and tiger farms in South Africa and the associated trade from such facilities undermines enforcement efforts to end illegal tiger trade and stimulates demand for tiger parts and derivatives. Given consumer preferences for wild-sourced tiger parts, this also sustains poaching pressure on wild tigers.

It is clear that a legal trade in captive lion parts is unworkable and will likely have a detrimental impact, not only on wild lions but also on endangered wild tigers. The Government of South Africa must adopt urgent action to end this trade.

For the full EIA briefing report including the Agency's recommendations see: The Lion's Share