The Internet was aflame recently with news of a lion—Zimbabwe’s beloved Cecil, a black-maned local favorite that was lured out of a protected area and killed by an American dentist looking for a trophy. Around 600 lions are shot each year, mostly legally, and yet this hunt ignited a firestorm of media coverage.
People want to make sure Cecil didn’t die in vain. For its part, Zimbabwe is prosecuting both guides involved in the hunt and has called for the extradition of the dentist. Here, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is still looking into the matter, but the lion’s legacy might include a new bill to discourage the trophy killings of endangered species. Several airlines have also put lion heads and the like on their no-fly lists.
But while Cecil’s killing is sad and will reverberate through his pride and immediate ecosystem, I’m here to discuss tragedy on a different scale. In South Africa, where as many as 8,000 lions are living in captivity—more than the country has in the wild—many are raised just to provide rich hunters with something to shoot.
When they’re young, the cubs are available for petting and photo sessions for tourists looking to cuddle up with their very own Simba. Once they grow older, the tame lions are typically sold off to trophy hunters looking for the thrill of conquering an icon of Africa. But Mufasa, these are not: Most have only ever known the inside of a chain-link fence.
This trailer for a new documentary, Blood Lions, provides a glimpse into this grisly world and at how the industry could potentially hurt wild cats in Africa and beyond.
After the hunter shoots the tame or tamish lion, he takes a trophy. Then the rest of the cat’s body typically gets shipped off to Asia, where there’s a growing demand for the animals’ bones.
“The grasping tentacles of this Asian trade ‘octopus’ reach far and wide,” says Vivienne Williams, researcher at South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand and the lead author of a new report on the emerging lion-bone trade, which was co-published by TRAFFIC and Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. (WildCRU happens to be the same group that tracked Cecil for more than half a decade when he was killed.)
Since 1994, the researchers have found increasing amounts of evidence suggesting that lion bones are starting to replace tiger bones in certain tonics and cure-alls. Records show the industry forming in fits and starts—a skeleton here, a live lion there. The real action, though, began in 2007, after the international community adopted stricter measures to protect tigers and other big cats in Asia. The following year, South Africa issued permits for the export of 50 lion skeletons. By 2011, that number had jumped to 573 skeletons.
Among the countries officially listed as importers of lion bones, Laos is by far the worst. A full 85 percent of all the skeletons coming from South Africa between 2008 and 2011 were shipped there. (Perhaps this isn’t very surprising, considering how a recent piece in the New York Times painted a picture of the country as a lawless safe haven for illegal wildlife trade, particularly for elephant ivory.)
What does one do with lion or tiger bones? Well, one popular product is tiger-bone wine, made by steeping pieces of tiger in rice wine for eight years. The drinker is then magically imbued with all sorts of strength, virility, X-ray vision, and luck in synchronized swimming competitions. (Obligatory reminder that “Traditional Chinese Medicine” is poppycock.)
Things, though, have gotten difficult for tiger-bone wine artisans of late. For one, the world is running out of tigers. And two, those that remain are getting harder and harder to turn into tiger-ceuticals thanks to stronger wildlife-trade laws. So as a substitute, these winemakers have looked to leopards, lions, and whatever other fierce felines they can get their hands on.
“They chewed up their own resources, so they’re going after similar species elsewhere,” Williams says. And what better place to look for lion bones than a country that has several thousand lions sitting around in cages?
Over the course of five and half months in 2013, Williams uncovered a multilayered network of “bone agents,” freight forwarders, and ground handlers responsible for getting lion-bone products from Africa to Asia. She also ascertained the going rate for lion skeletons: around $1,560 each, or up to $2,100 if the specimen includes a skull.
Thankfully, the lion-bone trade in South Africa is still small. With a six-year-old male lion bringing in nearly $18,000 for the country’s trophy industry, the report says the animals are still worth more as tourist target practice. That awkward fact means that it’s unlikely anyone is breeding lions solely for the purpose of selling their bones—at least not yet. Trophy hunters, however, aren’t as interested in shooting lionesses, so it’s possible that the bone industry could start going after the she-cats. The report also found anecdotal evidence suggesting that lion farmers might be exhuming carcasses from previous trophy hunts to sell the bones.
This market has not yet reached a crisis point, but that’s all the more reason to begin investigating it now. “As the old saying goes, a stitch in time saves nine,” says Richard Thomas, the global communications coordinator for TRAFFIC.
TRAFFIC’s report shows no evidence that the lion-bone trade is hurting wild lions in South Africa, and Thomas says they’re still trying to figure out whether this is the case for the rest of the continent. Also unclear is what role South Africa’s captive cat industry may have on poaching at large.
“What would happen if we stopped the bone trade here? Would they start poaching wild lions?” Williams wonders. “I don’t know the answer to that, but I suspect they would, because I don’t know how one turns off that tap in the Asian market.”
So long as there is a demand, the supply (or substitute) will follow. The good news is that TRAFFIC and other organizations are working to make wildlife products a little less hip in Asia. One initiative called the “Strength of Will” or “Chi” campaign encourages business leaders, who are big consumers of high-end animal products, to associate success and good fortune with internal strength of character rather than, say, rhino horn. Go figure.
Sure, the strategy may sound a little too after-school-special-y to actually work, but culture is a funny thing. After all, shark’s-fin soup has plummeted in popularity in recent years thanks to some strong legislation and a media campaign where Yao Ming and Jackie Chan dissed the dish. Maybe the Chi campaign can do the same for rhinos and other endangered species?
One thing is certain: Cecil got more people talking about lion conservation (even if briefly) than ever before. And while it’s already too late to stop history from repeating itself—details are just emerging about a second lion shot illegally in the same area as Cecil, this time allegedly by an American gynecologist—perhaps we can seize upon this moment before it’s too late for lions and tigers and leopards and jaguars and....