South Africa Puts a Target on Lions

The country wants to boost trade in the body parts of captive-bred animals, claiming they are no longer endangered.

(Photo: Getty Images)

May 26, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

South Africa wants to promote trade in the body parts of captive-bred lions, arguing that its big cat population has increased 30 percent over the past 30 years and is not endangered.

The country reports having 6,000 captive lions, bred solely for the purpose of generating money from hunting. Government officials say there are 2,300 wild lions in several national parks and 800 managed lions in smaller reserves, numbers that they say justify promoting a “sustainable legal trade” in lions.

South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs has also recommended that the International Union for Conservation of Nature downgrade the country’s lions from their current status as “vulnerable to extinction” and reclassify them as a species of “least concern.”

“It’s a deeply flawed and troubling approach, rather consistent with South Africa’s approach with a number of conservation issues,” said Will Travers, president of the Born Free Foundation, an international wildlife conservation charity. “It’s similar to where they’re going with rhinos at the moment.”

With tiger populations shrinking, there’s an increased demand for lion parts to be used in traditional Asian medicine. Buyers in China, Laos, and Vietnam are also replacing tiger bones with lion bones that are marinated in wine in the belief that the drink boosts sexual potency.

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Captive lion trophies fetch around $15,000 in the United States, while wild lion trophies sell for $50,000 to $70,000.

Travers worries about how South Africa’s plans will harm lions in other countries.

“They seem almost oblivious of the consequences of widespread legal trade,” he said. “They don’t think about how other nations will be stressed by lion body part trade.”

In 2009, four lion carcasses were exported from South Africa to Laos; by 2011, exports jumped to 496 carcasses, Travers said.

Lion populations across the African continent have plunged from a high of 200,000 thirty years ago to about 15,000 today, according to LionAid, a conservation group. Nigeria has only 34 lions left, West and Central Africa have about 645 wild lions, and lions are extinct in 25 African nations and almost extinct in 10 others.

South Africa could boost revenues from safari tourism, but it’s not charging enough, Travers said. Kenya charges visitors $65 to $85 at its national parks; South Africa charges only about $27 at Kruger National Park.

“I don’t think anyone who flies around the world to go on a safari is going to balk if South Africa raises its entrance ticket prices,” he said. “I’ve suggested this to their minister of environment and tourism. And a $10 conservation tab added to every flight ticket to South Africa would also bring ample dollars to conserve wildlife.”

If the country continues to pursue plans for the lion trade, Travers said the consequences would be widespread.

“I am very fearful that lions and rhino will be placed under even greater pressure not only within South Africa but especially in countries which do not have the resources to resist the criminal forces that underpin the global, illegal $19 billion–a–year wildlife trade.”