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A worrying parallel between rhino poaching and trade in lion bones?

South Africa has led the field of “conservation”, or so they say, by placing wildlife species in private hands. With the tremendous growth in game farms (largely as a result of environmental destruction by previous cattle ranching on those lands), there was a significant demand for wild species. These animals were supplied by auctions among the private owners as well as the State selling “surplus” wild animals to private individuals.

In the case of rhinos, this scheme of private ownership has been hailed as a great conservation success. There is frequent mention made of the great increase in both black and white rhino numbers since they were placed on game ranches. Indeed, the overall rhino numbers in South Africa now exceeds 22,000 animals, and a significant percentage of these animals are in private hands.

However, it is questionable to what extent such “private” rhinos contribute to conservation of the species. These animals are virtually all bought, sold and traded much like domestic cattle, and only exist because of the commercial value they represent to their owners. Owners had in the past two main options to profit from rhinos on their land – photographic tourism and trophy hunting.  Now, however, there is the option of selling horns, and there is a move among private owners to call for legal trade in horns given their rising monetary value in Asia.

South Africa already has an established legal trade in rhino horns and trophies;  for example, CITES trade records indicate an increasing trend in SA horn exports (17 in 2007, 16 in 2008, 90 in 2009, and 158 in 2010 – note that 2010 numbers are all preliminary at this stage since records are still being compiled). Where are the horns exported to? Many different countries, but increasingly to Vietnam (2 in 2007, 2 in 2008, 62 in 2009, and so far 93 in 2010). It should also be noted that Vietnam is becoming a major destination for rhino hunting trophies. This is strange as Vietnam (unlike let’s say the USA, Spain, Russia, and France) is not known as a country with many avid trophy hunters. It should have been clear long ago to those who issued the permits that these were all “pseudo” trophy hunts – the price that could be fetched for the horns once they arrived in Vietnam far exceeded the trophy hunting costs. Indeed, it has been reported that many of the “trophy hunters” who arrived to collect their rhinos on permit had never shot a gun before and relied on the accompanying “professional” hunters to shoot the rhino for them.

Basically, South Africa opened the floodgates by engaging in legal commercial trade of rhino horns and hunting trophies with countries like Vietnam. At a very basic level, economic theory involves supply and demand. We all know the situation is more complicated than that, and we can also say that fuel feeds a fire. Indeed, there is a direct relationship between the increased trade in rhino horns and “pseudo” trophy hunting with an increased level of poaching (83 rhinos poached in SA in 2008, 122 in 2009, 333 in 2010, and 448 in 2011). Once a supply is established, the demand grows by whatever means of delivery.

So how does this affect lions?  Well, what we are seeing now from CITES, SA lion export records are parallel to what was seen for rhinos a few years ago. Lion bones are increasingly important to the Asian traditional medicine trade – largely because the tigers that used to supply bones are now a bit thin on the ground. In recent years, South Africa has replied to this demand. In 2009, 250kg of lion bones were exported to Laos, followed by 556 bones in 2010. As these are CITES export records, we cannot tell you how 566 individual bones correspond to 250kg of bones, but only report to you that very few bones were exported to Laos before this date.  In 2010, 14 live lions were exported to Vietnam – why? In 2010 (so far- see above for reliability of these recent numbers) 29 skeletons went to Laos and 19 to Vietnam. Laos received 90 lion teeth and 6 skulls in 2010, and the numbers will increase.

Also worrying and similar to the rhino scenario – Laos has now become a lion trophy hunting country. Yes indeed, Laotians have discovered a very recent desire to go to South Africa to “hunt” lions – 43 trophies so far were exported in 2010 versus zero trophies in all previous years. Reminiscent of the Vietnamese rhino hunters?

The South African authorities at the Department of Environmental Affairs tell us this is all above board and largely represents bones from lions in captive breeding programmes (canned lions). We say the demand has been fuelled, and since history tends to repeat itself, we might begin to see an upsurge of lion poaching incidents parallel to current rhino poaching.

Our message to South Africa? Please do not allow yourself, legal as you might claim it is, to get engaged in exports to Asian countries demanding lion bones and derivatives.  It will stimulate an illegal market involving wild lions in all African range states. It will promote poaching of lions as it has stimulated poaching of rhinos by allowing exports to fuel Asian markets – and that market for African wildlife products is insatiable. It might be said the bones derive from captive bred lions, an industry promoted to satisfy trophy hunters by shooting lions in enclosures. Well done for commerce. 

Asian markets used to be supplied by Asian species. Those are now gone, lost, poached to extinction, and Asia has turned to Africa. Asian markets put a premium on wild animal products as they are “stronger” than captive raised animals. Remember that the “tiger farms” in China raise animals under deplorable conditions to be killed for the medicine market much like  lions are raised under deplorable conditions to be killed for the hunting market.  And finally, remember that there are as few lions on the African continent as there are rhinos in South Africa alone.

Posted by Pieter Kat at 22:15

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