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Shining light on lion management practices and bone trade

The lion bone trade in South Africa is on the rise. AJ Loveridge

An international uproar erupted in July over the hunting of Cecil, a radio-collared lion being studied by Oxford University’s WildCRU in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.

With this incident came heightened public awareness and media scrutiny of lion management practices and trade in southern Africa. This includes the bone trade with Southeast Asia, which has been increasing rapidly from 50 skeletons in 2008 to more than 570 in 2011. Anecdotal reports indicate it has carried on rising thereafter.

Our report on South Africa’s lion bone trade, the first of its kind – and our recent letter in Nature – have shed light on this contentious subject.

The link between hunting and the lion bone trade

Various questions have been put to us since the report and letter’s publication, which unintentionally coincided with Cecil’s killing.

The most frequently asked concern the origin of lion bones and the role of the trophy hunting industry in the trade. There is no evidence of a direct relationship between the South African trade in lion bones and trophy hunting of wild lions.

Lions hunted in South Africa are almost exclusively bred in captivity and the bone trade appears to be a byproduct of the country’s sizeable trophy hunting industry involving lions reared in captivity. Cecil’s case, however, created a broader awareness of factors that are impacting on wild lion populations across the continent – notably hunting, indiscriminate poaching and other forms of consumptive use and trade.

While we uncovered little evidence that trade is adversely impacting wild lions in South Africa, less is known about the situation elsewhere. This is something that urgently needs to be investigated.

The illegal tiger trade

People were also keen to learn more about our finding that conservation measures in one region can adversely affect other species in the same – or different – parts of the world.

Illegal trade in tiger parts to meet the demand for remedies and tonics containing tiger derivatives is a significant driver in that species’ global decline. Since around 1995, images of lions have appeared on labels of Chinese medicines – leading to speculation that lions were an ingredient in “tiger” products.

In 2007, the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC reported that, in 2005, a Chinese wine producer received permission from the government to produce 400,000 bottles of “bone-strengthening wine”. The bottle is made as a replica of a tiger. The company’s website touted the wine’s aphrodisiac qualities in addition to rheumatic curative potential.

Although the name and package are suggestive of tigers, the approved listed wildlife ingredient on bottles was African lion (Panthera leo) bone. But DNA in samples of the wine was too degraded to be matched to any felid-specific DNA sequence.

Did tiger conservation measures precipitate the start of the lion bone trade? Vivienne Williams

The first media reports of a market for lion bones originating from South Africa being legally exported to Asia only emerged in December 2009. But we discovered that the trade had actually started by early 2008.

Unintended consequences

There is further evidence to suggest that increased trade in large cat carnivores coincided with the introduction of stricter measures to protect tigers. The clampdown on the illegal trade in tiger parts may have also been one of the factors that prompted their substitution with lion products.

Although TRAFFIC warned in 2007 about a sharp increase in rhino poaching in Africa, it only began to rise sharply in South Africa from 2008. It also coincided with the onset of the trade in lion bones there.

Given that trades involve some of the same Southeast Asian syndicates and South African role players, it may not be fanciful to suggest that, in addition to factors such as economic growth in Asia, interventions to solve the tiger conservation crisis may also have inadvertently sparked the lion bone trade in South Africa.

This then may have opened the door to illegal trade in other charismatic African species and had a downstream effect that few would have anticipated. Such is the power of unintended consequences.

This begs the next frequently asked question: how can one avoid the unwitting consequences of well-intentioned conservation measures adversely affecting other species in future?

This query certainly gives one pause for thought. It’s akin to localising the impact of an earthquake in one part of the world so as to prevent an unexpected tsunami elsewhere. The answer is that conservation measures for species should be seen in combination rather than isolation.

Economists talk of Full Life Cycle Analysis, and we like the notion of holistic conservation.

Instead of focusing too narrowly on one intended target, we need to widen the scope and consider the potential downstream cascade of risks and benefits of proposed actions and try to mitigate against them. One must also consider the broader impact of human activities on lion populations and then address these issues holistically.

It is fair to say that carnivore researchers are united in one objective: to understand the root causes of the global reduction in the lion population – a 42% decline over the last 21 years – and mitigate against the impacts that are largely responsible for their decline.

The Cecil incident has certainly yanked the curtain back on an industry that needs to be better managed. Our research throws light on another aspect of lion utilisation that needs to be carefully monitored.

Between them, it has created what we think is an historic moment, and is at least an opportunity for constructive, responsible debate about the best way forward – albeit in front of a bigger audience than ever before.

TRAFFIC’s Richard Thomas also contributed to this article.

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