The recent announcement by the Department of Environmental Affiars (DEA) to set the export quota of lion skeletons for Asia to 800 has important implications for the conservation of wild lions in South Africa. Legalising the trade in lion bones has been enabled by the 17th Conference of Parties (CoP17) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) failing to transfer all lion populations from Appendix II to Appendix I and thus prohibiting the international commercial trade in lions or any lion parts.

It is estimated that there are less than 20,000 wild lions left throughout Africa with a population decline of more than 40% in the past two decades. The wild lion population is at a similar tipping point as the white rhino and is fast tracking towards extinction. The main cause of lion population decline is habitat loss, with the constant encroachment of human activity into wild areas increasingly bringing humans and wildlife into conflict.

As the export of lion skeletons will be from farmed lions, the impact on the wild lion population may not be immediately obvious. The captive breeding of lions for the purpose of killing them to supply the bone trade is considered by many to be ethically unacceptable and has the potential to harm South Africa’s global image. Recognising the negative perceptions of killing iconic wildlife for scientifically unproven treatments, the Chinese themselves banned the use of tiger parts in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in 1993.

Prior to the ban, tiger body parts had been used in TCM, with tiger bone wine marketed as a potential cure for arthritis and other bone ailments. The consumption of tiger penis was also widely practiced for its purported role in the treatment of erectile dysfunction. With tiger populations also vastly diminished due to habitat loss and hunting (only 30-80 wild tigers remain in China and it is considered functionally extinct), and no legal market for the sale of their body parts, the demand has been drastically reduced.

Although their grandparents may have used tiger parts in the past, many modern Chinese consumers have rejected the use of these traditional medicines. In response to one of China’s pre-eminent public polling companies, an overwhelming 95% of respondents said that they would take action to save wild tigers,  including abstaining from the use of tiger products. Encouragingly, educated modern Chinese men are selectively switching from TCM to Viagra to treat erectile dysfunction, according to a study by an Australian university.

The proposed new trade in lion bones from Africa to Asia is clearly due to the fact that the lion is seen as analogous to the tiger by the powerful traditional medicine industry in China. This is despite there being no documented use of lion body parts in the 2,000 year long history of TCM.

The move by South Africa is clearly intended to create a market for the estimated 6,000-8,000 captively bred lions in the country. There have already been some legal sales of lion bones in much smaller numbers starting in 2008, which has confirmed the acceptability of the product to the Asian market.

The danger here is that a much larger market could be created, if the use of lion bone in TCM is validated. We have seen this before of course with rhino horn. Though rhino horn elixirs were first prescribed in TCM more than 1,800 years ago, by the early 1990s demand was limited due to trade bans and the removal of the product from most medicines. Only around 15 rhinos were poached in South Africa each year from 1990 to 2007.

Then came 2008 and a prominent Vietnamese politician claimed that Rhino horn had cured his cancer, which had gone into remission. Validated by a high level government source, demand surged across the region. The situation has now become critical and we get used to the shocking headlines such as this, where 20-30 rhinos are poached in South Africa in just one weekend.

Does the same fate lie ahead for lions? If the SA government further legitimises this trade and validates lion bones as a valuable medicinal product will we be looking at similar horrific statistics for lion poaching in the future? The signs are already ominous. Worryingly lion poaching has increased since the first lion bones were legally sold.

We are starting to see cases of lions being poached from easy targets in wildlife sanctuaries. The fear among conservationists is that this will begin to spread further into the poaching of the already threatened wild lion populations. The decision by the SA government to trade lion bones, and therefore validate their medicinal use and give them an increased economic value, is surely only going to increase this risk. This is even more frustrating at a time when there is growing evidence that demand for wildlife products can be restricted by better awareness and education programmes in the Asian marketplace.

In addition, legalising lion bone trade will encourage further captive lion breeding and its associated unethical wildlife interactions, such as cub petting, lion walking and volunteering, when the impact of the Blood Lions documentary and campaigns, such as #HandsOffOurWildlife and Wildlife.Not Entertainers, is slowly but surely starting to make some headway.


Back to Media

The NSPCA has huge animal welfare concerns for the animals exploited in the captive predator and canned hunting industry in South Africa. This industry is unregulated, uncontrolled and is responsible for untold cruelty. It is a tragedy that our wild animals are reduced to profit making machines. Coupled with this members of public are unwittingly encouraging and supporting this cruelty, so it is vital that the public are aware of the truth behind the industry so they can make informed decisions and hopefully choose not to support such an unethical industry.

Sr.Ainsley Hay, Manager, NSPCA Wildlife Protection Unit

Breeding magnificent wild creatures like lions in camps so that they can be slaughtered for ego and money is unconscionable and should be outlawed.  Lions have the right to live in the wild and to continue playing their unique role within the ecological communities of Africa.  The continued existence of the canned hunting industry is a moral outrage that diminishes us all.  This important film shines a light into the dark corners of this ugly business.

Cormac Cullinan, Cullinan & Associates Incorporated

Cruel, barbaric, macabre – all words used by Australian MPs about lion farming and the canned lion hunting industry in SA.  Our campaign was glad to be able to assist and participate in a full length documentary that aims to expose a brutal industry whose whole business model is routine, egregious cruelty to helpless animals – for fun.

Chris Mercer, Founder, CACH (Campaign Against Canned Hunting)

Captive lions have long been a blemish on South Africa’s wildlife and tourism landscape and their tragic story needed to be exposed before these practices negatively impacted on Brand South Africa. Congratulations to all involved in taking the time and making this happen.

Colin Bell, Tourism consultant and author of “Africa’s Finest”

“As a travel and conservation based organization, we find the “Blood Lions” documentary deeply disturbing. Despite being hard to watch, we urge people to get out there and see it. It is important to shed light on the dark and corrupt business of rearing lions for the purposes of hunting, in hopes of making a positive change. As we polled our membership, we found that individually each of our companies have chosen to stop booking all activities that contribute to this industry.”

The Safari Professionals – 30 Tour Operators based in the US and Canada

South Africa’s failure to address the canned hunting industry has emboldened those who make a living out of the death of lions bred, raised and slaughtered on a ‘no kill, no fee’ basis. The canned hunting industry is unnatural, unethical and unacceptable. It delivers compromised animal welfare and zero education. It undermines conservation and creates a moral vacuum now inhabited by the greed and grotesque self-importance of those who derive pleasure in the taking of life.

Blood Lions lays bare the truth behind the canned hunting industry that, far from contributing to the future survival of the species, may, in fact, accelerate extinction in the wild, leaving behind a trail  littered with rotting corpses of its helpless and hopeless victims.

Will Travers OBE, President Born Free Foundation

The Marchig Animal Welfare Trust, in providing support for the making of this Documentary, does so in the firm belief that it is important that the true facts behind captive lion breeding and canned lion hunting in South Africa, is brought to the attention of a global audience in order to create awareness which in turn will lead to much needed change.

Les Ward MBE, Chairman, The Marchig Animal Welfare Trust

This is a timely, courageous as well as a deeply disturbing documentary. It is at the same time, a voice for the wild and the voiceless … of saying “NO MORE!” to that terrible triad of financial opportunism, deceit and indifference to the non-human animal by those claiming to be conservationists.

Ian McCallum – Author, poet, psychiatrist and naturalist

With the constant pressure on wildlife, every effort must be made to keep our last vestiges of natural fauna and flora protected.    Canned hunting of any kind, along with the related consequences, must be condemned by humanity as not only a travesty of nature but also an utterly inhumane practise.   Taming lion cubs only to later hunt them is an utterly inhumane practice.   It is pseudo-hunting, a complete sham and does not even qualify as hunting on a sustainable use basis.   Wildlife conservation has to evolve into practices that are ethical, humanitarian and sustainable. This will not be achieved if there is not real and fair community involvement which has not been part of the hunting fraternity’s evolution.

Yvette Taylor, Executive Director, The Lawrence Anthony Earth Organisation

“Canned lion ‘hunting’ is nothing less than a bargain basement opportunity for foreign hunters to engage in one of South Africa’s most sordid practices. Hunting of captive bred lions entirely dependent on human fingerprints from cub to trophy is immoral, unethical and against all animal welfare concerns. The fact that it still continues as profitable commerce is a damning statement against all of us who have not properly engaged to snuff it out. Blood Lions is a good start to bring change.”

Dr Pieter Kat – Director: LionAid

Canned Lion