For the few remaining wild tigers, the gaze of poachers is burning ever brighter, as international exports of lion skeletons are intensifying demand for the illegal trade.
South Africa could now export 800 lion skeletons a year, after the country’s government set this as the quota in June 2017.
Lion bones from South Africa are currently being sold to Asian markets, then released on the illegal market under the guise of being tiger parts. This is only serving to encourage the poaching of wild tigers, according to a new report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).
Skeletons in the medicine cabinet
In China, Vietnam, and Laos, demand for tiger bone is increasing. Skins are sold as a luxury home accessory, while tiger-bone wine, virility products and traditional medicines are made from other body parts.
As lion bones flood the market, enforcing laws around tiger parts is becoming more difficult and efforts to drive down demand are being undermined. The sale and use of tiger bones in traditional medicine has been illegal in China since 1993, yet the market still thrives.
The EIA said that the influx of lion parts has not reduced poaching and trafficking pressure on tigers. They said consumers have a preference for wild tiger, so poaching is still taking place to satisfy demands for authentic tiger parts. This is also driving the poaching of wild African lions, leopards, clouded leopards, snow leopards and jaguars.
Poaching in China is increasing rapidly, and was higher in 2016 than any other time in the last 15 years. Fewer than 4,000 tigers now remain in the wild, under severe threat of extinction. During the last century, their population has decreased by 95 percent.
The influx of lion bones is having other effects on the market. Experienced traders and consumers are now asking for proof that products contain tiger, and dealers are displaying skins or carcasses.
South Africa is the biggest exporter of lion bones, claws, skulls and other body parts. The skeletons belong to lions bred in captivity - an activity sanctioned by the government. Since 2008, the exports have increased.
Among the animal remains bound for Asia, South Africa has exported 27 tiger skins, 2,808 bones and 3,125 skeletons between 2005 and 2015 alone.
The EIA is now asking the South African government to put a stop to this practice. They said: “It is clear that a legal trade in captive lion parts is unworkable and will likely have a detrimental impact, not only on wild lions but also on endangered wild tigers.”
The South African government allows the activity to take place in order to protect wild lions, but establishing whether skeletons have come from wild or captive animals has its own set of complications.
Lions and tigers and bones
International trade in tiger parts is illegal, but trafficking is rife. An increase in lion bones could be opening up another opportunity for the illegal sale of tiger parts.
The DNA of the two big cats is very similar, making distinguishing them a difficult for law enforcement. The EIA said that some of the bones, teeth and claws being exported from South Africa could in fact belong to tigers bred in captivity.
The confusion between lion and tiger bones means traders might be able to circumvent the law. One trader told the EIA that the Siberian Tiger Park is labelling tiger-bone wine as “bone-strengthening wine,” listing the ingredients as lion and sika deer bone.
He added: “There is a Xiongsen tiger bear farm in Guilin, they produce the wines in tiger shaped bottles. They call them Zhuang gu jiu and claim they made the wine with lion and bear bones.”
Both of these products are being made with tiger bones, he said.
Photos courtesy of Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) [tiger skin] and Joanna Van Gruisen/EIA [tiger skull].