Koos Hermanus would rather not give names to the lions he breeds. So here, behind a 2.4-meter high electric fence, is 1R, a three-and-a-half-year-old male, who consumes 5kg of meat a day and weighs almost 200kg. It will only leave its enclosure once it has been “booked”‘ by a hunter, most of whom are from the United States. At that point the big cat will be set loose in the wild for the first time in its life, 96 hours before the hunt begins. It usually takes about four days to track down the prey, with the trophy hunter following its trail on foot, accompanied by big-game professionals including Hermanus. He currently has 14 lions at his property near Groot Marico, about two and a half hours by road west of Johannesburg.
After the kill Hermanus will be paid $10,000, but he can boost his earnings further by selling the lion’s bones to a Chinese dealer based in Durban. At $165 a kilo (an average figure obtained from several sources) the breeder will pocket something in the region of $5,000.
If his client does not want to keep the lion’s head as a trophy, the skull will fetch another $1,100. “If you put your money in the bank you get 8% interest,” he explains, “but at present lions show a 30% return.”
According to several specialists the new market is soaring. “In the past three months we have issued as many export licenses as in a whole year,” says an official in Free State, home to most of South Africa’s 200 lion breeders. In 2012 more than 600 lions were killed by trophy hunters. The most recent official figures date from 2009, certifying export of 92 carcasses to Laos and Vietnam. At about that time breeders started digging up the lion bones they had buried here and there, for lack of an outlet.
Asian traders started taking an interest in South African lions in 2008, when the decline in tiger numbers – now in danger of extinction – became acute. In traditional Chinese medicine, tiger wine, made using powdered bones, allegedly cures many ills including ulcers, cramp, rheumatism, stomach ache and malaria. The beverage is also claimed to have tonic qualities, boosting virility.
Lion in Uganda. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Despite the lack of scientific proof this potion is very popular, so with tiger bones increasingly scarce, vendors are replacing them with the remains of lions. Traders soon realized that South Africa could be a promising source. It is home to 4,000 to 5,000 captive lions, with a further 2,000 roaming freely in protected reserves such as the Kruger national park. Furthermore such trade is perfectly legal.
But a South African investigator, who has been working in this field for 35 years, paints a murky picture. “The legal market only accounts for about half the business, the other half depends on fraud and poaching, which make it possible to obtain bigger volumes, more quickly, and without attracting attention,” he asserts, adding: “It’s exactly the same people buying lion bones and poaching rhino horns. It’s all connected.” Sentenced to 40 years in prison last November for fraudulently obtaining and exporting rhino horns, the Thai trafficker Chumlong Lemtongthai also purchased lion bones on his trips to South Africa. “At the end of last year, at Johannesburg international airport, we intercepted several lion bones among bits of rhino horn and ivory, all in a packet ready for dispatch,” says Hugo Taljaard, head of the Revenue Service’s detector dog units. In six months’ time South Africa will have 16 dogs trained to detect the smell of lion bones, compared with only two at present.
In June 2012 an online petition calling on President Jacob Zuma to ban the export of lion bones and body parts attracted 750,000 signatures. “The fact that the business is legal just fuels demand, but with the supply-side unable to keep up, buyers will increasingly switch to lions that are still in the wild, including elsewhere in Africa, despite them being endangered,” warns Pieter Kat at the NGO LionAid. “To prevent that risk, it would be better to let us cater for growing demand,” counters Pieter Potgieter, head of the South African Predator Breeders Association.
“As the price of bones is rising steadily, some breeders have started slaughtering their own lions, without obtaining a permit or getting a vet to put the animal to sleep,” says a fraud inspector. “But with the present wave of rhino poaching, we’ve neither the time nor the resources to address the problem.”
(03/20/2013) For a long time male lions were derided as the lazy ones in the pride, depending on females for the bulk of hunting and not pulling their weight. Much of this was based on field observations—female lions hunt cooperatively, often in open savannah, and therefore are easier to track at night. But new research in Animal Behaviour is showing that males are adroit hunters in their own right, except prickly males hunt alone and use dense vegetation as cover; instead of social hunting in open savannah, they depend on ambushing unsuspecting prey.
(03/18/2013) African lions (Panthera leo) living outside of protected areas like national parks or reserves also happen to be studied much less than those residing within protected areas, to the detriment of lion conservation initiatives. In response to this trend, a group of researchers surveyed an understudied, unprotected region in northwestern Mozambique called the Tete Province, whose geography and proximity to two national parks suggests a presence of lions.
(03/06/2013) In order for dwindling lion populations to survive in Africa, large-scale fencing projects may be required according to new research in Ecology Letters. Recent estimates have put lion populations down to 15,000-35,000, a massive drop from a population that was thought to be around 100,000 in 1960. The worsening plight of lions have pushed the researchers to suggest what is likely to be a controversial proposal: fence the top predators in.
(02/04/2013) They languished behind bars in squalid conditions, their very survival in jeopardy. Outside, an international team of advocates strove to bring worldwide attention to their plight. With modern genetics, the experts sought to prove what they had long believed: that these individuals were special. Like other cases of individuals waiting for rescue from a life of deprivation behind bars, the fate of those held captive might be dramatically altered with the application of genetic science to answer questions of debated identity. Now recent DNA analysis has made it official: this group is special and because of their scientifically confirmed distinctiveness they will soon enjoy greater freedom.
(01/21/2013) Three developing countries have recently toughened hunting regulations believing the changes will better protect vanishing species. Botswana has announced it will ban trophy hunting on public lands beginning in 2014, while Zambia has recently banned any hunting of leopards or lions, both of which are disappearing across Africa. However, the most stringent ban comes from another continent: Costa Rica—often considered one of the “greenest” countries on Earth—has recently passed a law that bans all sport hunting and trapping both inside and outside protected areas. The controversial new law is considered the toughest in the Western Hemisphere.
(12/04/2012) African lions, one of the most iconic species on the planet, are in rapid decline. According to a new study in Biodiversity Conservation, the African lion (Panthera leo leo) population has dropped from around 100,000 animals just fifty years ago to as few as 32,000 today. The study, which used high resolution satellite imagery to study savannah ecosystems across Africa, also found that lion habitat had plunged by 75 percent.