As Tigers Dwindle, Poachers Turn to Lions for ‘Medicinal’ Bones

Because wildlife managers are overwhelmed by the rhino horn poaching epidemic, investigations into missing lions will likely take second place

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In South Africa, lion bones are selling for around $165 per kilo (2.2 pounds). That’s about $5,000 for a full skeleton. The skull is worth another $1,100, according to the Guardian.

Over the past several months, officials in South Africa have noticed a steady increase in the number of permits they’re issuing for export of lion bones from certified trophy dealers. Such establishments breed lions for the express purpose of allowing wealthy tourists to engage in a controlled lion hunt. After killing the animal, if the patron does not want its body or bones, the breeders can then turn a large profit by stripping the lion down and selling its parts to Chinese and Southeast Asian dealers. The Guardian explains:

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.

In China, Vietnam and some other Southeast Asian nations, lion bones serve as a stand-in for tiger bones. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine believe the bones help with allergies, cramps, ulcers, stomach aches, malaria and a host of other ailments. As with many other purported traditional Chinese medicine “cures,” tiger bones ground into a powder and mixed with wind is also said to boost a man’s sexual prowess.

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 realised 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 just because trade in legally-sourced lion bones is given the green light from the South African government does not mean illicit activities are not underway. One investigator told the Guardian that he estimates that the legal market only contributes half of the lion bones currently leaving the country. That means poaching is responsible for the rest.

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