The Lion Bone Trade - A Roaring success?

China's State Council introduced a ban on the use of Tiger bones in traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in May 1993 under intense pressure, with the Clinton administration in the US and Cites separately threatening trade sanctions.  Late in 2009, a newspaper article appeared in South Africa called "Anger over lion bones sales”. It highlighted the existence of a little-known trade in African lion bones that were being used as a substitute for tiger bones in Traditional medicine.

An earlier investigation by TRAFFIC in 2005 found evidence that African lions were an ingredient in “tiger Wine". TRAFFIC found the ”The Xiongsen Wine Company in Southeast China, was given permission to produce 400,000 bottles of ‘tiger wine’. While the name on the bottle sounded like "tiger bone wine" and the bottle was tiger shaped, the difference was, the approved ingredient was "Panthera leo" bones – which referred to the lion and not tiger bone as the key active ingredient. (Nowell and Ling, 2007). 

When the Chinese government subsequently conducted an investigation in October 2006, they reported that  ‘only 16 legally obtained lion carcasses were found, and no tiger bones were used to produce the wine’ (Nowell and Ling, 2007)."

This raised concerns amongst animal welfare groups that the much called for ban on the use of tiger bone in TCM could have an impact on the survival of wild African lions. 

In mid-2008, South Africa issued its first export permit for 50 lion skeletons destined for Lao People’s Democratic Republic that were obtained from captive-bred lions. South Africa became the centre of attention at this time, due to the number of captive-bred lions held by breeders and canned hunting businesses in the country. From 2008 to 2011, the official number of skeletons legally exported with CITES permits totalled 1,160 skeletons (about 10.8 metric tonnes).

As the North West, Free State and Eastern Cape are the only provinces issuing export permits for lion bones, and the lions in these provinces are nearly all captive bred, it appears that lion skeletons of South African origin are almost definitely derived from captive bred, not wild, animals. The Free State province itself is the epicentre of the captive lion breeding industry and has about 3,000 lions in 70 breeding and two hunting facilities.

The Canned hunting industry is the main source of carcasses once the hunter has taken the skull and skin. Most lion trophy hunting in South Africa is from captive-bred animals.

However, the value of a lion skeleton is determined by the completeness of the "set". The value of lion bones, as a by-product of the canned hunting industry, has allegedly motivated lion farmers to exhume carcasses that were disposed of prior to 2008 to obtain the skulls. Another consequence of the use of lion bones is the commercial value of lionesses. Previously females had little to no value to breeders from hunting, but the lion bone trade has made the females commercially valuable.

Over the past two years, the price of lion bones has leapt from less than US$10 per kilogram to more than US$300 per kilogram. Prices continue to increase and it is claimed that large syndicates are placing orders for 30 or more lionesses to be shot in cages at one time.

At present prices, the bones of one lioness are worth more than the average price to shoot one − around, US$4000.

An attempt to put lions in CITES Appendix I with a zero quota on wild and captive lion bone trade failed at CITES CoP17 last October. Instead, a compromise document resulted in South Africa is allowed to continue with the captive-lion bone trade.

The Legal trade in lion bone undermines China’s ban on tiger bone - designed to protect wild tigers from illegal poaching and potential extinction, While demand for tiger-bone wine continues to grow the trade continues unchecked, allowing elite consumers to continue to seek the authentic bones of wild tigers as a premium product, which in turn leads to poaching and illegal trade across Asia. Snow leopards, Asiatic lions, leopards and even jaguars are also poached for the big cat bone trade in Asia.

Some of the captive-bred lion facilities in South Africa are also farming tigers and sending body parts to Asia, completely in contravention of CITES decisions on tigers. Yet, the South African government continues to insist they will not act unless the wild population of lions is under-threat.

What is ‘Tiger-Wine’?

Traditional Chinese Medicine is holistic and links the body and it’s ailments to the local environment. Because the tiger is seen as agile, strong and energetic these attributes are given to tiger-bone wine that is advocated as a stimulant from fatigue or for bone-related ailments, such as arthritis and rheumatism.

Tiger-bone wine is made by soaking tiger bones in rice wine for lengthy periods. In some instances, whole carcasses may be left in the wine for several years. The belief is that by absorbing nutrients from the bones, the wine will pass on the animal’s strength and vitality to the drinker. We'll leave you to make your own mind up on the medicinal values of 'tiger wine' but we know what we believe.