Lion Whisperer

Everyone has heard of the Rhino poaching dilemma in South Africa. Despite all the anti-poaching efforts, the number of rhino poached continues to rise year on year.

This is to supply an insatiable demand driven by the Far East and especially countries like Laos, Vietnam and China.

Science proves that consuming rhino horn has no medicinal value as it’s made up entirely of keratin (the same substance which makes up finger and toe nails), yet there is an ever increasing demand for it in the far east. As middle income groups become wealthier, possessing rhino horn is deemed to be a status symbol, offered at parties to impress. Traditional medicine is also the very big consumer of rhino horn, thought to cure all sorts of conditions from a headache to even curing cancer.

Rhino numbers in South Africa seem to be in the region of around 20 000 – 23 000 and are now at tipping point. With the current poaching rates the population is starting to decline.

By comparison, lions are thought to be as few as between 15 000 and 20 000 in the entire continent of Africa. Their numbers are also rapidly declining.

Just like rhino horn there is an ever increasing demand for lion bones in the far east, which is again used in traditional medicine in the form of lion bone wine, or even as a substitute for tiger bone wine, in some cases labeled as tiger bone wine. It is also used in lion bone cake/cookies and other consumable products.

This is where the line between captive lions and wild lions starts to blur and is not completely understood by the masses. It’s completely legal to sell the bones from a lion in South Africa. Most are being harvested as a by-product from the ‘Canned Lion Hunting’ - however one would never know if the bones were from a captive bred lion or a wild one. There’s huge opportunities for illegally acquired bones to land up in the legal channels and a growing demand for bones wont necessarily be satiated by South Africa. What about syndicates involved in poaching in other countries perhaps also wanting to be in on the action. We therefore cannot act as if South Africa is in isolation to the rest of Africa. What we allow to happen within our borders can have a detrimental effect on wild lion populations outside of them.

The simple truth is that we don’t know the exact impact; however we do know that already there is a fair amount of anecdotal evidence to suggest lions are being smuggled from the wild into captivity, a highly illegal activity. It is being done to mitigate the consequences of captivity depression (Too much inbreeding) and also potentially to bring in to the market wild lion bones which are believed to be more potent and therefore fetch much higher prices.

Wild lions face other external pressures including retaliatory killings especially the farther north we go where protected areas are unfenced, prey base depletion, suitable habitat loss and therefore isolation which leads to genetic isolation and inbreeding and unsustainable trophy hunting.

What is really needed as a starting point to help wild lion populations, is an accurate census of the remaining lions in Africa. From there we can then make some informed decisions as to how better protect lions in those particular areas in which they occur.