Africa’s wild lion population is estimated to be between 20 000 and 30 000. Researchers have good reason to believe that the real number is closer to 20 000. This puts lions in the “vulnerable” category of threatened species.
The categorisation masks important realities. The only growing populations are those in fenced reserves with small wild managed populations. This is not only a species crisis. It’s also an ecological and economic crisis. Lions are apex predators, which means that entire food chains and ecological systems depend on healthy populations. Lions are also a significant tourism drawcard, and tourism is a significant employer.
South Africa, uniquely, also allows the breeding of lions in captivity, most of which have no conservation value. It has an estimated 7000 to 8000 lions in captivity across roughly 300 facilities. These lions are predominantly bred for canned hunting and the Asian predator bone market.
A report prepared by by EMS, an activist charity, and the lobby group Ban Animal Trading, shows that lion bones are sold on the black market as tiger bones. The bones are dropped into rice wine vats and sold as tiger bone wine which is promoted in Asian markets as a treatment for rheumatism and impotence. The bones are also used to produce tiger bone cakes, an exotic small bar of melted bones mixed with additives like turtle shell.
The report argues that most lion bones come from captive-bred lions in South Africa.
Captive breeding is perfectly legal, if distasteful. But there are limits on the trade of lion bones. In 2016 the 17th CITES Conference of the Parties decided that no bone exports should be allowed from wild lions. But the conference also agreed that South Africa should establish a quota for skeleton exports from captive-bred lions. Captive breeding only occurs at scale in South Africa, so no other country is permitted to export lion bones.
A year later the Department of Environmental Affairs set an annual lion skeleton export quota at 800. It raised this to 1500 in July 2018. It did so without public consultation or the support of research. Even an interim report prepared for the department by the South African National Biodiversity Institute did not specify grounds on which to establish, or expand, a quota.
On top of this, there’s poor regulation of lion breeding facilities. The department doesn’t have a working database so doesn’t know how many facilities there are, or what the total number of captive-bred predators is.
How it works
In my new report, I discuss how breeding facilities are linked to the trade in lion bones.
The facilities arrange hunts that cost in the region of $22 000 for a male and female combination. Wildlife researcher, Karl Amman, describes how trophy taxidermists then sell the lion skeletons (without the skull) on to buyers. These are usually in Asian countries. A skeleton can fetch $1500.
The importer then sells the bones on for between $700 and $800 per kg. A 100kg lion yields about 18kgs of bone, worth roughly $15 000 at this point in the supply chain. The bones are then imported into Vietnam, boiled down in large pots to yield 100g bars of cake which are sold for roughly $1000.
Conservationists are concerned that South Africa’s quota provides an incentive to breed lions not only for the bullet, but also for the bone trade.
The 2017 quota was fully subscribed within weeks while a newly released report prepared for CITES suggests that 3469 skeletons were exported that year, nearly double the allocated number.
This rise in the trade of lion bones shouldn’t come as a surprise. In 2016 the US banned the import of captive-origin lion trophies from South Africa. Breeding facilities began looking for alternative markets. Selling lion carcasses was an obvious option given that a lioness skeleton fetches roughly R30 000, and a male skeleton about R50 000, when sold to a trader.
The predator breeding industry in South Africa argues that captive lion populations serve as a buffer against wild lion poaching because it can satisfy the demand for bones.
But those who oppose the trade in lion bones cite evidence that suggests the opposite is true. If anything, the quota could fuel the demand for lion products and provide a laundering channel for illegally sourced wild lion parts. This may imperil already vulnerable wild lion populations elsewhere in Africa. It also makes law enforcement extremely challenging: officials cannot be expected to distinguish between legal and illegally sourced bone stock.
What is being done about it?
The public outcry over an apparently arbitrary quota has been notable. The backlash against canned hunting and the bone trade has been similarly vocal.
The arguments against the trade have been put on the table at a two-day colloquium in South Africa’s parliament. The question being asked is: does the captive lion breeding industry harm, or promote, South Africa’s conservation image?
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Ultimately, it is parliament’s job to hold the government to account. The colloquium may go some way towards doing so. It may even end the brutality of captive predator breeding.
The world is watching the unfolding Cape Town water crisis with horror. On “Day Zero”, now predicted to be just ten weeks away, engineers will turn off the water supply. The South African city’s four million residents will have to queue at one of 200 water collection points.
Cape Town is the first major city to face such an extreme water crisis. There are so many unanswered questions. How will the sick or elderly people cope? How will people without a car collect their 25-litre daily ration? Pity those collecting water for a big family.
The crisis is caused by a combination of factors. First of all, Cape Town has a very dry climate with annual rainfall of 515mm. Since 2015, it has been in a drought estimated to be a one-in-300-year event.
In recent years, the city’s population has grown rapidly – by 79% since 1995. Many have questioned what Cape Town has done to expand the city’s water supply to cater for the population growth and the lower rainfall.
Could this happen in Australia?
Australia’s largest cities have often struggled with drought. Water supplies may decline further due to climate change and uncertain future rainfall. With all capital cities expecting further population growth, this could cause water supply crises.
The situation in Cape Town has strong parallels with Perth in Australia. Perth is half the size of Cape Town, with two million residents, but has endured increasing water stress for nearly 50 years. From 1911 to 1974, the annual inflow to Perth’s water reservoirs averaged 338 gigalitres (GL) a year. Inflows have since shrunk by nearly 90% to just 42GL a year from 2010-2016.
To make matters worse, the Perth water storages also had to supply more people. Australia’s fourth-largest city had the fastest capital city population growth, 28.2%, from 2006-2016.
As a result, Perth became Australia’s first capital city unable to supply its residents from storage dams fed by rainfall and river flows. In 2015 the city faced a potentially disastrous situation. River inflows to Perth’s dams dwindled to 11.4GL for the year.
For its two million people, the inflows equated to only 15.6 litres per person per day! Yet in 2015/6 Perth residents consumed an average of nearly 350 litres each per day. This was the highest daily water consumption for Australia’s capitals. How was this achieved?
Tapping into desalination and groundwater
Perth has progressively sourced more and more of its supply from desalination and from groundwater extraction. This has been expensive and has been the topic of much debate. Perth is the only Australian capital to rely so heavily on desalination and groundwater for its water supply.
Australia’s next most water-stressed capital is Adelaide. That city is supplementing its surface water storages with desalination and groundwater, as well as water “transferred” from the Murray River.
Australia’s other capital cities on the east coast have faced their own water supply crises. Their water storages dwindled to between 20% and 35% capacity in 2007. This triggered multiple actions to prevent a water crisis. Progressively tighter water restrictions were declared.
The major population centres (Brisbane/Gold Coast, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide) also built large desalination plants. The community reaction to the desalination plants was mixed. While some welcomed these, others question their costs and environmental impacts.
The desalination plants were expensive to build, consume vast quantities of electricity and are very expensive to run. They remain costly to maintain, even if they do not supply desalinated water. All residents pay higher water rates as a result of their existence.
Since then, rainfall in southeastern Australia has increased and water storages have refilled. The largest southeastern Australia desalination plants have been placed on “stand-by” mode. They will be switched on if and when the supply level drops.
Investing in huge storage capacity
Many Australian cities also store very large volumes of water in very large water reservoirs. This allows them to continue to supply water through future extended periods of dry weather.
The three largest cities (Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane) have built very large dams indeed. For example, Brisbane has 2,220,150 ML storage capacity for its 2.2 million residents. That amounts to just over one million litres per resident when storages are full.
In comparison, Cape Town’s four million residents have a full storage capacity of 900,000 ML. That’s 225,000 litres per resident. Cape Town is constructing a number of small desalination plants while anxiously waiting for the onset of the region’s formerly regular winter rains.