TANZANIA (eTN) – Striding proudly on short grasses of the African savannah, lions are the major tourist attraction of all the wild animals, pulling in big crowds of tourists to the East African premier wildlife parks.
But a recently-published report on emerging trade in lion bones, has created a shock to nature conservationists and tourist business companies in East Africa, fearing their companies being closed down if these big cats become endangered.
Tourist stakeholders in Tanzania fear that emerging trade in lion parts would stimulate a high level of poaching of the big cats and decimate their numbers in protected areas.
A recent media report published in South Africa said lion bones have become a hot commodity for their use in Asian traditional medicine, driving up exports from South Africa to oriental states.
The report pointed out Vietnam and Laos as the leading East Asian nations where lion bones had found a new lucrative market, fearing to see illegal hunting of lions to feed those markets, while China came in next in demand.
East African lions are protected under protection legislations laid in each country, but, not listed as an endangered species under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Under CITES list, lions are classified as a vulnerable species. Hunting of these big cats is allowed under CITES regulations, but with issued permits from respective countries. Lion trophies from East Africa have so far flooded the international markets of Europe, America, and Asia.
It is estimated that there were over 200,000 lions in Africa in the 1960s, but their numbers have dropped to about 17,000 to 30,000 in the past 8 years, creating fears among conservationists that these big cats are on the verge of extinction.
Africa is the only continent inhabited by lions, mostly in the plains savannah in Eastern and Southern Africa, with a few in West and Central Africa, and a very small population of Asian lions found in Gir Forest in India.
Kenya and Tanzania are the leading African countries boasting big prides of lions in their leading wildlife parks, pulling most tourists visiting these two African destinations, and no single foreign tourist who wants to leave these two countries without seeing a pride of lions.
Hunting of lions in Tanzania is conducted through special permits issued by the Wildlife Division under the Ministry of Tourism, but tourist stakeholders fear to see the worst if the trade in lion bone flourishes, taking into reality that the Wildlife Division has been counted as he most corrupt government unit in the Ministry of Tourism.
Several directors responsible for wildlife supervision have been sacked on corrupt practices, and recently, the Minister responsible for Natural Resources and Tourism, Mr. Khamis Kagasheki, vowed to sack all corrupt officers in the wildlife department.
Unlike rhino and elephant, which are highly protected in Tanzania, lions are not much protected because their body parts are not needed by local Tanzania poachers. Only professional and rich hunters kill lions for trophy – the skin and foots (paws), while well-trained wildlife experts are engaged to kill and process the lion skin.
Trophy hunters in Tanzania are allowed to shoot male lions, the old ones, leaving alone females and young productive lions. But lion bone markets would attract poaching of any lion found roaming freely.
Lions are scattered all over Tanzania, living in protected and unprotected open areas. Tanzanians are not interested to kill lions, except on protection purposes. Only the Maasai herdsmen kill lions to express their brevity shortly before marriage engagement.
Media reports from South Africa said lion skeletons are mostly shipped to Vietnam and Laos, feeding conservationists’ fears that the market will drive up lion poaching — just as the illegal hunting of rhinos escalates for their horns, also popular in Asian traditional remedies.
“Suddenly, and very recently, there are a great number of people from Laos who have a big interest for trophy hunting. And that had never happened in the whole history of Laos!” said Mr. Pieter Kat from the conservation NGO, LionAid.
Around 500 lions are hunted legally every year in South Africa, most of them from commercial lion breeding farms, which also supply zoos all over the world. Until recently, hunters paid $20,000 just for a trophy to hang above the fireplace, and the carcass was thrown to the dogs.
But their crushed bones have become popular, as a substitute for the bones of tigers, in love potions or “tiger wine.” Trade in tiger parts is banned under international law, as the animal is a threatened species. Now Asian hunters buy lion trophy hunting permits to get at the bones, Kat said.
Breeders are also coy about the number of lions they have on their farms. South Africa is thought to have 5,000 in captivity. But the bones of wild lions – thought to be more potent – are worth even more in Asia, which threatens the 3,000 big cats left in the country’s reserves, animal rights groups say.
Lion breeders in South Africa deny the lion bone trade will spark poaching similar to that of rhinos.