’Captive’ Lions – DEA Fails to Answer Questions Fully

Stephen Wiggins Article 19 Comments



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Petition: “Stop the exploitation of captive bred lions and the export of lion bones!

Captive Lion Petition


Let’s start with a working definition of ‘science:’

Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence” – Science Council

Furthermore, ‘science’ is not static, but is based on the best available evidence and should be impartial to politics, or wedded (biased) to any theoretical dogma – credible ‘science’ is impartial.

Speaking as a scientist, cherry picking evidence is unacceptable…..when public figures abuse scientific argument…..to justify policies that they want to implement for other reasons, it debases scientific culture” – Stephen Hawking


So, in response to questions raised (NW750, June 2017) by Mr P Van Dalen to the Minister, Department: Environmental Affairs (DEA), May 2017, we have some insight into the DEA’s ‘thinking.’

Q.1 – “How was the proposed quota of 800 lion skeletons established?” 

In response, the DEA tells us that:

The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) reviewed available information regarding the export of lion bones, lion skeletons and captive produced lion hunting trophies from South Africa between 2005 and September 2016. Based on the CITES trade database information and two studies, (i) Bones of Contention: An assessment of South African trade in African lion bone and other body parts and (ii) Southern African Wildlife trade: an analysis of CITES trade in the South African Development Community (SADC) region – a study commissioned by the Department of Environmental Affairs and the South African National Biodiversity Institute, the Scientific Authority recommended an export quota of 800 skeletons per year. The Scientific Authority considered the recommendation by SANBI, and the comments were received by the Department of Environmental Affairs and made a recommendation to the Minister, relating to the final quota.”

So let’s take a look and see if there is any further enlightenment to be gained as to why “800 skeletons” and not 500, 400, or indeed no quota was recommended.

The two reports referenced by the DEA in its response are:

Report 1`

Bones of Contention

Bones of Contention: An assessment of South African trade in African lion bone and other body parts[1]“ 

This 2015 report by WildCRU/TRAFFIC is a detailed analysis of the ‘legal’ trade, the corruption and the illicit profiteering, some key points of note:

a. “There appears to be a growing trade in Tigers and their parts and products from South Africa, and there have been calls for more transparency on the matter. An emerging concern is that Tiger bones from South Africa may be laundered as Lion bones using CITES Appendix II (instead of Appendix I) permits. Limitations in the South African legislation applying to endangered exotic animals have made it possible for an unregulated domestic trade in Tigers.”

Update – “Exposure of big cat slaughterhouse shows scrutiny of South Africa’s tiger farms is long overdue,” Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), 29 November 2018

b. “In South Africa, the trade in Lion bones currently has a negligible impact on wild Lion populations. The trade in bones appears to be a sustainable by-product of the sizeable trophy hunting industry in South Africa, and Lions that are hunted are almost exclusively captive-bred. There are few records of wild-hunting and poaching in the country, especially at a level that could supply the sizeable bone trade. The impact of the bone trade on wild Lion populations outside of South Africa, however, has yet to be determined” – but recent evidence (August 2017) suggest this latter threat, might be manifesting as the ‘trade’ develops. In fact some countries have taken pre-emptive action to try to deter the likely onset of wild lion poaching in the wake of South Africa’s “800 skeletons” quota – in July 2017, Namibia, introduced a N$1m fine/10 year jail term for possessing lion bones (with proposals to increase this to a potential N$15m/15 year jail term for illegal possession of wildlife products).


Report 2

South Africa's Wildlife Trade

Southern Africa wildlife trade – An analysis of CITES trade in South African Development Community (SADC) countries [2]

This 2016 report reads like a company report and account, of units shifted, cash-flow and profits.

However, neither of these reports specifically considers any ‘captive’ lion skeleton quota implementation and/or makes specific recommendations on such a quota. Both reports pre-date the CITES CoP17, Sept – Oct 2016 gathering that facilitated  an “Annual export quotas for trade in bones, bone pieces, bone products, claws, skeletons, skulls and teeth for commercial purposes, derived from captive breeding operations in South Africa will be established and communicated annually to the CITES Secretariat.”

Conclusions on the “800 Skeletons” quota

It still remains opaque how the SANBI formed its recommendation. Where is the SANBI’s actual, documented recommendation encompassing the justification and the ‘science’ behind its “800 skeletons” recommendation?

  • Perhaps, the “800″ is based purely on the past trade history of lion skeleton exports from South Africa’s ‘captive’/’canned’ lion hunting/bone industry. Based upon the CITES trade database, South Africa exported 4,901 lion “skeletons” and “bodies” between 2008 and 2016 (so an average of 612 per year). Is the DEA’s/SANBI’s recommendation based purely on the wedded (not impartial ‘science’) notion/theory that such ‘sustainable utilisation’ “must” be helping wild lions and tigers survive?
  • In the DEA’s 28 June 2017 media statementLion export quota for 2017 communicated to the CITES Secretariat in line with CITES requirements,” the DEA referenced a 2015 study by TRAFFIC:

“A 2015 study commissioned by TRAFFIC [“Bones of Contention] raised concerns around the shift in lion and tiger bone trade; namely that when the trade in tiger bone was banned; the trade shifted and bones were sourced from South Africa, available as a by-product of the hunting of captive bred lions.”

South Africa reiterates its concern that if the trade in bones originating from captive bred lion is prohibited, lion bones may be sourced illegally from wild lion populations.”

  • The DEA’s/lion bone industry’s hypocrisy is astounding:

The South African lion breeders themselves sought to establish a trade in lion bones/skeletons from 2008[1, page 7 – 10] as a by-product of the ‘canned’ lion hunting industry (with the DEA’s blessing). The DEA now lists this very lion bone/skeleton trade as a potential threat for wild lion populations as justification for perpetuating “…the trade in bones originating from captive bred lion.”

So, if the DEA thinks there is a threat to wild lion populations from the captive lion bone/skeleton trade, how can the DEA’s “800 skeletons” quota be proven by the DEA (with true ‘science,’ not a partial belief in ‘sustainable utilisation’) at this very moment as not detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild as required by CITES?:

CITES Article IV  states:

………an export permit shall only be granted for an Appendix II species [The African lion is currently Appendix II listed] when a Scientific Authority of the State of export has advised that such export will not be detrimental to the survival of that species

  • The DEA is also under the delusion that the trade in tiger bones has subsided because of the 2007 (CoP14) CITES “ban” (decision 14.69), so must be compensated for by South Africa’s lion bone/skeleton trade. However:

The 2015 “Bones of Contention report[1, page 7 – 10]  cited by the DEA suggests South Africa was/is still supplying tiger bones/parts.

The 2017, Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), “The Lion’s Share[5]“suggests there are more than 6,000 tigers held in captive breeding facilities in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to supply tiger bones to the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) industry (more than in 2008 when CITES’s “ban” guidance was supposed to be implemented), plus South Africa’s exportation of tiger parts.

The Lion's Share

The Lion’s Share[5]“- Environmental Investigation Agency, July 2017

Asia’s massive unchecked demand for skins, bones, teeth and claws continues to drive poaching of wild tigers. This demand is exacerbated by the supply of huge volumes of African lion bone, teeth and claws, sold as tiger parts to less-discerning consumers in Asia[5]

South Africa allows lion and tiger farming for commercial trade in parts and derivatives……in 2015, 280 tigers were estimated to be in at least 44 facilities in South Africa[1],[5]

  • It must be that South Africa’s ‘captive’ lion bone/skeleton exports are supplementing, not replacing any diminished supply of tiger bones/parts – CITES’ “ban” has failed, but the DEA wishes to think otherwise to try to justify perpetuating the ‘captive’ lion bone/skeleton trade.

BMP Panthera Leo

Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP) for the lion (Panthera leo) in South Africa[6]” – (last sentence, para 3.8, page 28) says “The impact of the lion bone trade on wild lion populations outside of SA however has yet to be determined.”


  • The DEA has proposed a 3 year SANBI study to look into the effects of the lion bone/skeleton trade:

The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) has initiated a study aimed at increasing the understanding of the lion bone trade in South Africa and the captive lion breeding industry.”

  • If an SANBI study is needed on the impacts of the current lion bone trade, if the potential effects on wild species is not fully understood, if the DEA suggests that without a “800 skeletons” quota there is potentially a risk to wild lion/tiger populations, where is the DEA’s/SANBI’s impartial ‘science’ that proves any of it and impartially justifies any “quota” as a risk mitigating ‘science’ (not a hypothesis based on a wedded devotion to ‘sustainable utilisation’)? If the SANBI has proof of the conservation purpose of the lion bone trade/captive bred lion breeding, then this of course would contradict the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) [7] when the IUCN  concluded in September 2016:

the prohibition by the South African Government on the capture of wild lions for breeding or keeping in captivity” and “terminating the hunting of captive-bred lions (Panthera leo) and other predators and captive breeding for commercial, non-conservation purposes.”

So again we ask, where is the SANBI’s actual, documented recommendation encompassing the justification and the ‘science’ behind its “800 skeletons” recommendation?

Q.2 – “What are the proposed amendments to Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) regulations, 2007 to reinstate lions as a “listed large predator?”” 

In the DEA’s response to question NW750, it is hinted by the DEA that lion (Panthera leo) will be reintroduced as a “listed large predator,” thereby enjoying the protection of TOPS sub-regulation 24.(1) and (2) protection. TOPS subregulation 24.(2)  prohibit the hunting of a “listed large predator” unless it:

a) has been rehabilitated in an extensive wildlife system; and

b) has been fending for itself in an extensive wildlife system for at least twenty four months.

In May 2007, the then South African Predator Breeder Association (PBA) (the body advocating for big cat/lion breeders, now superseded by the South African Predator Association (SAPA)) challenged the Minster’s (DEA’s) proposed inclusion of the lion (Panthera leo) in TOPS Regulations.

The PBA cited[1] the potentially prohibitive costs of any 24 month obligation to rewild their captive stock i.a.w. TOPS Regulation.

The applicants sought to overturn the decision to prohibit activities listed in Section 24 of TOPS involving listed large predators applying to Lions on the grounds that this self-sustaining period would put an end to the hunting industry and make it financially unviable for them. An initial judgement in June 2009 found that the 24-month self-sustaining period was not unreasonable and could be practically implemented and that it would not necessarily result in an end to the hunting industry” [1]

Whilst this court case was proceeding, in January 2008 the DEA temporarily suspended the listing of Panthera leo as a “listed large predator” under TOPS Regulations. However, Panthera leo was not removed from the list of threatened or protected species, so the protections of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (NEMBA)[3] (including exports) still remained applicable to lions.

Upon appeal to the South African Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), the SCA ruled  (Case No. 72/10, 29 November 2010) of its own volition, “mero motu,” that ‘since no captive bred lions have ever been released back into the wild, then lion farming had nothing to do with conservation.’ Therefore, in the SCA’s view, the Environment Minster had no jurisdiction to impose welfare restrictions on what was essentially being declared animal ‘farming’ and TOPS Regulations could not be applied:

It is declared that the inclusion of lion (panthera leo) within the definition of “listed large predator” in the definition in regulation 1 of the Threatened or Protected Species Regulations published on 23 February 2007 as amended, would have the effect of rendering regulation 24(2) in its current form, invalid in so far as it applies to a “put and take” animal that is a lion” – DEA response to questions raised (NW750, June 2017)


A “put and take animal” means a live specimen of a captive bred “listed large predator” that is released on a property irrespective of the size of the property for the purpose of hunting the animal within a period of twenty four months – TOPS definition

Conclusions on TOPS

So, the question remains, how will the DEA reintroduce the lion (Panthera leo) into TOPS Regulations as a “listed large predator” that does not conflict with the SCA’s ruling? The DEA has not made its proposed TOPS amendments on this issue public (yet, but clarity is being sought directly from the DEA as to when this might happen).

Update: TOPS revisions (Gazette 38600, 31 March 2015) includes lion (Panthera leo) under the definition of a “listed large predator,” but any 24 month rewilding obligation for a “listed large predator” has been removed from (“Permits“), Regulation 24 (“Compulsory conditions applicable to captive breeding facilities….”). Instead, under Chapter 7, Regulation 71 the restrictions (and exemptions) for hunting lions (wild and captive) are given (but no rewilding!).

The DEA’s 2015 “Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP) for the lion (Panther leo) in South Africa,[6] ” defines three distinct lion categories:

  • Wild Lions” – “completely fulfil their role in biodiversity processes and are largely unmanaged, and exist only in formally proclaimed national parks and game reserves. Conservationists do not actively manipulate vital rates and lion demographics.”
  • Managed Wild Lions” -“include all lions that have been re-introduced into smaller fenced reserves (<1000km2), and are managed to limit population growth and maintain genetic diversity. Managers actively manipulate some vital rates and demographics.”
  • Captive Lions”  – “are bred exclusively to generate money. Managers actively manipulate all vital rates and demographics” – it is duly noted that any ‘conservation’ value is not stated, but the Biodiversity Management Plan acknowledges captive lions “are bred exclusively to generate money.”

Perhaps the DEA will say TOPS Regulation 24.(2) “listed large predators, lion (Panthera leo)” should not apply to “Captive Lions” that have no rewilding history  – basically, “Captive Lions” somehow become a kind of sub-species separate from “Wild Lions” and/or rewilded captive bred “Managed Wild Lions” as far as “listed large predator lions (Panthera leo)” in TOPS is concerned – ie. it’s only a ‘real lion’ (Panthera leo) if it’s a “Wild Lion” and/or the lion has been rewilded from captive breeding as a “Managed Wild Lion.” If not, then it’s a “Captive Lion” and TOPS Subregulation 24.(2) will not apply, so  “Captive Lions” will not be prohibited from being hunted under TOPS Subregulation 24.(1)(a).

The irony is, the SAPA will struggle to independently prove any conservation credentials for its members’ “Captive Lions”  stock whilst “Captive Lions”  are so defined under TOPS as ‘not real lions’ (Panthera leo). Therefore, the chances of exporting the SAPA members’ ‘canned’ lion trophies to the USA will remain restricted – until such time as the SAPA tries to self-approve some kind of rewilding exercise/Public Relations effort, or finally seeks to comply with the TOPS Subregulation 24.(2).(a) and (b) 24 months’ rewilding rulings (which the PBA/SAPA so vehemently resisted complying with of their own volition back in 2007, when the SAPA (PBA) still had the opportunity, which suggests there is no true, altruistic conservation ethos within the SAPA, but the ‘business model’ now dictates that they try to glean some conservation credibility).

Q.3 – “Since CITES decision in September 2016 to allow a captive lion skeleton quota, what are the numbers for October, November and December 2016?”

Update: Reference “The Extinction Business, South Africa’s ‘Lion’ Bone Trade,” EMS Foundation and Ban Animal Trading, July 2018 the conclusion is:

South Africa’s lion bone trade has “….created a situation where the legal trade in ‘lion’ bones is fuelling the illegal trade in lion and tiger bones and providing laundering opportunities for tiger bones in Asian markets.

In the DEA’s response to question NW750, the following information (Table 1) was given and is compared with the CITES trade database* results obtained by independent interrogation.

Table 1 – Lion Skeletons Exported, October to December 2016

DEA Answer CITES Trade Database* (all trade terms)
October 2016 – 150 skeletons
November 2016 – 84 skeletons
December 2016 – 144 skeletons
Total – 378 skeletons 2016 Total – 6 skins, 2 skulls and 49 trophies


*The CITES trade database lists imports/exports under numerous trade terms (claws, skins, skulls, trophies, specimens etc.), so whole skeletons might not compare directly if the inputs are erroneous, plus there is a massive processing delay in the CITES trade database entries.

So, the DEA says 378 lion skeletons were exported October to December 2016, but CITES’ trade database lists no lion skeletons exported from South Africa for the entire 2016 period.

As an aside, in 2015, some 628 lion skeletons were exported from South Africa to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos), 118 to Thailand, 208 to Vietnam (plus 618 “bodies”), 1 to Belgium and 3 to Denmark. “Bodies” is defined by CITES as “Substantially whole dead animals, including fresh or processed fish, stuffed turtles, preserved butterflies, reptiles in alcohol, whole stuffed hunting trophies, etc.” so I think we can assume the use of the trade term “bodies” has been used in the past to try to mask additional lion skeleton exports.

Between 2008 and 2016, South Africa exported 4,901 lion “skeletons” and “bodies” (all sources, wild and captive) – if one adds in “bones” to the CITES trade database search, the total leaps to 9,886, or 1,235 per year (where “bones” is defined as “bones, including jaws” – so is “bones” also used as another mask for whole skeleton exports perhaps?).

In response to an additional question, the DEA stated that “the provincial conservation departments are the issuing authorities for permits relating to the export to the private sector” and offered the following table of data.

Table 2 – DEA’s Province Issued Permits for Lion Skeleton Export


Province October 2016 November 2016 December 2016
GP 15 5 2
EC 0 0 0
NW 0 0 0
FS 0 0 0
NC 0 1 1
WC 0 0 0
LP 1 1 1
KZN 0 1 0
MP 0 0 0
Total 16 8 4


Conclusions on October to December 2016 lion skeleton exports

So, who is monitoring the South African’s captive lion skeletons exports at CITES, and the proposed “quota”  that was sanctioned after CoP17 in October 2016? Why the discrepancy and lack of correlation in the DEA’s and CITES’ numbers (Table 1)? A reliable source has informed us that:

South Africa doesn’t have to provide its 2016 CITES trade figures to the CITES Secretariat until 31 October 2017 and after that it will be many months before UNEP-WCMC fully upload them to the CITES trade database so, realistically and from previous experience, we’re well over a year away from having 2016 figures for South Africa on the CITES trade database that could be used for comparison purposes with any confidence.”

So, when it comes to the CITES trade database, it’s going to be of no short-term practical use in monitoring any semblance of compliance to South Africa’s “800 skeletons” quota.

At CITES CoP17, Decision 17.241 agreed many things regarding the African lion (Panthera leo), but of note is an obligation to:

“e) undertake studies on legal and illegal trade in lions, including lion bones and other parts and derivatives, to ascertain the origin and smuggling routes, in collaboration with TRAFFIC and/or other relevant organisations”

In response to questions raised, May 2017 on the lion bones trade in the European Parliament (E-002379-17 ):

The [CITES] Secretariat will report to the CITES Standing Committee on this matter and the Commission will follow this question closely at the upcoming meetings of the Standing Committee in 2017 and 2018.”

The CITES Standing Committee met in Geneva in July 2017 and concluded with regard to Panthera leo (Decision 17.241):

The Secretariat has not yet been able to secure external funding to start implementing the various elements of Decision 17.241″Twenty-ninth meeting of the Animals Committee Geneva (Switzerland), 18-22 July 2017, Panthera Leo, para 7

So when will this TRAFFIC led report for the CITES Secretariat even start, let alone report? Will this report expose (again) the corruption of tiger bones being illicitly exported under the guise of lion bones and other illicit activity?


It would seem (Tables 1 and 2) it only took 16 permits to export 150 lion skeletons in October 2016, it took 8 permits to export 84 skeletons in November 2016, and it took 4 permits to export 144 lion skeletons in December 2016 (or it took a total of some 28 permits to export 378 lion skeletons).

Without a further breakdown of where each lion skeleton, or batch of lion skeletons was exported and the source for each skeleton/batch, then the reassurance of ‘permits’ numbers issued is fairly meaningless to try and tally any coherent picture.

Q.4 – “Lion Bones and Tuberculosis (TB) Risk” 

In another question (Question No. NW1581, raised by Mr N Singh, July 2017) to the Minister (DEA), concerning the human health issue of the transfer of Tuberculosis (TB) from lions to humans[4] [link to ‘Dying for a Myth‘], only a partial and wholly inadequate response was given.

The ‘captive’ lion breeding industry’s stock is not subject to regular TB testing and the whole arena of the ‘captive’ industry was not addressed in the Minster’s reply. So the question remains, how can it be known if the export of ‘captive’ lion bones/skeletons for human consumption are a hazard to human health? Or do we assume the Minister/DEA do not know, or wish to care about this potential human health hazard from lion bone/skeleton exports sanctioned by the DEA?

I am therefore of the opinion that uncontrolled exposure of humans to bones from animals, in particular lion bones, poses a risk for development of the form of TB known as bovine TB in particular, although not necessarily being limited to this form of TB only” – Professor Paul van Helden[4], Director of the South African Medical Research Council’s Centre for Molecular and Cellular Biology and Co-Director, DST/NRF Centre of Excellence for Biomedical TB Research

The Minster’s written reply suggests “the National Department for Agriculture [Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF)] would be in a better position to respond.”

So where is the clarity that the ‘captive’ lion bones/skeletons being exported by South Africa do not carry TB organisms harmful to human health, and which department is responsible for checking the exports of lion bones/skeletons – the DEA, the DAFF, or the Provincial offices?

Letters to the Republic of South Africa Embassy, London

‘800 Skeletons’ – ‘Captive’ Bred Lions Quota,” IWB, 11 July 2017

‘Captive’ Bred Lions and the Tuberculosis (TB) Risk to Human Health,” IWB, 14 August 2017

Further Reading:

Linda Park, Voice4Lions, “TB in lions,” YouTube, 11 February 2021

African Lions and Zoonotic Diseases: Implications for Commercial Lion Farms in South Africa, Green et al., MDPI, 18 September 2020

800 skeletons”- Captive lion export quota approved,” IWB, 28 June 2017

Tiger Breeding in South Africa,” Don Pinnock, Daily Maverick, 23 April 2018


[1] “Bones of Contention: An assessment of South African trade in African lion bone and other body parts,” WildCRU/TRAFFIC, Macdonald et al., July 2015

[2] “Southern Africa wildlife trade – An analysis of CITES trade in South African Development Community (SADC) countries,” UNEP, July 2016

[3] National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (NEMBA), 2004

[4] Dying for a Myth,’ Linda Park, Director – Voice4Lions, November 2018 updated version

[5] “The Lion’s Share,” Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), July 2017

[6] “Biodiversity Management Plan for the lion (Panther leo) in South Africa,” DEA, Gazette 39468, Vol 606, 2 December 2015

[7] “009 – Terminating the hunting of captive-bred lions (Panthera leo) and other predators and captive breeding for commercial, non-conservation purposes,” International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Motion 009, September 2016

Comments 19

  1. Sharie Lomas

    The transfer of TB from lion bones to humans is indeed scary. But it’s all about the money and sadly that’s how it is always going to be. I don’t believe that there is any “Science” that justifies the hunting of lions for body parts to send to Asian countries. That spiel IS fake news as DT would say ! MUMBO JUMBO. It is ALL ABOUT MAKING MONEY.

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