According to several specialists the new market is soaring. "In the past three months we have issued as many export licenses as in a whole year," says an official in Free State, home to most of South Africa's 200 lion breeders. In 2012 more than 600 lions were killed by trophy hunters. The most recent official figures date from 2009, certifying export of 92 carcasses to Laos and Vietnam. At about that time breeders started digging up the lion bones they had buried here and there, for lack of an outlet.
Despite the lack of scientific proof this potion is very popular, so with tiger bones increasingly scarce, vendors are replacing them with the remains of lions. Traders soon realized that South Africa could be a promising source. It is home to 4,000 to 5,000 captive lions, with a further 2,000 roaming freely in protected reserves such as the Kruger national park. Furthermore such trade is perfectly legal.
But a South African investigator, who has been working in this field for 35 years, paints a murky picture. "The legal market only accounts for about half the business, the other half depends on fraud and poaching, which make it possible to obtain bigger volumes, more quickly, and without attracting attention," he asserts, adding: "It's exactly the same people buying lion bones and poaching rhino horns. It's all connected." Sentenced to 40 years in prison last November for fraudulently obtaining and exporting rhino horns, the Thai trafficker Chumlong Lemtongthai also purchased lion bones on his trips to South Africa. "At the end of last year, at Johannesburg international airport, we intercepted several lion bones among bits of rhino horn and ivory, all in a packet ready for dispatch," says Hugo Taljaard, head of the Revenue Service's detector dog units. In six months' time South Africa will have 16 dogs trained to detect the smell of lion bones, compared with only two at present.
"As the price of bones is rising steadily, some breeders have started slaughtering their own lions, without obtaining a permit or getting a vet to put the animal to sleep," says a fraud inspector. "But with the present wave of rhino poaching, we've neither the time nor the resources to address the problem."