How Illegal Wildlife Trafficking Could Decimate Lion Populations

September 20, 2017

By African People & Wildlife

A female lion in northern Tanzania
Photo: African People & Wildlife/Laly Lichtenfeld

Earlier this year, a community wildlife ranger made a startling discovery while on patrol in a Tanzanian nature refuge. The carcass of a lioness lay exposed to the midday sun—her four legs, paws, head, and vital organs missing. The ranger then uncovered the unimaginable: the lioness had been pregnant. Her two unborn cubs died with her, their hairless bodies removed from her womb by poachers and discarded at her side.
What makes this death in Tanzania particularly disturbing is how the lioness was completely dismembered—presumably so that poachers could sell her body parts to wildlife traffickers.
In recent years, the teeth, claws, bones, skins, and other body parts of big cats have become increasingly valuable on the black market, especially in several Asian countries where some believe such items contain medicinal and even spiritual power. It has been widely reported that traffickers to countries such as Laos, China, and Vietnam are using lion parts as substitutes for those of tigers, which are now extremely rare in the wild.
The nature refuge where the lioness was discovered lies outside of the area where African People & Wildlife (APW) operates. To date, we have seen no evidence to indicate that lion poaching for the sale of body parts has occurred in any of our programmatic areas.
But the problem appears to be on the rise across Africa. Tanzania alone has recorded at least three high-profile lion trafficking cases. For example, Vietnamese nationals have been caught attempting to smuggle lion parts, along with ivory, out of the Dar es Salaam airport and also across the Tanzania-Kenya border at Namanga. In 2015, Swiss officials seized lion parts that originated in Tanzania and were bound for China. Along with 600 pounds of ivory, they were packed into eight suitcases and checked through airport security.
Anecdotal stories reference Mozambique’s Niassa National Reserve—which borders Tanzania to the south—where traffickers have offered up to $1,500 for a lion carcass.

A male lion roaring
Photo: African People & Wildlife/Laly Lichtenfeld

In South Africa, the trade in lion bones and skeletons remains legal and often occurs on game ranches where the cats are bred in captivity and killed in canned hunts. In 2016, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) caused considerable controversy when it set South Africa’s 2017 export quota for lion skeletons at 800.
Just as the legal trade in ivory and rhino horn became corrupted by traffickers who forged certificates and bribed officials, the likelihood is high that lions are also being poached in the wild and sold as part of the so-called legal trade. At this time, the full scale of lion poaching and illicit trafficking across Africa remains unknown.
What is known is that lion populations have declined by more than 40% in the past 14 years. Illicit wildlife trafficking generates $10-20 billion a year and continues to threaten big cats and countless species around the world. The trade is not limited to lions and to Africa, or even to dead animals: Jaguar teeth and body parts from Central and South America also flow to Asia. Leopard skins remain popular throughout the world, and live cheetahs have long been prized as pets in the Middle East.

We stand vigilantly against the legal trade in lion body parts and will be closely following the impact it has on illicit trafficking and poaching.

APW is committed to protecting lions and other big cats from all threats, including any form of illegal killing. We are working in close partnership with local Maasai communities to prevent the killing of lions in retribution for attacks on their livestock. No lions in our conservation landscapes have been lost so far in 2017, and from January through July of this year, we prevented the retaliatory killing of lions on 14 occasions.
We stand vigilantly against the legal trade in lion body parts and will be closely following the impact it has on illicit trafficking and poaching. The bones of a lion mother in Tanzania should never end up in someone’s soup in China.

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