JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Wildlife traffickers in a major African park have been offering rewards for a full lion carcass, raising concerns that poachers are increasingly targeting a vulnerable species because of demand in some Asian countries for lion bones used in traditional medicine.
The report from Mozambique's Niassa National Reserve comes amid debate about whether the legal, annual export of bones from hundreds of captive-bred lions in South Africa to China and Southeast Asia could spur the market, possibly leading to the illegal killing of wild lions for their bones as well. African lion bones are a relatively recent substitute in tonics for the bones of Asian tigers, whose numbers were depleted by poachers.
There have been "multiplying anecdotal reports of lions harvested for body parts" along with "increasing examples of whole skeletons being taken," said Paul Funston, senior lion program director for the Panthera conservation group. He said he believes the phenomenon is linked to increased Chinese demand rather than the longtime use of lion parts in some traditional cultures in Africa.
"It seems to start with teeth and claws, which probably mainly have trinket value, and migrates to bones and carcasses once a market is established," Funston said.
Lions face other threats, including human encroachment on habitats and the poaching of antelopes and other animals for food, which deprives the predators of prey. The number of African lions in the wild has dropped by more than 40 percent to about 20,000 in the past two decades, according to estimates.
The Niassa wildlife park has at least a third of Mozambique's population of 2,700 lions. Colleen Begg, a leader of a carnivore project there, said the local use of lion parts is not a major concern yet and that lion poachers appear to be catering to the Asian market.
"We have middlemen coming in and offering a motorbike or $1,500 for a full lion carcass. This started about 18 months ago and is a real worry as, through poison and snares, they are now directly targeting lions. Most of our information comes through informers, but last year a poacher was caught with lion bones," Begg wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
"There is no doubt that poaching trade routes for ivory, pangolin scales, lion bones, rhino horn are very similar and the lion bones, teeth and claws are all going out the same way and are found in confiscated shipments that also contain ivory and rhino horn from Mozambique," Begg said.
Last year, Mozambican police seized a haul of rhino horn as well as six kilograms (13 pounds) of lion claws and teeth in suitcases at the international airport in the capital, Maputo, according to media reports.
In January, poachers cut through fences at an animal park in neighboring South Africa's Limpopo province and decapitated and chopped the paws off three male lions. Similar cases have been reported in recent weeks. Police said Friday they arrested a Mozambican and four South Africans after receiving information that people were selling lion heads in the province, South Africa's News24 website reported.
Recent South African cases "have the hallmark of domestic consumption for the local traditional medicine trade," said Vivienne Williams, a researcher at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the lead author on a 2015 lion bone study. Sometimes, lion teeth and claws are used as talismans and lion paw bones feature in healers' divination sets, she said.
Williams said she is aware of cases "where Asian nationals have been arrested at airports with undeclared lion teeth and claws" and that more research is needed to firmly establish any link between an apparent surge in lion poaching and the Asian market.
South Africa has proposed a 2017 export quota of 800 skeletons of captive-bred lions, many of which are killed by paying clients in a practice described by critics as "canned hunting."
South Africa's environmental affairs department raised a concern that runs counter to that of some conservationists, saying a ban on the trade in captive-bred lion bones could trigger more poaching of wild lions.
Richard Thomas, spokesman for TRAFFIC, a conservation group, said the legal industry must be closely monitored.
"We don't fully understand the dynamics of the lion bone trade, and while it may not currently be having a perceived impact on wild lions in South Africa, we simply don't know whether that'll be the case there in the future or whether it's presently the case elsewhere in the continent," he said.
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