Traditional medicines: Tiger-bone trade could threaten lions

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The clampdown on the illegal trade in tiger parts for traditional Chinese medicines seems to be prompting their substitution with lion products (see our report Bones of Contention TRAFFIC/WildCRU; in the press). Our investigations also reveal that measures to protect tigers in Asia may be driving a growing trade in other Asian felids.

Images of lions started to appear from about 1995 on the labels of Chinese medicines that traditionally would have contained tiger products. In December 2009, a CITES permit was issued in South Africa for lion skeletons to be exported to Asia — indicative of a developing market for the bones. Our report notes that more than 1,160 skeletons had been exported by the end of 2011, of which 85% were destined for the Lao People's Democratic Republic.

Controversially, the trade in lions from South Africa seems mostly to be a sustainable by-product of the trophy-hunting industry (hunted lions are almost always bred in captivity). However, anecdotal accounts of wild lion poaching in other African countries for markets in Asia call for further investigation. And the trade in lion bones from South Africa may be linked with the sharp increase in rhino poaching in 2008, as discussed in our report.

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  1. *On behalf of 4 correspondents (see Supplementary information for full list).

    • Vivienne L. Williams


  1. University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

    • Vivienne L. Williams

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