Nov 6 2023

I wrote about lions a while ago another species very much endangered with growing population and poaches I came across National geographic article which I thought many of you would find very interesting.

There are 38 species of cats on the planet. Most, like the margay, are relatively small. But some—the lion, tiger, leopard snow leopard, clouded leopard, jaguar, lynx, and cheetah—are big. These big cats are among the most beloved and recognizable animals on the planet.

Most big cats are members of the genus Panthera. Small and medium cats, including housecats, are member of Felis. Cheetahs, which do not have retractable claws, are in their own genus, called Acinonyx. Big cats are found around the world in habitats as varied as mangrove swamps in India to wooded forests in the Western Us.

All about that roar

The main difference between big cats and most of their cousins is in the noises they make. Smaller cats purr; big cats (with the exception of cheetahs, lynx, and snow leopards) roar. They also squeak, grunt, scream, and make several other sounds, thanks to a ligament in their voice boxes. The lion’s roar is the most famous and can be heard up to five miles away because of the specialized structure of its vocal chords, a characteristic it shares with the tiger.

Lions are the only big cats that live in groups, called prides. Lionesses hunt together, bringing down large prey like wildebeests and zebras. All other big cats live solitary lives, with the exception of mothers and cubs. Some, like the snow leopard, are especially elusive and rarely seen.

Endangered cats

The largest big cat is the Siberian Tiger, which can weigh an astonishing 660 pounds and stretch more than 10 feet nose to tail. It is one of six surviving tiger subspecies. Tigers have been hunted extensively as trophies and for use in traditional Chinese medicine and are listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List.

As apex predators, big cats are bellwethers for their ecosystems. If they’re doing well, the ecosystem is doing well, and vice versa. As a whole, big cats are under increasing threats from poaching, habitat loss, and other environmental factors.

South Africa has as many as 10,000 captive lions—but only about 3,500 in the wild. On private farms and in attractions such as the Lion & Safari Park, near Johannesburg, tourists pay to pet, feed, and walk with the animals and take selfies with them.

FREE STATE PROVINCE, SOUTH AFRICA More than 3,300 skeletons and carcasses from captive lions in South Africa—nearly equivalent to the number of the country’s wild lions—were legally shipped to Vietnam, Laos, and elsewhere in East and Southeast Asia between April 2016 and April 2019, new reporting reveals.

This finding is important because it sheds light on the inner workings of the global trade in big cat parts—illegal as well as legal—that’s pushing lions and other wild animals closer to extinction.

But who wants the bones of lions, and why?

The trade didn’t start with lions. Traditional Chinese medicine holds that tiger bones brewed into “wine” can treat illnesses such as arthritis and rheumatism and boost sex drive—claims not supported by science. Poaching of tigers caused their numbers to plummet from about a hundred thousand in the early 1900s to an estimated 4,500 today. In 2007, China tightened rules governing the trade in tiger bones, and lion bones emerged as an alternative.

For decades, South African farmers have bred the king of beasts as a commodity. Many of the country’s 300 or so farms, which hold 10,000 or more captive lions, are geared to tourists who want to get close to the animals—even walk with them or pet cubs. Some farmers charge trophy hunters thousands of dollars for the guaranteed opportunity to shoot a lion for its head, skin, teeth, or claws.

Others have concentrated on supplying an international trade in lion bones. They say this trade helps reduce poaching of South Africa’s remaining 3,500 wild lions. But many conservationists argue that it does the opposite, by normalizing the use of big-cat-bone products and fuelling demand. A 2015 report that notes that in 1998, China, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand began importing live lions as well as skeletons and carcasses. And after 2007, bone exports from South Africa increased nearly sixfold.

As the number of captive lions in South Africa has multiplied, so has opposition to the farms, criticized by animal welfare groups as inhumane and exploitative. On August 6, 2019, a court ruling on a lawsuit filed by the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) imposed a moratorium on exporting lion skeletons and bones until welfare conditions on farms improve. Then, in May 2021, South Africa’s environment minister, Barbara Creecy, announced the government’s intention to shut down the captive lion industry altogether, citing its damage to the country’s image as a conservation-friendly country and tourism destination.

Feeding and providing standard care for one lion costs about $5,000 a year, not including major veterinary services, staff salaries, and facilities maintenance, especially of regulation electric fencing, estimates Neil D’Cruze, head of wildlife research at the global nonprofit World Animal Protection. In recent years, lion farms have become less lucrative, so the prospect of an end to the industry puts lion farmers under even greater pressure to earn revenue.

Reports have surfaced in recent years of starving lions living in squalor. “If you’re breeding lions for the lion-bone trade, they don’t care what those lions look like,” Ian Michler told National Geographic in 2019. “Because at the end of the day, all they’re going to do is end up in a sack, a bag of bones that’s going to go to Asia.”

Little has come to light publicly about South Africa’s legal trade in lion bones—let alone the illicit trade. Finding evidence of bone smuggling is next to impossible. Farmers’ properties may sprawl over hundreds of acres, with plenty of places to hide contraband. And with respect to the 2019 moratorium, if authorities come across lion skeletons or bones on a farm today, owners might simply say they’re stockpiling them in the hope that South Africa legalizes the trade again.

The OCCRP’s reporting reveals networks that have orchestrated the trade—involving bone sellers, middlemen, and buyers who have helped establish a steady demand for lion bones as tiger-bone alternatives.

The findings add credence to the contention among wildlife crime experts that the legal trade has provided cover for criminal syndicates smuggling lion bones across the globe as part of the multibillion-dollar illegal wildlife trade industry.

“The biggest threat to wildlife is the legal wildlife trade,” says Steve Galster, founder, and head of global investigations for Freeland, a nonprofit that works to stop both wildlife and human trafficking.

‘Horrific to see’

On a farm in Free State Province, dozens of lion’s stares at a National Geographic reporter from behind an electric fence. Don’t look the males in the eye is the advice: They might take it as a challenge and even jump the fence. Chicken feathers and cow carcasses carpet the lions’ otherwise barren enclosures. Green algae float atop water in troughs. Foul-smelling diarrhea, possibly resulting from disease or a diet of rotten meat, putrid from the heat, puddles on the ground.

The farm is likely a “lion storefront,” where a trophy hunter sizes up the males and picks the one, he or she wants to shoot. That lion will be trucked to a sister farm in Northwest Province for the hunt, where the law requires a lead time of 96 hours. The law in Free State, on the other hand, requires farmers to release trophy lions into a roughly 2,500-acre enclosure 30 days before they’re hunted.

South Africa’s lion farms are notoriously secretive, says Reinet Meyer, a senior inspector with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), which documents violations of animal welfare laws and brings charges against perpetrators. Farms often conceal a multitude of horrors, she says: cramped, overcrowded, feces-fouled enclosures; lions stricken with mange, a parasitic skin condition, and other diseases; undernourished animals with sagging skin and bones sticking out.

In March 2022, SPCA inspectors made an unannounced visit to Mooifontein, another farm in Free State, where they found lions with protruding ribs confined in filthy, crowded enclosures, according to a confidential affidavit shared with the OCCRP. Small cubs placed in tiny crates were separated from their mothers. Bones and body parts were found stashed around the property, the products of unreported deaths, the inspectors noted. The condition of the animals was “horrific to see and definitely not up to standard,” one inspector wrote.

Dean Loser, who owns Mooifontein, did not reply to National Geographic’s request for comment.

In April 2019, the NSPCA sent inspectors to Pienika, a farm in Northwest Province. They reported finding 34 lions in an enclosure big enough for no more than three, 27 lions suffering from mange, and three cubs twitching, unable to walk, and suffering from what a veterinarian later diagnosed as a brain infection.

On July 20, 2019, National Geographic visited Pienika at the invitation of owner Jan Steinman and his lawyer, Andreas Peens. The lions appeared healthy, the enclosures clean. “This is what’s going on really,” said farm manager Marius Griesel. Peens claimed that the NSPCA had exaggerated the lions’ circumstances, that the overcrowding was temporary, and that the animals were receiving veterinary care. The situation with the NSPCA was just a misunderstanding, he said—one that created a “feud” between the NSPCA and Steinman.

Three days after our visit, the NSPCA returned to Pienika. This time, inspectors found more than a dozen carcasses of young lions and tigers in freezers and two lion cubs hidden in a shed, likely suffering from the same brain condition as those found on the April inspection.

Peens acknowledged that there were dead lions in the freezer but said it was not an offense. The lions, he explained, had either been stillborn or died shortly after birth, and Steinman planned to use them to “make trophies or ornaments” for his collection.

When the NSPCA’s Douglas Wolhuter opened the freezer at Pienika and found the dead cubs, he was “speechless,” he said at the time. “I’m just thinking, how did these things die? Did they suffer in death?” Wolhuter said the scene haunted him. “It’s that sort of stuff that actually preys on your conscience as well, because could you have made that difference if you’d known before?”

In February 2023, Steinman lost a defamation suit against the NSPCA. A cruelty case against him is ongoing.

The bone exporters

Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport is the busiest in Africa. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 21 million people passed through every year, along with hundreds of thousands of tons of cargo destined for countries around the world, including the thousands of lion skeletons and carcasses listed in the export documents.

Lion farms generally aren’t the ones trading the bones. Exporters—mostly taxidermists—intercede between farmers and buyers in the supply chain. They clean and process lion parts and obtain export certificates under the Convention on International Trade Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), the body that regulates global trade of wildlife and wildlife products.

According to the export data, five entities shipped the most skeletons abroad in the three years up to April 2019: Clifton Trading, run by Gavin Oberholzer; Sandra Linde Taxidermy, owned by Sandra and her son, Johann Linde; Andries Van Tonder; S.J. Alberts; and Hermanus De Jager.

Van Tonder and Oberholzer did not respond to questions sent by OCCRP’s reporters. Linde and De Jager declined to comment.

Alberts told the OCCRP in October 2022 that he hasn’t exported lion bones since 2018 and always has operated within the law. “I realize that the lion-bone trade is repulsive to most people, and I am not going to justify my involvement. All I can say is if I had the choice to do it over, I probably would not have gotten involved,” he said.

Sandra Linde Taxidermy exported more than 1,300 lion skeletons and carcasses during the three-year period, making it the largest supplier. All shipments went to Vietnamese businesses and individuals.

In 2011, the environment ministry sent a letter to South Africa’s parliament naming Sandra Linde Taxidermy, among others, as a supplier of legal lion bones to Vixay Keosavang, believed to have been the leader of one of Asia’s most notorious wildlife trafficking syndicates, the Laos-based Xaysavang Network. Xaysavang has been heavily invested in the lion-bone trade since about 2008, according to Julian Rademeyer, a director at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime who has reported on the network.

Arrests of traffickers, along with seizures of smuggled wildlife products at airports and seaports, have weakened the Xaysavang Network during the past decade, Rademeyer says, but the illicit wildlife trade is fungible. “They evolve and adapt quite rapidly and quite easily. And new players emerge, new networks emerge, and the trade continues.”

The CITES secretariat, based in Geneva, declined to answer the OCCRP’s questions about South Africa’s lion-bone trade, saying that enforcing the treaty’s regulations is the responsibility of each member country’s CITES management authority.

The environment ministry, which serves in that capacity, told National Geographic that “there is presently a moratorium on the export of lion bones and derivatives from South Africa” and declined to comment further.

‘It smells wrong’: falsified documents, fake addresses, unlikely buyers.

The OCCRP’s revelation that more than 3,300 lion skeletons and carcasses left South Africa in recent years likely underestimates the scale of exports: It can be assumed that seizures represent a fraction of the total illegal trade; officials can’t possibly catch everything.

A common way of gaming the system is to under-declare how many skeletons are in an otherwise legal shipment. Take, for example, an October 2017 shipment of lion skeletons to Thailand by Clifton Trading. The accompanying documentation—the air waybill, the packing list, the export permit issued by South Africa’s CITES representative, and the import paperwork—refers to 37 skeletons. A lion skeleton weighs between 22 and 37 pounds, so at most the shipment should weigh less than 1,400 pounds. Yet the paperwork lists the weight variously at about 1,500 pounds, 1,860 pounds, and 2,100 pounds. That means the shipment may have contained from 40 to 95 skeletons, and Clifton Trading may have sent more bones than it declared.

Conservation economist Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes told National Geographic in 2019 that there could be another explanation for such discrepancies. Traders may ship “relatively fresh carcasses, sometimes still with bits of rotting flesh attached,” rather than properly dried skeletons, which are lighter, he said.

Under-declaring the number of products in a shipment is “very common,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and author of a book on wildlife trafficking. “It smells wrong.

The OCCRP’s investigation found other anomalies in some documents. De Jager, one of the major South African exporters, listed as its business address on the outskirts of Johannesburg what the OCCRP identified as a massage parlor. One importer in Laos, Ainthaphone Trading, gave its address as Wattay International Airport, in Vientiane. Some importers gave no address at all—only the name of a district or province.

“If you’re doing a legitimate transaction, why would you use a false address to ship it out?” Rademeyer says. “It simply indicates that there’s an attempt to hide the ultimate destination of that shipment.” Or, he added, its origin.

Nearly 80 percent of lion bones exported from South Africa to Laos from 2014 to 2019 went to three companies: Somaok Phaimany, Ainthaphone, and Sinthavy Imports.

In some cases, buyers’ addresses led to homes, other companies, or apartments. When an OCCRP researcher called the listed phone number for Lilavady, another import business, he was directed to the address of JHA Trading Co., a shop that specializes in corporate gifts.

Lilavady and Sinthavy Imports could not be reached for comment. Ainthaphone did not respond to OCCRP’s questions. Somaok Phaimany did not respond to National Geographic’s request for comment.

Laos’s CITES representative did not reply to OCCRP’s requests for comment.

No longer cash cows

South Africa’s farmed lions, previously big moneymakers, are now a financial liability. Cub petting has become increasingly controversial among animal welfare advocates. In 2016, the U.S. government restricted imports of trophies from captive-bred lions—a major setback for South African farmers, because American hunters accounted for more than half their trophy revenues. The environment ministry’s declaration in 2021 of the government’s intent to shut down the industry compounds farmers’ problems.

At the farm in Free State, the manager surveyed his animals. About 30 mewling cubs approached the fence of their enclosure. The stink of feces was overwhelming. Many cubs had swollen bellies, likely from malnutrition or parasites.

Since the government’s announcement, the manager said, the farm has separated some of the males and females to slow the breeding rate. Meanwhile, he said, they’ve increased the number of hunt offerings, although with the loss of U.S. trophy seekers who paid large sums—as much as $50,000—to shoot a single lion, each hunt is now bringing in no more than about $11,000.

If the industry closes down, he said, he hopes farmers will get a grace period of five years to phase out their operations. That way, in the interim, they’ll be able to make money from hunts. If there’s no grace period, it’s unclear what would happen to his and all the other captive lions.

An underlying problem is that South Africa’s massive captive lion industry—and years of legal bone trading—has fuelled increasing demand for big cat bones. Even if countries in Asia make concerted efforts to change long-held cultural practices, that demand won’t disappear overnight. Asian buyers won’t stop looking for big cat bones, says wildlife trade expert Julian Rademeyer. “And where are they going to get them from?”

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