Lion Bones

In 2007 the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC reported that, in 2005, a Chinese wine producer received permission from the government to produce 400,000 bottles of ‘bone-strengthening wine’. The bottle was made as a replica of a tiger. The company’s website touted the wine’s aphrodisiac qualities in addition to its curative impacts on rheumatism. Although distressing to conservationists, this was not surprising, given the well-known Chinese delusion regarding the curative properties of tiger body parts. What was surprising was that listed wildlife ingredient on the bottles was not tiger, but African lion bone. Indeed, since around 1995, images of lions have appeared on labels of Chinese medicines – leading to speculation that lions were an ingredient in ‘tiger’ products.

CITES trade records show that lions exported from South Africa to South East Asia increased from 50 skeletons in 2008 to over 570 in 2011 and we suspect that it has continued to rise. We found no evidence of a direct relationship between the South African trade in lion bones and trophy hunting of wild lions. The South African lions turned into medicaments are almost exclusively captive-bred and the bone trade appears to be a by-product of the country’s sizeable trophy hunting industry which, controversially, involves lions reared in captivity, loosely equivalent to put-and-take reared pheasant shooting or farmed trout fishing in Europe. However, while that is the case in South Africa, we are now investigating whether the bone trade is adversely impacting wild lions elsewhere in Africa.

We argue that a clampdown on the illegal trade in tiger parts may not only have prompted their substitution with lion products, but was also linked to a sharp increase in rhino poaching in Africa (once the gates to this trade route were opened). This could be an unwelcome manifestation of the butterfly effect, in this case well-intentioned legislation to protect one cat in China leading to unintended consequences in Africa – conservation, like other aspects of the human enterprise, needs a holistic perspective. The fact is that lions are in trouble, and very different sets of technical and ethical issues raised by Cecil’s death and the bone trade illustrate the complexities of the problem, and even together are just the tip of the iceberg of the challenges facing their conservation.

Related Pages

Wildlife Trade
Animal welfare in the wildlife trade

Global trade in exotic pets
Pangolins – poaching, trafficking and publicity
The impact of bear bile farming on conservation of wild bears


Williams, V. L., D. J. Newton, A. J. Loveridge, and D. W. Macdonald. 2015. Bones of contention: an assessment of the South African trade in African lion Panthera Leo bones and other body parts. TRAFFIC, Cambridge, UK & WildCRU, Oxford, UK.

Williams, V. L. 2015. Traditional medicines: Tiger-bone trade could threaten lions. Nature 523:290.

Williams, V. L., A. J. Loveridge, D. W. Macdonald, and D. J. Newton. 2015. Shining light on lion management practices and bone trade.

Williams, V. L., A. J. Loveridge, D. J. Newton, and D. W. Macdonald. 2015. ‘Skullduggery’: lions align and their mandibles rock! Plos One 10:e0135144.


Vivienne Williams
David Newton
Michael t’Sas-Rolfes