Miracle cures and bling – How SA is killing the world’s last living wild tigers

Tigers and lions are used interchangeably when sold to unknowing consumers in Asia. From the skin to the claws, teeth and bones, tiger populations are dropping fast. Photo: Ian Michler / Blood Lions

South Africa’s lion bone export quotas make it easy to trade tiger parts and bones destined for Asian markets, putting further pressure on the last remaining wild tigers.

There are fewer than 4,000 tigers left in the wild, 95% fewer than there were since the start of the 20th Century. 

Every indication points to this number dwindling fast, giving animal rights organisations very little time to save wild tigers from extinction. 

If tigers become extinct, the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of human beings. At this rate, there may not be many World Tiger Day celebrations left. 

Captive-bred tigers are shrouded in secrecy in South Africa, with no facilities being registered. Photo: Ian Michler / Blood Lions

The sinister business of breeding and trading tigers has been a serious concern for animal rights groups for many years. Despite this, these illegal activities still take place throughout South Africa, with many citizens boasting about owning a tiger cub in their backyard.

ALSO READ: Sandton’s Tiger Kugel has animal rights groups on edge

Unfortunately for tigers, who come from Asia, they are considered an exotic species in South Africa, which means there are no laws protecting them. 

The amount of tigers in South Africa is also a mystery, with very little public information on the extent of tiger trade in the country, said Blood Lions campaign manager, Dr Louise de Waal. 

This means that no one knows how many tigers, and other big cats such as cheetahs, jaguars, pumas and leopards are currently kept in the country’s 350 big cat captive breeding facilities, often in substandard conditions.

Lions kept in cramped cages to form part of the country’s canned lion hunting industry. Photo: Roger and Pat de la Harpe / Blood Lions

De Waal estimates that around 60 breeding facilities in South Africa contain between 1,000 and 1,500 tigers, but accurate figures remain unknown. 

ALSO READ: Damning findings further expose canned lion industry

She explained that according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), all facilities breeding Appendix I animals must be registered. 

“However, South Africa does not have a single facility listed with CITES for any Asian big cats, despite the fact that there are many places that are breeding them in South Africa.

“Many of these tigers are, like their African cousins, slaughtered for their body parts, (illegally) exported often in consignments labelled as lion bones, or sold legally through CITES as live animals to South East Asia with no clear insight of their final destination or fate.”

Lion cubs in a captive breeding facility. Conditions are usually substandard, and cubs often suffer from malnutrition and defects. Photo: Blood Lions

Environmental Investigation Agency campaign leader for tigers and wildlife crime, Debbie Banks, explained that almost every part of a tiger is sold in Asia – from the skin used for home decor to bones used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat arthritis. Tiger bones are also used to make wine and cake, as well as jewellery. 

Tigers in South Africa are often used to supplement the thriving bone trade in South East Asia. Consumers are not aware of what animal the bones they purchase comes from and think all bones they buy are from tigers, and because the export of lion bones is legal in South Africa, they continue to satisfy Asia’s appetite. 

This impacts the fight to end South Africa’s captive lion breeding trade and legal bone quota.

ALSO READ: Government ‘playing with fire’ by refusing to scrap canned lion hunting

Since 2008, nearly 7,000 lion skeletons totalling roughly 70 tonnes have been exported from South Africa to South East Asia, for medicine and jewellery. 

The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries’ CITES policy deputy director, Mpho Tjiane, believes that tiger trade in South Africa is non-commercial, and that the facilities they call home do not have to be registered with CITES, de Waal said. 

A leucitic (white) tiger and lion in a captive breeding facility. Photo: Ian Michler / Blood Lions

This despite evidence proving that there is a definite growing trade in live tigers, parts and bones coming from South Africa that are laundered as lion bones. 

The breeding and trade of tigers for reasons other than conserving them in the wild is illegal.

This World Tiger Day, Blood Lions has renewed its call to Deff minister Barbara Creecy to scrap the country’s lion bone quota and destroy all stockpiles. This could be the move needed to keep the last remaining wild tigers alive. 

“We can’t turn a blind eye to the damage South Africa’s legal lion bone trade inflicts on the conservation efforts of the last remaining tigers in the wild,” de Waal implored. 

If you would like to know more about the shocking conditions captive-bred tigers and lions are forced to live in, click here to watch a short film by Blood Lions as part of their Not Medicine campaign. 

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