This week the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) released The Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP) for The Lion in South Africa, for public comment. The full plan can be accessed here.

While African range lions have declined alarmingly over the last several decades, especially in west, east and southern Africa, where they were extirpated from most of their range by the 1900s, populations in SA have not only stabilised but are increasing – in fact, by 30% in the last three decades.

This counter-trend, says the BMP, is “because all lions in South Africa are within largely adequately fenced reserves with sufficient management budgets most of these threats are not relevant to lions here”.

However, while wild lion population numbers are dropping alarmingly across the continent, the DEA recommends that lions in South Africa be downgraded on the IUCN’s Red Data listing from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘least concern’. “This,” says Dr Pieter Kat from LionAid, a global NGO working to end the decline of wild lion populations, “is clearly to facilitate trade, to the detriment of wild lions in South Africa.”

According to the draft plan, there are currently 2 300 wild lions in the various national parks and 800 ‘managed wild’ lions in smaller reserves. The BMP recommends the down-grading as it is maintained that there are about 1 600 mature individual lions in SA and when the population of mature wild lions reaches 1500 individuals or more, a Red List Data downgrading should be made. But, says Kat, South Africa does not know how many wild lions there are. The last lion survey was in the Kruger in 2005/2006. The data is now almost ten years old. “You cannot use it in any management plan as it is well beyond the ‘sell by’ date,” insists Kat.

The BMP notes that there are around 6 000 captive bred lions throughout the country, which are bred “exclusively to generate money” and that the captive breeding and subsequent release for hunting of captive bred lions remains legal. South Africa is the only country in the world that has three classifications for lions: wild, managed wild and captive bred. “The management of these lions,” says the DEA, “is challenging, with high growth rates necessitating appropriate population regulation.” Kat continues” “It is a pure attempt at manipulation of statistics to justify a commercial end ...”

Asian traders started taking an interest in South African lions in 2008, when the decline in tiger numbers became acute. In traditional Chinese medicine, tiger wine and cake, made using powdered bones, allegedly cures many ills, including ulcers, cramps, rheumatism, stomach ache and malaria. Lion bones are now filling the gap and, according to the BMP, there is a sharp increase in lion products sold in Vietnam, Laos and China.  Some 739kg of lion bones were legally traded to the East in 2012 compared with just 55kg the year before.

The BMP views a legal trade in lion bones as an economically viable avenue and hopes to “promote sustainable legal trade in lions and lion products” using a regulated permit system.

The sale of lion products, especially lion bones, offers breeders a way of boosting their earnings. A breeder can get paid anywhere from US$5 000 to US$25 000 per lion shot, but can boost his earnings by selling a lion skeleton, which can now be sold for between $1 000 and $2 000 to a Chinese dealer in Durban or Johannesburg. The skeleton, once boiled down and bottled in Asia could reach a value exceeding $20 000.

Kat maintains that “by stimulating an Asian market for lion products, increased demand will affect lions across the continent as they now have value for poachers”. He points out that there is already significant evidence that lions are being poached for their skins and bones in Zimbabwe and Tanzania, and trophy hunting operators outside South Africa have already been approached to sell the lion bones  It is a short step from there to middlemen arranging for communities to poach and sell lion bones.

The public are invited to comment, however adequate alternatives should be provided to each objection raised otherwise the response may be noted but ignored.