Barbarous trade in bones from captive lions sparks risk of new pandemic

The Mail on Sunday takes a closer look at the bone trade and the catastrophic health risks it poses.

THE sickening trade in the bones of butchered lions for use in Chinese ‘medicines’, wines and jewellery could spark another catastrophic health crisis, experts warned last night.

An astonishing 333 farms in South Africa are breeding thousands of lions either to be shot by hunters in fenced enclosures or slaughtered for their bones, according to a devastating book
serialised in The Mail on Sunday.

It reveals how the booming trade in lion skeletons is worth tens of millions of pounds a year and is fuelled by demand in China and South East Asia for traditional medicines, including aphrodisiacs. Lion parts are also passed off as rarer tiger bones and used to make wine and trinkets.

More chillingly, the book by former Tory deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft claims the captive bred lions are raised in such appalling conditions that they could spread fatal diseases to
humans, including tuberculosis or botulism – and even spark another pandemic. Unfair Game details an extraordinary undercover operation by former British Army and security services personnel to expose the horrors of South Africa’s lion farming industry.

The team recruited a dealer as a ‘double agent’ and planted tracking devices in lion skulls destined to be sold to the Far East.

The eight-month operation uncovered a string of damning revelations, including how:

  • A wealthy Russian hunter used a pack of dogs to illegally hunt and kill a captive-bred lion in a fenced enclosure;
  • Wild lion cubs are being caught in Botswana and smuggled into South Africa to boost the gene pool of lions raised in captivity;
  • Undercover investigators joined poachers planning to kill wild lions in Botswana by poisoning or shooting them in the stomach to ensure their bones were not damaged;
  • Some lions are ‘deboned’ while still alive because this produces a distinctive pink colour – caused by blood left in the bone – that is highly valued by buyers;
  • Illegal wildlife trade is conducted openly at a public market in Johannesburg, where lion skulls and skins are sold alongside skins from endangered pangolins, which have been linked to the coronavirus pandemic;
  • A South African police chief rejected a mountain of evidence presented by Lord Ashcroft’s chief investigator, who was then told he was ‘lucky’ not to be in jail.

Lord Ashcroft estimates there are at least 12,000 captive-bred lions in South Africa, compared with a wild population of 3,000.

Wealthy hunters pay thousands of pounds to hunt and kill the most magnificent lions within fenced enclosures.

Between 600 and 1,000 lions are killed in such ‘canned hunts’ in South Africa each year, campaigners claim, with many more trucked to slaughterhouses to be shot in the head and butchered for their bones. An entire skeleton is worth up to £3,200.

Dr Peter Caldwell, who runs a wildlife veterinary practice in Pretoria, warned that botulism – a potentially fatal infection that attacks the nervous system – is common in captive-bred lions because of poor hygiene, and can be spread to humans via infected bones or skin.

‘Clostridium botulinum is a bacteria that produces spores and toxins and it can grow in that dead flesh and bone,’ he told Lord Ashcroft. ‘The lions chew on those bones, they get the toxin, and that can paralyse them.

‘If that lion dies from botulism, the people who bred it won’t waste that animal by burying it or burning it. Instead, they will put it into the lion bone and skin trade. And the toxin remains in the body, so the people who utilise that lion can die a miserable, painful death.’

Other diseases that can be spread by lion bones include brucellosis, a bacterial infection that can cause arthritis, fever and inflammation of the heart, and tuberculosis, which led to 1.5 million deaths worldwide in 2018.

Warning that Asia’s rampant lion trade could cause another devastating health crisis in the next decade, Dr Caldwell said: ‘If it’s not tuberculosis, it’s going to be brucellosis or one of those diseases that can easily be transferred from animals to humans.’

Hundreds of British tourists each year pay to pet lion cubs or walk with young lions in South Africa, unaware that most are later slaughtered. Experts say those cuddling and stroking lions risk catching parasites.

These include tapeworm, whose eggs stick to lion fur and can transfer to a person’s hands and migrate through the body, becoming ‘larval cysts’, warned Karen Tendler, a former inspector for the NSPCA, an animal welfare organisation in South Africa.

‘These can lodge in the brain or lungs,’ she told Lord Ashcroft. ‘This is not alarmist. It’s a very real risk.’

The peer added: ‘So are we sleep-walking straight into a new major public health crisis with the lion bone industry at its core?

I fear we are. It could be a surge in a disease that already exists, or it could be a new and frightening infection, just like Covid-19 was.’

Last year, The Mail on Sunday revealed undercover video footage of a Briton who paid thousands of pounds to shoot an 11-year-old lion with tranquilliser darts in an apparent breach of
South African law.

Lord Ashcroft’s investigators subsequently rescued the animal, named Simba, and relocated it to a safe sanctuary.

Lord Ashcroft then launched another undercover probe into lion farming last April, codenamed Operation Chastise after the 1943 RAF Dambusters raid.

His team recruited a lion dealer, codenamed ‘Lister’, to work as a double agent and collect evidence against others involved in canned hunting and the bone trade.

Read this article on MailOnline.