China’s wildlife trade still threatens us all
My new book exposing the scandal of lion farming in South Africa is, unavoidably, full of grim and distressing details. Behind the veneer of the respectable tourist industry, thousands of big cats are beaten, drugged, starved, shot and skinned every year for nothing more than profit. The exploitation of these creatures from birth to death – and beyond – will appal readers. So will the lion trade’s links to international crime syndicates and the nonchalant attitude of South Africa’s authorities. With about 12,000 captive-bred lions in South Africa at any one time, against a wild lion population of only 3,000, this problem is growing.
While the world reels from the Covid-19 pandemic, however, one alarming consequence of this gruesome business arguably rises above the rest of the ghastliness. It relates to the zoonotic diseases carried by lions which also threaten humans.
Farmed lions are taken from their mothers when just days old and weaned on foreign milk products. This weakens their immune system. As they get older, they are subjected to a limited diet consisting of questionable abattoir offcuts and animal carcasses that are not fit for human consumption. This further compromises lions’ general wellbeing and heightens their risk of bacterial infection.
The poorer their immunity, the greater the parasite load. For this reason, anybody thinking of petting a lion cub at one of South Africa’s tourist sites must remember they will be exposed to invisible dangers, including sarcoptic mange, ringworm, toxoplasmosis, babesiosis, giardiasis, cysticercosis and E. coli. To this list can be added Echinococcus hydatid cysts – potentially fatal tape worms.
It does not end there. It is widely thought that Covid-19 originated in a Chinese wildlife market. A significant element of South Africa’s lion farming industry now relies upon the lucrative
bone trade. The skeletons of lions and tigers are highly prized in Asia among those who favour so-called “traditional” medicines. People pay hundreds or even thousands of pounds for products which purport to contain predator bone, believing it cures conditions including arthritis or, even more absurdly, can be used as an aphrodisiac. Thousands of lion bones are smuggled out of South Africa annually to feed this market.
In China, bone wine is particularly popular. It is produced after a bone is steeped in alcohol and blended with herbs and spices. Bone “cake” is also sought-after. It is made with the
glutinous residue that rises to the top of a saucepan in which bones have been boiled, mixed with herbs, and then turned into a bar.
Dr Peter Caldwell, a wildlife veterinary surgeon, believes a major public health incident will occur in Asia as a result of its people’s rampant consumption of lion bones. (We spoke before Covid-19 was even heard of, incidentally.) He mentioned the infectious disease brucellosis, which can easily be transferred from animals to human beings. He also suggested that botulism is common in captive lions because of poor hygiene. It produces spores and toxin that can grow in dead flesh and bone. Once consumed by lions, they get the toxin. When an afflicted lion enters the bone trade, the toxin remains in its bone, so the people who exploit that lion can die a miserable, painful death. Dr Caldwell says there are other diseases. It could
even be a new disease, like Covid-19.
Or consider Professor Paul van Helden of the University of Stellenbosch, an authority on animal TB. He confirmed to me the risk of lions passing TB to humans during their lifetime and via their bones post-death. According to the World Health Organisation, 1.5 million people died of TB in 2018. Will that already daunting figure escalate via lion bones?
Something has gone terribly wrong in a country that allows lions to be bred intensively for cash and for their bones to be sent abroad for consumption. Coupled with the abuse and cruelty which is so prevalent in the lion trade, it is fair to say a stain now exists on a country that I love. The captive lion business must be brought to an end or South Africa’s reputation will sink.