Lions, Bones & Bullets director Anton Leach & producer Richard Pierce zoomed into the studio to talk to us about their powerful documentary which premiers at the Monte-Carlo Television Festival in June 2021.
Despite a ban on the export of lion bone & other body parts derived from wild lions, South Africa is able to export lion bones into the international market legally with an initial annual quota of 800 lions.
South African ranchers farm lions to satisfy the demand for lion bones in Asia for the traditional medicine market. I was aware that tiger bones were in high demand in Asia to make tiger wine but had not heard of a demand for lion bone wine. Richard tells me that lion bone often replaces tiger bone in tiger bone wine without the knowledge of the purchaser & that, worryingly, lion bone is beginning to find a place of it's own in the market.
Sometimes, westerners disparage traditional medicine wrongly assuming that it has little value. An example of that is bear bile products which contain high levels of ursodeoxycholic acid & do in fact have therapeutic value. Thankfully as bear bile farms close the bile is replaced with synthetics which do the same job. I asked Anton if the lion bone did actually have any value & he said that it did not. But, to create the impression that it does have value sometimes opium is added to it.
During the interview I was keen to understand how the farming of lions is connected to trophy hunting. Richard explained that some lions are bred expressly for the purpose of being sold to trophy hunters & that they can be selected by hunters online in much the same way as we use a menu to order a pizza. Richard also explained that the cost of a lion to shoot was dependant on the physical characteristics of the lion. So, the biggest lions with the biggest manes would have the largest price tags.
Once the payment has been received for the chosen lion the hunter travels to the lion & shoots it. The lion remains in an enclosure & cannot escape the hunter, this is called canned hunting.
This all sounds rather sordid to me & when Richard points out that the lion selected by the hunter is very used to being around people because it has been bred in captivity & is likely to be very happy to be close to the hunter, having no reason to fear humans thinking that humans are its friends my heart sinks & I feel very ashamed of my species.
After learning about the captive tiger industry in America I was keen to find out just how commodified the lions are. Anton told me that speed breeding was a thing on the farms with lionesses having cubs taken away from them at a very young age, forcing the lioness to come into oestrus again & again & again.
And just like the captive tigers in America the cubs were given over to a career in the cub petting industry for as long as they remained, small, cute, cuddly & manageable.
I had heard about walking with lions experiences & wondered if lions no longer cubs but not ready for the hunter or the bone market might be used for this purpose. Anton confirmed that this is something that happens & my heart sank. A common sight in these walking experiences are the sticks, every person on the walk carries one even when they are in great shape & walking on even terrain, leaving only one possible explanation for their use. The lions fear them because they have been brutalised in order to respond to them.
Anton revealed another way of profiting from the farmed lions that I had not heard of before. Overseas volunteers are invited to volunteer to care for the cubs which are advertised as being orphans. These orphans are not orphans at all, these are the cubs that were taken away from their mothers at a very young age to be used for cub petting. And, as if that wasn't bad enough the volunteers are charged a hefty sum to look after the cubs which they eagerly do thinking that they are doing a noble thing & a valuable thing for the cubs.
I asked whether colour morphs were ever farmed to elevate the price a hunter may be willing to pay for a trophy. Richard told me that white lions attracted higher prices & were attractive to hunters as are hybrids like tigons & ligers like the ligers in the picture above.
Richard went on to talk about husbandry & how welfare standards may drop if lions are being farmed for their bones & nothing else. In regard to breeding for trophy hunting it is in the ranchers best interest to rear a strong, healthy lion but if that rancher is breeding for bones it really doesn't matter how well that lion is looked after, all the rancher wants is a skeleton.