Conservation News: Lions, Elephants, and Otters

A Year After Cecil the Lion, Report Reveals Legal and Illegal Lion Bone Trade

Cecil (lying down) and Jericho (standing) Photo By: Brent Stapelkamp

Ever since the illegal killing of Cecil the lion, it sparked a global outcry against lion trophy hunting, bringing light to the dark practice. However, trophy hunting is not the only threat lions face. Over the past two decades, African lion populations have declined by at least 42%. The 20,000 or fewer lions remaining face pressures from poaching, bushmeat trade, habitat loss, and conflict with humans.

And now, a new report reveals a new threat to the decreasing lion population: the legal and illegal trade in lion bones. Issued by conservation groups Panthera and WildAid, the report concludes that the exact extent of this trade is unknown, but “all indications suggest that is it growing toward epidemic proportions”.

In the past, lion parts, including whiskers, fat, and tails, have always had a traditional value and use among African nations as medicines, talismans, and components of ceremonial and ritual practices. But, the demand shifted from domestic to international in 2008 with a new demand for lion bones emerging in Lao PDR and other Asian countries. Most likely, the bones are destined to be a replacement for tiger bones, which have become harder to acquire now that tiger populations have plummeted, in traditional Asian medicines.

“The lion never had any traditional value in China, but it’s an analog to the tiger so it seems to be acceptable,” says Panthera’s president Luke Hunter.

Understanding the impact of this illegal trade is a difficult task because, despite lions’ declining populations, it is actually legal to trade lion bones. Last year’s TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, report found that 1,160 lion skeletons  were legally exported from South Africa between 2008 and 2011. Almost half occurred in 2011.

These legal exports came from South Africa’s captive-lion breeding industry, which fuels “canned” hunts in which captive-bred adult lions are shot by rich hunters in controlled conditions.

The 200 South African breeders argue that the practice takes the poaching pressure off of wild animals. But many conservationists, like Hunter, believe that it is a “rubbish argument”. Hunter equates the legal lion bone trade to legal ivory sales, which can be used to disguise and mask the illegal trade of poached elephant tusks. For example, several reports have accused poachers of smuggling live lions from Botswana into South Africa, where they were “laundered” into the bone trade.

Photo By: Brent Stapelkamp

“The fact that the business is legal just fuels demand, but with the supply-side unable to keep up, buyers will increasingly switch to lions that are still in the wild, including elsewhere in Africa, despite them being endangered,” warns Pieter Kat at the NGO LionAid.

In June of 2012, an online petition, with 750,000 signatures, called on President Jacob Zuma to ban the export of lion bones and body parts.

A coalition of ten countries, led by Niger, also proposed stronger international protections that would ban the commercial trade in African lions and their parts. In September of 2016, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) will vote on the proposal.

Other countries decided to stop letting hunters take lion trophies across their borders. Australia and France banned the trophies. Meanwhile, the United States, the biggest importer of lion trophies, added new protections for lions under the Endangered Species Act.

Meanwhile, the illegal trade, not disguised as legal trade, also exists. Customs officials blocking illegal shipments of ivory or rhino horn have started to notice lion parts nestled inside the same containers.

“As the price of bones is rising steadily, some breeders have started slaughtering their own lions, without obtaining a permit or getting a vet to put the animal to sleep,” says a fraud inspector. “But with the present wave of rhino poaching, we’ve neither the time nor the resources to address the problem.”

It has been a year since the death of Cecil. Since then, the world has taken notice and, as they did with Cecil, take action against the plight of the African lion. “If there is a silver lining to Cecil’s death is that far more people are aware and care,” Hunter comments. “That’s a good outcome from a terrible moment.”

A Growing Threat to Lions: Illegal Trade in their Bones

Demand for Lion Bones Offers South African Breeders a Lucrative Return

Cecil the Lion Died One Year Ago—Here’s What’s Happened Since

Let Lions Live

Elephant Poaching Targeting Angola

Photo By: Elephants Without Borders

With the slaughter of Africa’s elephants continues, there is incomplete and outdated information about elephant populations throughout Africa. There has been no pan-African census in over 40 years, and none were completed using a standardized process and an independent validation process. In an effort to collect such data efficiently and effectively, the Great Elephant Census (GEC) was began in February of 2014.

The Great Elephant Census is designed to provide “accurate and up-to-date data about the number and distribution of African elephants by using standardized aerial surveys” throughout the pan-African continent. The survey is coming to an end, expected to be completed by the end of 2016. And recently, it has completed its survey for another African country: Angola.

Ecologist and lead GEC survey investigator Mike Chase had an interview with National Geographic Christina Russo about the results of the survey for Angola. When the Angolan overflights began in October 2015, he was hopeful that the country, once a bastion for elephants, did not experience the poaching that destroyed elephant populations in other nations. Instead, the data suggests that the rate of elephant poaching in Angola is among the highest in Africa.

It was a shock as Chase expected to see a thriving population in Angola. He believed that the high rates of elephants moving out of Botswana, a nearby nation, would mean that “Angola would be one of those last sanctuaries that escaped elephant poaching”.

On the first day, he recounts that “there were four elephants dead in close proximity with each other. Some had died in the sternal position, which means they’re on their knees, which suggests a brain shot and immediate death. And for many others, their faces had been hacked open and tusks removed.” He hoped that “it would be an anomaly, but it repeated itself”.

The GEC reported that Angola is losing approximately 10% of its elephants each year, indicating that the “poaching problem is among the most severe in Africa right now”.

Chase comments that the largest herd of elephants seen in Angola was nearly 550 elephants. “That’s a sign of trauma and stress, when family groups amalgamate into a mega-herd for safety. Also, these animals are now becoming nocturnal. We’re sentencing elephants to living in small, unviable, and dysfunctional populations with broken social systems.”

Photo By: Elephants Without Borders

Despite the high mortality rate due to poaching, Chase says that Angola “has the ability to provide elephants with the largest elephant range remaining in Africa”. Other than poaching, habitat loss is also an equally alarming threat. In most elephant range states, the land that could be set aside for the elephants no longer exists.

The GE survey results were shared with the Angolan government, who responded with concern. These Angolans “were aware of elephants were being poached”, but “they were not aware of the magnitude” because they did not know what wildlife heritage the country had left. Therefore, there was no adequate conservation efforts to manage the nation’s wildlife. Poachers became aware of this flaw, especially with nearby countries like southwest Zambia, Namibia, and Botswana, cracking down on poaching and illegal ivory sales.

Elephants, like most animals, do not understand political boundaries. For conservation efforts to be effective, it is important for there to be support from every nation. However, the African countries have not been operating as such. When only one or more countries take action, it places the huge responsibility on just that one or a group of governments. In northern Botswana, for example, have elephants seeking refuge in increasing numbers. This means that the Botswana government needs to manage and conserve numbers “that wouldn’t naturally be occurring within [its] borders”.

The GEC was originally created to measure the success of elephant conservation. But, the results of the survey has led Chase to believe that “we are failing elephants”. Despite the numerous international summits devoted to the issue, with the rise of NGOs, and the millions of dollars being poured into anti-poaching campaigns, the rate of killing has not slowed. Every 15 minutes, an elephant is killed; 96 in just a single day. “It is true that without these noble attempts to save the elephants, the rate might be much worse.”

Chase stresses that “Given the urgency of the crisis, governments must provide conservationists with the support they need to make a difference in our quest to save the African elephant.”

He also plans to continue surveying African countries even after the initial GEC is over.

“Aerial surveys gauge the success of conservation efforts. I’m confident a powerful story of hope can arise from these depressing findings. I hope the 3,400 elephants we counted last year will grow to 6,000 elephants. Future surveys are important to show that elephants are secure again, and recovering.

I’m a stubborn optimist. I don’t want to spend my life sharing depressing statistics and fighting a losing battle for elephants.”

Exclusive: This Is Africa’s New Elephant Poaching Hot Spot

Asian Otters Threatened By Illegal Trade

Eurasian Otter Photo By: Peter Trimmings

Lions and elephants are not the only targets for the black market. According to a report issued by TRAFFIC this week, four Asian otter species (out of 13 globally) have become increasingly targeted for the illegal pet and fur trades. Some estimates suggest that for every tiger skin confiscated, there are at least 10 otter skins also found. The small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinereus), smooth-coated otter (Lutrogale perspicillata), hairy-nosed otter (Lutra sumatrana), and Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra) are all legally protected in most of their home nations. While only the hairy-nosed otter is listed as endangered by IUCN, the rest are considered near threatened or vulnerable.

In this study, TRAFFIC gathered information from 167 seizures dating back to 1980, counting nearly 6,000 otters. The average number of skins per seizure was six.  Researchers found that small-clawed and smooth-coated otters represented the bulk of the pet trade, the captured animals originating from Southeast Asia, namely India and China. It is estimated that at least 50% of all seized otter skins are from India, driving the otters to localised extinction. In China, there were 1.36 million Eurasian otters in the Changbaishan Mountain Nature Reserve in 1975. A decade later, only 33 remained and after 2009, there were less than four.

They also “uncovered evidence of a flourishing online pet trade, mostly via social media sites”.

Meanwhile the total number of otter skins seized by customs officials has also increased. But, the number of skins per shipment has declined, leading researchers to believe that wild populations are declining as a result of this illegal activity.

As with most wildlife trafficking, the report expresses that this number is likely a fraction of the total number of poached and smuggled otters as it only counts shipments that were intercepted and legally recorded.

TRAFFIC also believes that actual numbers may be much higher due to enforcement of otter-protection laws has been lax. “Very little effort has been made in the past to tackle the illegal trade in otters here in Southeast Asia, largely due to ignorance of the situation and an overall lack of concern for ‘low-profile species’,” Chris R. Shepherd, Regional Director of TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia, said in a prepared statement.

Small-clawed Otter pups seized in Suvarnabhumi International Airport Bangkok in January 2013. Photo © TRAFFIC

This, together with a lack of population information, legal loopholes that enable trafficking and the low priority given to otter trade, forms a large gap in information on the impacts of illegal trade on the region’s wild otter populations.

The main market appears to be in Tibet, where the pelts are used to trim the national dress, the chupa. The dress is used for traditional events and is seen as a symbol of status and wealth. In Linxia in Gansu Province, China, of 2005,, a total of 1,833 otter skins were found openly on sale, all to embellish the chupa. The Dalai Lama appealed to his people to use faux fur, but the Chinese government made it compulsory to have real otter skins on the chupas for festivals and formal events. Government officials who refused to comply would receive a penalty of a heavy fine or dismissal.

As for the pet trade, the problem is especially serious in Indonesia, where there are around 800 otter pet owners in Jakarta alone. There, markets almost always have live otter pups on sale, with sellers trading otters along with civets, another species threatened by the pet trade.

With the results of the study, TRAFFIC is calling for an additional study to see if additional international trade restrictions should be put into place. They also hope that various national laws will be improved to reflect all otter species and that better reporting of otter seizures will take place in the future.

“Very little effort has been made in the past to tackle the illegal trade in otters here in Southeast Asia, largely due to ignorance of the situation and an overall lack of concern for ‘low-profile species’,” states Shepherd. “It is high time this group of species receive the conservation attention they so urgently deserve.”

Asian Otters are the Latest Victims of the Illegal Pet and Fur Trades

Asian Otters Threatened by Alarming Rise in Illegal Trade

Otters On The Brink, In India And Beyond


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