The ongoing Asian demand for lion bones has led to a horrific wildlife poisoning in the Limpopo National Park, just over the Mozambican border from South Africa's iconic Kruger Park.

A mere two kilometres from the Machampane tourist camp, a research team came across the carcasses of two nyala, a warthog and an impala laced with what they describe as a black granular poison. Lying nearby were two lions, 51 vultures, three fish eagles, a yellow-billed kite and a giant eagle owl. There was evidence of a leopard but its body was not found.
The lions had been dismembered, their bones removed, and 22 vultures had been decapitated, their heads presumably to be used for "muti" [a term for traditional medicine in southern Africa]. Snares had also been set around the poisoned carcasses. The team from the Limpopo Transfrontier Predator Project burned all the poisoned carcasses.

The incident comes just days after the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) summit in Johannesburg, where wild lions remained listed as Appendix II, with a "zero annual export quota for bones, bone pieces, products, claws, skeletons, skulls and teeth removed from the wild and traded for commercial purposes". However, in a shock move, captive breeders escaped the ban, with South Africa required to submit only an annual quota for bone exports from captive-breeding facilities.

Will Travers, president of the Born Free Foundation, called it a sad day for CITES and an appalling decision that would perpetuate captive breeding for the bone trade. Conservationists have also pointed out that it's impossible to distinguish between the bones of captive and wild lions, leaving the door wide open for laundering of poached animal parts.

Nine African nations – Niger, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria and Togo – had sought to uplist lions to Appendix I, which would have offered the species full protection. However, in a compromise move, CITES allowed the marketing of bones from captive lions. According to the filmmakers of Blood Lions, this was "an attempt to appease the fierce opposition from lion bone and body part traders and the hunting for entertainment enthusiasts".

The Limpopo research team found the two lions had been carried 200 metres away from the epicentre of the poisoning onto a nearby ridge, and then butchered. The skins, a portion of the abdomens with significant layer of fat, and the intestines were left. 

The two male lions were both estimated to be about two years old. All of their bones had been removed, and the meat had been cut into strips, dried and mostly removed.

This is the second poisoning event that has targeted the lion pride in this same area. The first one, in July 2014, killed three adult lions, seven white-backed vultures and a bateleur eagle.

"[T]his poisoning is the first time that we have found evidence of lions being targeted for their bones in the park. Considering the prevalence of commercial rhino and elephant poaching in the region over the past five years, we are concerned that this event could mark the beginning of large-scale poaching of lions for their bones in the Limpopo National Park," said the team. 

Supplied by Conservation Action Trust

Top header image: Ray Muzyka, Flickr