The sickening trade in the bones of butchered lions for use in Chinese ‘medicines’, wines and jewellery could spark another pandemic, experts have warned.
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 by Lord Ashcroft titled” Unfair Game”.
It reveals how the booming trade in lion skeletons, worth millions of pounds a year, is fuelled by demand in China and South-East Asia for traditional medicines. Lion parts are also passed off as rarer tiger bones and used to make wine and trinkets.
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; An entire skeleton is worth up to £3,200 (RM 17,000).
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, 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 1.5million 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.’
Lord Ashcroft said: ‘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.’