Will justice be served for 35 lions killed for their bones?

A shipment of 342 kg of lion bones, the equivalent of 30-35 lions, was seized during a sting operation at OR Tambo airport on the 2nd October 2019. Amos Mututwa (34), a Zimbabwean citizen, was arrested and appeared at Kempton Park Magistrate’s Court yesterday for his bail hearing.

Mututwa was granted R3,000 bail by magistrate Prince Manyati and the case has been postponed until the 6th December to allow for further investigation.

“Blood Lions is concerned that wildlife crime does not receive the grave attention it deserves in our legal system. Too many of those arrested are granted bail, many of whom are non-South African nationals, who have left the country without justice being served,” says Pippa Hankinson (Producer – Blood Lions).

“Members of the Hawks’ Serious Organised Crime unit, Crime Intelligence, Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), as well as Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Police Department SWAT Team intercepted a suspicious consignment, which led to the recovery of 12 boxes filled with lion bones reportedly on its way to Malaysia”, said Capt Ndivhuwo Mulamu (Communication Officer – Gauteng Hawks).

Since 2017, DEFF has set an annual legal lion bone export quota of 800 skeletons. However, the 2019 quota is still pending since the Gauteng High court ruled in August this year that the 2017 & 2018 quotas were “unlawful and constitutionally invalid”.

No export permits should be issued until the 2019 lion bone quota has been set. Albi Modise (Chief Director Communications DEFF) confirmed that “this consignment is [indeed] illegal as the required CITES Permit had not been issued. This is a contravention of the CITES Regulations read together with the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act.”

The export quota is supposed to regulate the international trade in lion bones with Southeast Asia, but the interception of this recent shipment and a number of previous seizures clearly show the existence of a parallel illegal trade in lion bones and other wildlife products.

“The illegal trade is a reality and cannot be denied because it doesn’t fit DEFF’s mantra of “well-regulated trade”, says Linda Park (Director – Voice4Lions). “For every seizure, how many others get through undetected? South Africa is fuelling this trade by their very denial of its existence.”

The source of the lion bones is currently unknown, but DNA samples will be taken to assist in tracing the origin of this illegal consignment. When examining the state of the bones from photographic evidence, the fact they are not properly cleaned, may point to the slaughter of these lions at an in-house abattoir most likely in the Free State, which Modise says is currently under investigation.

Who takes responsibility for these lion slaughterhouses, and especially the often appalling welfare conditions existing in these unregulated abattoirs, has previously been a point of dispute. The then Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) stated welfare was not their mandate and pointed towards Department of Agriculture‚ Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) to deal with welfare. DAFF in turn pointed towards the provincial nature conservation authorities, whereas they claimed their responsibility was purely the issuing of permits for captive bred lions to be killed and the primary responsibility of the lions’ welfare resides with the NSPCA and animal owners.

Since the High Court ruling in August 2019, surely DEFF will need to start taking welfare into consideration, when Judge Kollapen made it blatantly clear that “….it is inconceivable that the State Respondents [DEA] could have ignored welfare considerations of lions in captivity in setting the annual export quota.”

Audrey Delsink (Wildlife Director – HSI Africa) says “the captive breeding of lions that feeds the bone trade and canned hunting involves horrific animal welfare atrocities that can no longer be ignored”.

“Although we commend the organisations involved for foiling an alleged lion bone smuggling attempt, one seizure sadly doesn’t represent a victory. It’s a clear sign of the failure to end the suffering and it’s time for this sick industry to be closed down”, Delsink adds.

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