Note:   All the images in this blog and all of my blogs are animals I photographed in the wild unless specifically noted.   This article talks mostly about captive lions but the images of truly wild lions are here for illustration purposes only.

I am sitting at my desk at my home in Illinois, in the USA with tears streaming down my face.

I've just watched a documentary called "Lions, Bones, and Bullets" about the fate of lions and what the legal and illegal wildlife trade is doing to lions in captivity as well as lions in the wild.

The documentary was filmed in part by Author Richard Peirce.   He wrote the book "Cuddle Me Kill Me" which was published in 2018.   The investigation he did for that book revealed how tourists were conned into helping farms raise lion cubs (telling the tourists it was for conservation and they would be released into the wild) to then just sell the lions to canned hunting farms (these are farms where hunters can come in, pick which lion they want to kill and the lion is released into a fenced area where the hunter goes in and kills the lion).    

These farms not only get free labor from the tourists, but the tourists paid for the privilege of caring for the cubs (under the guise they were doing a good thing).   The farms then either sold the cubs to canned hunts or ran the canned hunts themselves charging anywhere between $10,000 and $45,000 to give someone the "privilege" to shoot and kill a lion.

Due to the outcry from his investigative work,the movie "Blood Lions: Bred for the Bullet", as well as the killing of Cecil in Zimbabwe and the public outcry, the cruel lion breeding and canned hunting industry was made illegal.  

But according to the South African Tourism Services Association, none of what was suggested to be implemented has been implemented.    It is therefore assumed the breeding and canned hunting is still ongoing - only more in the shadows than it was before.

But hunting is a huge discussion for another time...let's get back to the documentary, the lion bone trade, and lions becoming extinct in the wild.

portrait of a male lion in Tanzania

In the Documentary, Richard Peirce takes us to a few of the approximately 331 lion farms in S. Africa, where there are over 12,000 lions in captivity.  (Note, there are only approximately 20,000 lions left in the wild in all of Africa).  

It appears that some of the farms are run humanely and the lions look well cared for.    

Of course, there are also the farms that resemble the more horrid puppy mills where the animals are starving and sick and so malnourished, they have neurological developmental issues.  There is very little oversight in the farming of lions or other wild animals.

Peirce went on a mission to understand that since the canned hunting industry had tanked (in large part from the USA making the importation of trophies from captive lion hunting illegal), what was the reason for the increase in lion farming?  (The number of captive farmed lions has quadrupled in the last 10 years).

He discovered that the lion carcasses were being shipped to the Middle East.   South Africa has a quota of 800 carcasses that can legally be exported per year.    Thru the documentary, they found evidence that most likely double that amount was illegally being sold through the black market.   

As Peirce continues to unravel the issues, he comes to the conclusion that lion bones are mixed with tiger bones and sold as tiger products.    It is much cheaper for the manufacturers of the tiger bone products to buy lion bones then it is to raise the tigers.

The tiger products being sold (illegally) included tiger wine, claws, teeth, bracelets made from tiger parts, tiger whip (sinews) that they put into wine and these products were being sold openly - even though they are all illegal products to sell.

He wanted to find out what was driving the market, why are people buying these items?   What he found in Vietnam (which is the 2nd largest consumer of big cat products) that people bought them because they kept away evil spirits and they made you stronger as well as being a status symbol.   He even found pangolin scales being openly sold in the markets.

He then found out about "tiger cake" or "tiger balm" which sells for the highest price.    They boil the bones and make a bar out of them.    One lion or tiger skeleton makes about 60 bars of the tiger cake.

The lion skeleton is sold for about $1650.   The tiger cake sells in the markets for $1000 for 100 grams.   Each skeleton makes 60 bars so is worth $60,000 in street value.    With 800 skeletons (legally sold), that's $48,000,000 in street value.   With the farmer getting very little of that money.

Many consumers steam or cook the tiger balm and mix it with opium.   This supposedly gives an increase to the effectiveness of the opium.     The balm (and wines and powders) are also supposed to have medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities).

Although these items are illegal, the documentary team had no problems finding the products to buy them.   There is a huge market and it is readily available.

In addition, if you put the morals / ethics aside and just look at the inherent dangers of lion farming - the lions are often feed with cows and chickens that died from diseases.    They can easily carry TB.   TB is the biggest form of death in S. Africa and TB can be transmitted from the animal bones to the wine / cake / powder to the person injecting the items thus possibly causing TB to rapidly transmit.   This becomes even more of a likelihood as there are no rules or restrictions on lion farming like there are for cattle farming.    (so no oversights as to how the animals need to be cared for)

The documentary goes into depth about the process and how they even traced manufacturing facilities of the bars back to S. Africa.   

Towards the end of the documentary, Peirce talks to us about lion poaching.   Many of the captive lions are being poached.   Their feed and heads are being cut off and their skins taken.   This is for the claws, teeth, and skin and they are much easier to smuggle into Asia than the entire carcass.    

They then showed how quickly this has moved to the poaching of wild lions.   In Mozambique, just outside of Krueger National Park, there used to be about 1000 lions across 7 prides.    They have all been poached and there are now 0 lions in the area.   

Very interesting is that the poaching increased (tripled) since the quota was put into place.

The increasing desire from the markets is making it more attractive to poachers to kill lions and export them to Asia.

There is overwhelming evidence that there is no conservation advantage to having farmed lions and that indeed farming lions is a detriment to the wild lions.    But the government rejected all the information and took huge steps to preserve and increase the farming.   They have not put into law an additional 100 wild animals that can be called as agricultural products and can be used for human consumption.

And, there are no rules or regulations about how these animals need to be tended to.

Wild lions have a huge economic value - because that's where tourists are willing to go to pay money to see them.   Sustainable and ETHICAL tourism is what will help save lions and other wildlife across the world.

This documentary is so disturbing...but awareness is the first step.   The more people that watch the film and become aware of what is happening to the wildlife around the world, the better chance we have to save them.    

"Wild and free is how people should see lions.   Not petting them, not feeding them, not walking with them.   Wild and free!  The breeding industry is taking the wild out of wildlife.   To me that's a crime.   Wild should be wild. 

- Richard Peirce

This article in the Smithsonian has a lot of details about the issues of lion farming, canned hunting, hunting, and selling bones.   "Is it Ethical to Hunt Captive Lions" from the Jan/ Feb 2023 edition.

To watch this incredibly informative film, you will need to sign up for Water Bear.   It is free.  Then search for the movie "Lions, Bones and Bullets".  It is just under 1.5 hours.

The movie website:

For a copy of the book "Cuddle Me - Kill Me"  you can go to amazon.   Please note, if you use my link, I will be paid a small commission from Amazon.  It will cost you the same.   I appreciate your support.

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments below! 

a lion with a beautiful silverfish mane
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