South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs announced this week that it will allow 800 captive-bred lion skeletons to be exported every year. It's an attempt, the agency said, to cap the supply of a commodity that has grown exponentially since it was legalized in 2007.

Conservation groups were quick to denounce the plan, claiming it has no basis in science and could, perversely, lead to an increase in black market demand for wild lions.

"There's a new market and new evidence of wild lions being killed for their body parts," said Paul Funston, the senior director of the lion program at Panthera, a global, wild cat conservation organization. "That was something we didn't see in time gone by, but now we are seeing a sharp increase in lions being killed just to harvest body parts."

Ninety percent of lion carcasses in the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique had their skull, teeth, and claws removed last year, according to Panthera. In Namibia, 42 percent of killed lions had their heads, feet, tails, skins, and claws removed — a phenomenon that didn't occur during a similar killing spate in 2014.

"We strongly urge South Africa to take into account the wider impact of the captive lion bone trade beyond its borders," Debbie Banks of the Environmental Investigation Agency, said in a statement.

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The 800-skeleton quota is the latest in a series of efforts to control the lion bone trade, which has been promoted by the government and some conservationists as an alternative to the heavily regulated tiger bone products popular in China and Southeast Asia, especially Laos and Vietnam. International efforts at protecting tigers and other large charismatic Asian cats have become — inadvertently — a factor in the growth of the lion bone industry.

Prevailing opinion is that rising Asian affluence is driving demand for tiger products, such as "tiger bone wine," which is considered a health remedy for rheumatism and arthritis, among other ailments. As the tiger trade came under international scutiny, dealers turned to other large cats, like lions, as a viable, legal alternative.

When the hunting of captive-bred lions was legalized in South Africa in 2007, it was done under the auspices of wild lion conservation. By allowing hunters to kill captive-bred lions, the government believed it could effectively remove pressure on wild populations. The lion bone trade surged shortly thereafter, as a secondary market to the hunting of captive-bred lions.

Wild lion populations have been severely depleted across Africa, with only 20,000 remaining from some 30,000 reported two decades ago, according to Panthera. There are now more than 9,100 lions in South Africa, about a third roaming in the wild, according to figures compiled by Traffic, a wildlife monitoring group. In 2013, South Africa reported 5,800 captive-bred lions, a number that has nearly doubled since 2005.

Until 2007 the export of live lions and lion parts was an "unremarkable blip" in global wildlife trade, according to report by Traffic. From 2008, however, the quantities exported increased almost six-fold. Between 2014 and 2016, South Africa legally exported an estimated 1,300 lion skeletons each year.

In response to public backlash to the proposed quota, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) reiterated that the measures were intended to protect wild lions.

"One of the main concerns is that lion bones may be illegally sourced from wild lion populations if the trade in the bones originating from captive bred lions is prohibited," the department said in a statement. "A well-regulated trade will enable the Department to monitor a number of issues relating to the trade, including the possible impact on the wild populations."

But as the number of captive-bred carcasses exported from South Africa continues to rise, according to Funston, so does the incidence of wild lions illegally harvested for parts that could be sold on the legal market, or "white" market.

"White market trade stimulates black market trade," Panthera's Funston said. "As soon as you legitimize trade, then there are people that want to take part, and they're drawn in."

And that is why Panthera is calling for a total prohibition on captive lion breeding and its secondary markets, such as hunting and the export of lion skeletons.

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Last year, citing a declining lion population across much of Africa, conservation groups tried to improve lion protections by urging nations to agree to a complete ban on trade in wild- or captive-bred lion parts. The effort failed, though, and current international regulations allow for exports if government scientists declare the trade won't be detrimental to the survival of a species.

While the DEA maintains the 800-skeleton quota was based on an assessment of the previous year's trade data, they are now reviewing public comment on the issue, promising that no lion bone exports will be authorized until the quota has been fully implemented.

"Even if that quota is 100, we're concerned that this trade, and new form of market, stands to hurt wild populations," said Funston. "We believe the South African government has fueled this market, and we're afraid this could be repeated across other countries without South Africa's resources to spend on management."

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