Monitoring compliance of CITES lion bone exports from South Africa
From 2008 to 2018, South Africa permitted the export of captive-bred African lion (Panthera leo) skeletons to Southeast Asia. Exports rose from approximately 50 individuals in 2008 to a maximum of 1,771 skeletons in 2016, leading to concerns over possible laundering of non-lion, multiple-source and wild material. Monitoring tools for the legal trade in lion bones are critical to CITES compliance, ensuring that i) other species are not laundered as lion, ii) all bones in a consignment comprise of a known number of unique individuals to avoid ‘pooling’ or ‘tag-swopping’, and iii) each individual can be traced to their captive origin. In addition to exploring conventional skull morphology- and weight-based monitoring techniques, a CITES-compliant genetic monitoring protocol to confirm the species, individual identity, and thereby the origin of legally traded lion bones was developed and validated. We traced 800 and 799 lion bone samples obtained under ‘chain-of-custody’ sampling from the 2017 and 2018 lion bone quotas, respectively, while an additional 25 and 102 random ‘spot-checked’ samples were collected at the airport prior to export. A real-time polymerase chain reaction was used for species assignment, while pairwise-comparative sample matching of individual DNA profiles and origin tracing analyses were conducted using 18–23 microsatellite markers. There are significant differences in lion skeleton weights: farm weights (listed on CITES export permits) are heavier than export weights, and skeletons in more recent trade are heavier than in preceding years. Monitoring skeleton weight profiles can provide significant regulatory advantages when correctly applied, but it may be prone to misinterpretation and should be considered in the full context of the procedural system. Molecular identification of individuals and species successfully highlighted ten anomalies in comparative sample matching of individual pairs with the same tag number between source farms and airport spot-checks, excluding one overt attempt at laundering. We here provide both the lion weight and genetic profile data to support these analyses.