Mr. Keosavang went into hiding after the United States offered a $1 million reward for information leading to his network’s dismantling, but other buyers in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand quickly took his place. Intermediaries in those countries now act as go-betweens for customers, obscuring the true number of importers and their identities, Dr. Williams said.
She and Mr. ‘t Sas-Rolfes did not investigate what became of lion bones after they were legally imported into Asia. But according to Debbie Banks, a campaign leader at the Environmental Investigation Agency in London, lion bones, teeth and claws are falsely labeled tiger parts and sold.
Tiger products are immensely popular in Asian markets. Lion bones are used to make what’s marketed as tiger bone wine, a luxury, while claws and teeth are turned into jewelry. In at least eight wildlife seizures in China, lion parts were said to be tiger products, according to Ms. Banks and her colleagues.
“There’s an assumption that lion has replaced tiger in the market, and therefore there’s a decline of pressure on tigers, but that’s not the case,” Ms. Banks said. “The demand for tiger and other big cats marketed as tiger is so huge that not only is it consuming farmed tigers, but wild tigers are also still being poached.”
The legal trade in lion parts “stimulates demand and perpetuates the desirability of these products,” she continued. “So long as there is a demand, there is going to be pressure on the world’s remaining tigers.”
In a worrying new trend, lions are also falling victim to poachers. Over a five-year span, Kristoffer Everatt, a project manager at Panthera, a conservation organization, documented a 68 percent decline in the lion population in Limpopo National Park in Mozambique, with just 21 lions remaining in 2017.
The majority of the poached lion remains were missing teeth and claws; two were butchered for their bones, as well. “This lion population is now close to a complete collapse,” Dr. Everatt said. Researchers in Namibia and northern Mozambique have also reported finding lions with their faces, paws or toes removed, he added.