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An attempt to ban all international trade in African lions, from trophy heads to bones, has failed at the CITES global wildlife summit.

Animal rights activists carry placards during an anti- canned-lion protest during the first day of the COP17 Cites conference in Johannesburg. Photograph: Kim Ludbrook/EPA
Animal rights activists carry placards during an anti- canned-lion protest during the first day of CITES CoP17 in Johannesburg ©Kim Ludbrook/EPA

African lions have shrunk to just 8% of their historic range, with only 20,000 left in the wild. About 1,500 a year are hunted as trophies, a practice that attracted global attention last year after an American dentist killed Cecil the lion with a crossbow in Zimbabwe.

Rising trade in lion bones to Asia, where such bones are replacing scarce tiger bones in supposed tonics, has raised fears of further declines. South Africa alone legally exported 1,200 skeletons – 11 tonnes of bones – between 2008 and 2011, the latest figures available.

But 182 countries at the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meeting in Johannesburg, were unable to agree on a proposal from nine African countries to ban all international trade in lion parts.

Instead, a compromise agreement banned only the trade in bones, teeth and claws from wild lions. Those coming from captive-bred lions will still be legally sold, although South Africa will now have to report on how many it sells each year. The export of trophies from lion hunting remains legal.

Tsekedi Khama, environment minister in Botswana, which backed a total ban, said: “It would be a very, very sad day when we are not able to show our children’s children what a lion looks like because they have been hunted into extinction or because we traded their body parts into extinction, and that we have taken no responsibility in managing the situation.”

A spokesman for the European Union, which helped broker the deal, said: “It is the nature of compromise that not everyone gets what they want.”

A delegate from Niger, one of the countries that proposed the total ban, said: “We continue to be concerned by the constant threat the lion faces. [But] we will accept the compromise.”

Zimbabwe has argued strongly for legal trade in lions and its CITES delegate said living with lions poses serious hardships for communities, as cattle and sometimes people can be killed by them.

“The coexistence of people and lions can only be protected by putting a value on lions,” the delegate said, “through eco-tourism and sport hunting, with the money ploughed back into conservation.”

Colman O’Criodain, from the World Wildlife Fund, said: “Discussions at CITES have shone a light on the lion bone trade, while a recent report highlights the use of lion bone as a substitute for tiger bone. WWF is very concerned about this trend and the recommendation to ban all trade in wild lion bone is a positive first step, but it does not go far enough. WWF believes that, as with the trade of parts of captive-bred tigers, the trade in bone from captive-bred lion keeps demand for big cat bone alive, and complicates enforcement efforts.”

Experts say any legal big cat bone trade gives the opportunity for traffickers to pass off illegal wild bones as legitimate.

Jimmiel Mandima, from the African Wildlife Foundation, had wanted a total ban and warned that lions were going extinct in numerous African countries. He said trophy hunting disrupted populations by targeting the biggest males.

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