A charity is urging travellers to boycott attractions involving captive big cats, following a report into the growing black market for tiger bones.

A tiger cannot change its stripes, but this has not stopped the remains of thousands of lions being imported into Asia to be passed off as tiger bone medicine.

The report into the trade of lions and tigers has uncovered what it describes as a "circle of cruelty". Lion farms in South Africa are feeding the demand for counterfeit illegal medicines, thousands of kilometres away.

World Animal Protection's report into the illegal trade of big cats found that thousands of animals – mostly lions and tigers – are being farmed to supply the market for traditional Asian medicines.

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Eye of the tiger: A visitor with a farmed Lion in South Africa, many animals end up in the counterfeit medicine market. Photo / Getty Images
Eye of the tiger: A visitor with a farmed Lion in South Africa, many animals end up in the counterfeit medicine market. Photo / Getty Images

Titled 'Trading Cruelty' the document claims the trade has its centre in South Africa. It estimates between 6000 and 8000 lions and up to 280 tigers are housed in facilities across the country, where they will be processed for use in medicines.

Ingredients such as tiger bone are common in Chinese medicine. Last year, a survey into drug use in China found that around 40 per cent of respondents had used medicine containing big cat products.

This is in spite of China banning the trade of tiger bone in 1993.

World Animal Protection (WAP) estimates that around 5000 tigers are kept in breeding facilities throughout China.

Tiger balm: Plasters and medicines claiming to contain ingredeints such as tiger bone. Photo / Getty Images
Tiger balm: Plasters and medicines claiming to contain ingredeints such as tiger bone. Photo / Getty Images

However it is in South Africa and Thailand that the majority of the big cat farms are found. Many of these farms breed species of big cat that are legal to trade, but end up sold on the tiger medicine black market.

The increase in lion remains shipped into Thailand an Laos, has led experts to believe they are either passed off as tiger products or sold as a supplement.

However WAP says the exploitation of these animals begins long before they end up in medicines.

A bi-product of these animals being bred for ingredients is the emergence of big cat tourism. Juvenile cats are often used in "walking with lions" experiences, for paying visitors.

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South Africa: Lions and tigersrest at one of the countrys many breeding farms. Photo / Getty Images
South Africa: Lions and tigersrest at one of the countrys many breeding farms. Photo / Getty Images

This can appear as innocuous as petting zoos or offering tourists to bottle-feed cubs. However most of these lions are in for a lifetime in captivity and slaughter for profit.

There are more than 200 commercial breeding facilities in South Africa. Many of these lion farms advertise big game shoots, with "canned lions" as the draw for trophy hunters.

Business Insider South Africa reported that lions were being sold to tourists to shoot for between R1850000 to R780000 ($200000 to $80000). The report says that these cat ranches also encourage lion and tiger cross-breeds for larger animals, bigger trophies and "heavier bones" for sale as medicine.

What isn't advertised is what becomes of the carcasses.

According to WAP at least 5559 big cats have been intercepted on their way to Asia in the past two decades. This includes 1031 tigers and 4189 leopards.

Shockingly, the trade of lions remains legal.

Stripes: The remains of two Sumatran tigers intercepted by Indonesian police. Photo / Getty Images
Stripes: The remains of two Sumatran tigers intercepted by Indonesian police. Photo / Getty Images

CITES ( The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) oversees a quota for South African to export between 1500 and 800 carcasses a year.

Most of these products, such as teeth and claws are imported to Asia where they are either sold as tiger bones or, as WAP suggests, might in fact be used to conceal the movement of tiger remains.

CITES publishes trade information via its website, but this is reliant figures to be reported by importing and exporting countries these items. These are not always accurate.

Gilbert Sape, who is head of WAP's campaign against traditional mediecine said that the numbers do not tally. "In 2016, South Africa documented exporting 1542 body parts (including 540 skeletons) to Vietnam and 827 parts (including 458 skeletons) to Lao PDR," he told The Herald.

"However, Lao PDR itself has not reported the import/export of any lion products."

The report says that the big cats are so similar that "DNA testing would be the only way to identify the species."

Cat ranch: Farmed lions in an enclosure in Kroonstad, South Africa. Photo / Getty Images
Cat ranch: Farmed lions in an enclosure in Kroonstad, South Africa. Photo / Getty Images

Dr Jan Schmidt-Burbach an advisor for WAP says it is an outrage that these wild animals should live out their lives in "farms or entertainment venues."

"These big cats are exploited for greed and money - and for what? For medicine that's never been proven to have any curative properties whatsoever," he told the Herald in a statement.

Many tourists "forced to interact with people or perform tricks, to be then shot or slaughtered so that their bodies can be harvested for products," said Schmidt-Burbach.

While WAP says there is much to be done to close the legal loopholes that allow for this "circle of suffering" to persist, it is up to tourists not to support businesses promoting big cat farms.

For now the onus is on travellers to avoid lion or tiger cub activities, and remove the incentives for big cat farms to continue operating in Africa and Asia.

Tiger balm: Tigers in Asian medicine

In China and parts of Asia tiger bones have been used in traditional medicines.

Powdered bones have been used in plasters and even dissolved in wine vinegar for supposed "health" reasons.

None of the benefits of the traditional medicines have ever been proven or trialled scientifically.

However, this and an international band on the trade of tiger remains has not stopped the demand for medicines claiming to contain big cats.

Last year China said it would lift a ban on the trade of tiger bones and 'medicinal' items such as rhino horn, which had been in place since 1993.

The lifting of the ban was 'postponed' following international outcry, however this did not alter the black market for the materials harvested from endangered animals.