National Geographic News
A lion meat patty shown ready to cook.

A lion-meat patty is shown at Il Vinaio Restaurant in Mesa, Arizona, in a 2010 picture.

Photograph by Matt York, AP

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic News

Published March 12, 2013

An Illinois state representative wants to ban lion meat from his state, raising an obvious question: just who is eating this stuff?

Illinois Rep. Luis Arroyo's Lion Meat Act would make it "unlawful for any person to slaughter a lion or for any person to possess, breed, import or export from this State, buy, or sell lions for the purpose of slaughter."

Arroyo says he believes at there are at least two sites in Illinois selling African lion meat, according to the Associated Press, though the legislator did not identify them by name.

Crawford Allan, an illegal wildlife trade expert for the conservation group World Wildlife Fund, said lions are farmed for meat in the United States to sell in restaurants.

"We have no evidence that lion trade in the U.S. is illegal," he said.

Richard Czimer, owner of Czimer's Game and Sea Foods Inc. in Homer Glen, Illinois, sometimes buys USDA-certified lion meat.

In his view, Arroyo's proposed lion-meat ban is "trying to curtail a choice" in what people eat.

"He's discriminating against all my customers and everybody who wants to try something new," said Czimer.

Czimer pointed out that hundreds of thousands of cattle are killed per day, while there are far fewer lions killed. In 2012 for instance, Czimer was able to purchase only two lions.

Yet "eating carnivores is mostly not a good idea," argued Luke Hunter, president of Panthera, a U.S. based wild-cat conservation group that works with National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.

For one, carnivore populations worldwide are dwindling—the African lion is listed as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and is endangered in certain West African countries. (See lion pictures.)

Though wild lions aren't killed for food, there's concern that weak or poorly regulated laws regarding the ownership, breeding, and trade of captive big cats in the U.S.—in particular tigers—could fuel the black market for big-cat parts, Will Gartshore, senior program officer for U.S. Government Relations at WWF, said in an email.

Handling wild-carnivore carcasses can also be dangerous, Hunter said. Since the predators end up eating so many different animals, they accumulate parasites and diseases. In 2007, for instance, a biologist in Arizona contracted primary pneumatic plague after dissecting a cougar carcass and died shortly after.

Added Luke Dollar, grant-program director of the Big Cats Initiative: "While these aren't lions that have a realistic chance of roaming the African plains some day, the use of them for food animals has to be considered ethically questionable."

Exotic Meat on the Menu

Of course, that doesn't stop some people from consuming exotic meat. In the United States, some people eat legally hunted black bear—which is not considered threatened—Hunter said, especially in late autumn after the animal has foraged all summer.

The U.S.-based company Exotic Meats and More sells such oddities as iguana, llama, camel, according to its website. A similar purveyor, Buy Exotic Meats, offers emu, yak, and snapping turtle, among other animals.

Eating African lion meat is unusual around the world—including on the predator's home continent, where the meat is not considered palatable, Hunter said.

Yet there is a taste for meat of threatened wild animals in other parts of the world—"too many species to list," said Allan.

For example, he said that rare species on the menu include great apes in West and Central Africa; sturgeon caviar worldwide; freshwater turtles and tortoises in Asia; Asiatic black bears for bear paw soup in China; marine turtles in Latin America and the Caribbean, West Africa, and Southeast Asia; and some whales in Japan, South Korea, and Iceland.

Wild Animals Fair Game in Asia

By far the most exotic meat consumers live in Asia, where "most wild species are fair game," Hunter noted. "In Thailand in Vietnam, there are often wild meats available in restaurants"—including tiger.

In some Asian countries, tourist attractions called tiger parks secretly operate as front operations for tiger farming—butchering captive tigers for their parts and offering a potential market for wild-tiger poachers too, according to National Geographic magazine's 2010 story on Asia's wildlife trade.

"Tibetans wear tiger-skin robes; wealthy collectors display their heads; exotic restaurants sell their meat; their penis is said to be an aphrodisiac; and Chinese covet their bones for health cures, including tiger-bone wine, the 'chicken soup' of Chinese medicine," that article reported.

Hunter estimates there are between 4,000 to 5,000 tigers in captivity that are being bred for their parts and meat. (See pictures of tigers in trouble.)

Lion bones from Africa are being traded to China as a substitute for tiger bones for tonic wine as well, WWF's Allan noted.

Panthera's Hunter said that Illinois's Lion Meat Act would be more effective if it promoted "conservation on the ground, rather than banning a fairly inconsequential trade of lion meat in the state," he said. (Learn how you can help protect big cats.)

"People might spend 10-to-15 bucks on a gourmet lion burger—I'd rather that .... they spend that on a conservation organization working to protect cats in the wild."

leeada Johnson
leeada Johnson

A stunningly irrelevant article. Of no effect to Felid Conservation, eating domestically raised cats are the unspeakable eating the uneatable, but so what?  With really burning and pressing issues, the need for people to pass unimportant laws to control everything they dislike, speaks to their own lack of understanding of the precepts and values of Liberty. You don't like it? Don't do it! Why is it any owrse than eating cute lambs and calves? Or adult pigs and cows?  Your own sense of disgust is not a mandate for passing laws.

Protecting whales and doplphins from slaughter would seem to be many times orders of magnitude more important than a few foolish people eating an infinitestimably small number of domestically raised lions.

Denise Dynan
Denise Dynan

 I disagree with the last comment in this article by "Hunter" (how appropriately named he is). Ground conservation can't truly happen as long as there are hunters. There is a restaurant in Burlingame, CA called Mokutanya, that is serving lion meat on a skewer for $70.  They have indicated on their website that the meat comes from Illinois. I asked them to reveal its' name and have  not been told. I believe the best way to aid ground conservation of ALL animals is to change laws involving the eating of them!!!! Otherwise, butchers and meat purveyors will continue to try to get more exotic animal meats for consumers who think with their stomachs only. Only then do people become more aware. Only then will people be more cognizant of necessary changes in the animal kingdom and the way in which animals are treated. As long as they are killed to be eaten, there is no RESPECT for them among meat eaters. As long as hunting is legal, there is NO respect for animals and their lives among meat eaters. To me, if you would kill an animal, you would be more prone to kill a human also. There is no "humane" slaughter either. The animals suffer from fear and pain but very few of their slaughterers give it much thought.

People today are still very uninformed apparently and to me  I find it astonishing how many people don't even think about being vegan or even vegetarian or say they "can't" because they actually believe that meat is good for them when all evidence points to the opposite!!!

I find this not only disturbing because of the threatened status of this mighty animal, but also that some people feel the "need" for more exotic fare. This is such a selfish position. I don't care what culture you came from, it's ignorant and blatantly selfish not to respect the lives of other creatures,especially when they are dwindling in numbers. We have over taken most of their habitats as it is, and there will come a time at this pace when they cease to be among us. What will you eat then?

And as for the person that commented about eating the stomach of wolves in his country, I can't even perceive of such an amazing falsehood! It infuriates me that people could be so uneducated and willing to believe folklore stories. It is exactly that type of thinking that makes wolves appear evil when in reality, they are not. Please work not to perpetuate that! I am a wolf activist and their plight in America is disgusting enough already, (thanks to cattle ranchers/beef industry and bloodthirsty hunters) they don't need any more people fueling it.

Chanci Shugart
Chanci Shugart

I can not even imagine what is going on in these people's heads. How can they compare eating cow meat to eating lion meat? Are cows threatened to become extinct? No. But lions are and whether they are captive or not should have no difference. They are a threatened species and should be treated as such. It is our (human) fault that these animals are even threatened in the first place and yet our greed is causing us to hurt them even more. I'm appalled by this.

stoo huayin
stoo huayin

It's disgusting to eat wildlife meat. Of course it's necessary to ban lion-meat for saling.

Ariunaa Tur-amgalan
Ariunaa Tur-amgalan

i agree with eating carnivorous meat is not healthy and palatable since it contains many parazite and diseases from what they ate before. since we never do medical investigation for them, i never know whether is safe or not. but it is true that those animal's some organ is good at our body. for example, in my country, if person's stomach is almost dead, we eats small piece of wolf's stomach and then it recovers. 

Ariunaa Tur-amgalan
Ariunaa Tur-amgalan

i agree with eating carnivorous meat is not healthy and palatable since it contains many parazite and diseases from what they ate before. since we never do medical investigation for them, i never know whether is safe or not. but it is true that those animal's some organ is good at our body. for example, in my country, if person's stomach is almost dead, we eats small piece of wolf's stomach and then it recovers. 

Rico Everman
Rico Everman

It is hard to imagine the sickness than runs through the mind of someone who is so selfish to view a majestic lion as a "food Source."  

Individual freedom over the respect of our natural world is just greed and short sightedness that has brought thousands of species to extinction and irreplaceable ecosystems to collapse.  Eating the "King of the Jungle" does not make you the "king of your neighborhood" rather, it proves that you have no respect for yourself or the natural gifts that surround us.

No one in America can justify this type of greed.  It is pure gluttony to indulge in this.  Just say "no."  Do not support this type of behavior.  

Michele Brown
Michele Brown

In a country with severe obesity problems it defies logic why anyone 'needs' to eat lions in America. So many exotic animals are in serious trouble because of man's greed.

I'm a front line fighter against the Dog and Cat Meat Trade in Vietnam, South Korea and China ,where most of the animals are stolen pets, still wearing their collars and tags!

Dogs are hung by the neck, beaten with iron bars, electrocuted in the genitals (not to kill them but simply to torture them) and while still alive and conscious: set on fire with blow torches and/or skinned alive.

Customers demand tortured meat and enjoy watching the specific alive dog they chose, as it's tortured for up to an hour. As the animal is tortured massive amounts of adrenaline flow into the agonised animal's bloodstream, causing the meat to become very tough.

Without any scientific evidence people believe eating tough meat makes men tough, as they eat it and that it adds to a man's sexual prowess.

Cats are treated appallingly; they are hated and seen as evil vermin. They are trussed for hours and sometimes days, before being boiled alive. Without any scientific evidence people believe drinking once agile cats aid against rheumatism.

The dog and cat meat trade began booming in the mid-eighties after economic booms began. Prior to that, eating dogs and cats was seen as disgusting and abhorrent. Illegal traffickers convinced people that eating dogs and cats offered health and sexual performance.

It is one thing to eat an animal, but ongoing torture designed to cause the most agony possible, for up to an hour for each animal before finally killing it,  is unacceptable and can NEVER be justified!

Cody Wilson
Cody Wilson

These F******* people are sick. If you hunt an animal ( witch you should not) make sure it's not threatened. Anyway these animals are not "clean" and is a sin if you eat them.

Pete McLean
Pete McLean

I'm surprised it's not already. It makes US criticism of eating Kangaroo meat pretty hypocritical.

PU Annie
PU Annie

No need, No kill. If all of us can say no the lion burger, there won't be any lion meat in the restuarant.


Popular Stories

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »