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.
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."