The king of the jungle is in more trouble than ever. Researchers are now warning that endangered lions could be targeted for their bones, in addition to all the other reasons hunters are killing the majestic cats. In parts of Asia, tiger bones are used in traditional medicine and lion bones are replacing them to a growing degree. This increasing market could lead directly to a further decline in already unstable lion populations in Africa.

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Conservationists in South Africa, where lions are hunted both legally and illegally, are seeing an uptick in the demand for lion bones. The lion bone trade took off around 2008 but, until now, hasn’t had much of a negative impact on the wild lions in Africa, according to a report released in July. Lion bone trading has been mostly derived from the legal hunting of captive-bred lions, so officials have been able to control the numbers. However, as the demand increases, researchers are investigating whether there has been an effect on lions elsewhere in Africa – one that may have been overlooked.

Related: Grim map shows former lion habitat versus their current, dwindling range

The report’s main author, Vivienne Williams, a researcher at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, wrote “more lion hunting is taking place than is being reported by professional hunters” in Africa. She further acknowledges “reports of poaching incidents involving wild South African lions are sporadic and have not been conclusively linked to the lion bone trade.” That’s why she and other researchers are calling for a deeper investigation.

Lion populations in Africa vary in their relative health. While conservation efforts have been positive in the southern part of the continent, wild lions in West Africa and East Africa are suffering critically low numbers. If hunters feel enough demand for their bones and increase the killings to supply the lion bone trade, those populations may not be stable enough to survive much longer.

Via Al Jazeera

Images via Shutterstock (1, 2)