Wildlife Watch

A Good Week for Lions, Despite Demand from U.S. Trophy Hunters

France just banned the import of sport-hunted lion trophies. In the U.S., where the majority of trophy hunters come from, some lawmakers are trying to do the same.

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The killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe touched off a movement to end trophy hunting.

We all came to know Cecil, the majestic lion with the black mane shot by a Minnesota dentist. “Justice for Cecil” became a rallying cry, and soon people who’d never been involved in the conservation movement before had found a new cause—ending lion hunting.

We’ve been following it closely because this blog, Wildlife Watch, tells stories about wildlife crime, conservation, and exploitation. It’s nice to be able to write about some positive change.

This has been a good week for lions. France is banning the import of lion trophies from sport hunts (think lion heads, rugs, pelts, and whatnot), and South Africa’s getting closer to ending canned lion hunting. That’s when ranches breed and raise lions in captivity and then release them into confined areas to be shot by hunters.

Is the end near for canned lion hunting? South Africa’s hunting association just voted to distance itself from the captive-bred lion hunting industry, Africa Geographic reported yesterday. The documentary Blood Lions, which exposed the dark underside of the industry, had a lot to do with it. Much like what Blackfish has done for orcas and The Cove has done for dolphins, Blood Lions introduced us to the realities of canned hunting.

When the documentary aired in the U.S., National Geographic wrote:

Up to 7,000 lions are living behind bars in South Africa. Raised in captivity on private breeding farms and hunting “reserves,” some of these animals are petted as cubs by tourists, who can also walk alongside or even feed more mature lions.

Eventually, many are shot in “canned” hunts, in which lions are pursued and killed in confined areas that make them easy targets. Hunt fees can be as high as $50,000.

Last year, Australia became the first country to ban lion trophies. And after Cecil’s death this summer, Zimbabwe banned lion hunting altogether...for 10 days. Now France has also decided to ban hunters from bringing their prized lion parts home.

What has the U.S. done? Mostly, propped up the industry.

The U.S. is actually the biggest importer of lion trophies. And more and more of them are coming from canned hunts. FiveThirtyEight, which crunched the numbers, wrote:

Because the lions are brought up by human caretakers, they often lack survival instincts and are easy prey for tourist hunters. (Before they are hunted for trophies, some captive-bred lions start their lives in petting zoo, becoming acclimated to people so they are easier to stalk and kill.)

This year alone, 405 lion trophies have been brought to the U.S., according to NBC Bay Area’s new analysis of import permits. Nearly 7,300 have been imported in the last 15 years.

Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, is trying to put a lid on it. His CECIL Animals Trophies Act would make it illegal to import parts from any animal considered threatened or endangered (lions are listed as “threatened” on the Endangered Species Act).

The bill is in committee now, but with powerful opponents like the National Rifle Association and Safari Club International...well, they’ve fought these battles before.

Then again, they don’t always win.

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback and story ideas to ngwildlife@ngs.org.

Follow Rachael Bale on Twitter.

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