After a tough year, things are looking up for lions. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Monday that it will list two subspecies under the Endangered Species Act, a move that will make it difficult to bring live lions or their parts into the country.
The new rules come six months after Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer shot and killed a beloved lion, Cecil, who was a symbol of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Palmer was not charged in the killing but came under worldwide criticism because of Cecil's death, which became a rallying cry among activists seeking to end lion hunting.
Today’s announcement could help achieve that goal by eliminating the incentive for American hunters—who make up a healthy percentage of those hunting lions—to take home a lion’s head, skin, or other prized parts. The listings put lions on par with other big cats—leopards, tigers, cheetahs—already listed as endangered.
Under the new classifications, lions found in India and West and central Africa, whose numbers have dwindled to about 1,400, will be considered endangered. Lions found in East and Southern Africa will be listed as threatened because there are more lions, at least 17,000, in those regions.
Also under the new rules, people who have been convicted of a wildlife law violation could be denied a permit to import a lion trophy. That could affect trophy hunters such as Palmer, who according to Minnesota Public Radio News pleaded guilty in 2008 to making false statements to the agency about a black bear he killed outside an authorized hunting zone.
Lion numbers worldwide are estimated to have plunged to about 20,000 from more than a million two thousand years ago, according to National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative. The usual culprits are to blame: habitat loss, lack of prey, and increased conflict with humans.
The Fish and Wildlife Service says that “newly available scientific information on the genetics and taxonomy of lions” prompted the listings, which come five years after conservation groups such as the Humane Society and the International Fund for Animal Welfare proposed them.
They offer stronger protections than the service’s 2014 proposal, which National Geographic reported last October would have listed lions in all African countries as threatened, not endangered.
Raising the Bar
“Listing these lion populations as threatened and endangered species raises the bar significantly,” said Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, in a press briefing.
So what do the new labels mean for hunters? It wouldn’t make it illegal for them to hunt the lions, but it would require a lot more work to bring the animals parts—the trophies of hunting—back to the United States.
Under the new rules, hunters would have to get a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service to bring back trophies from endangered lions. The agency says permits will be granted only if the “import will enhance the survival of the species.” In other words, if hunt fees are used to bolster lion conservation.
As for the threatened species, U.S. sport hunters could still import lion trophies—as long as they get permits from countries with a “scientifically sound” approach to managing them. That means that for the first time, the source country must prove that its conservation programs spend trophy hunting revenue on lion conservation, research, and anti-poaching activities before a hunter can bring back a trophy.
Some wildlife activists think that could be a tall order. Jeff Flocken, IFAW’s North American regional director, says that “unsustainable trophy hunting is directly causing declines in some populations.”
And the amount of the revenue from trophy hunting that flows into conservation is a matter of much debate. The hunting community believes sport hunting helps save lions. Melissa Simpson, director of science-based wildlife conservation for the Safari Club International Foundation, wrote in National Geographic essay in 2013 that wildlife officials need money more than anything else to save lions from poaching.
Ashe said that a well-managed conservation program can help the species, but that the new rules would hold the programs to a higher standard.
The U.S. Role
In November, Wildlife Watch reported that France decided to ban hunters from bringing their prized lion parts home. 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).
What did the U.S. do? Before now, not much. The U.S. is the biggest importer of lion trophies. This year alone, 405 lion trophies have been brought in, according to NBC Bay Area’s new analysis of import permits. Nearly 7,300 have been imported in the past 15 years.
Most of the imports come from South Africa, according to the Humane Society International, which crunched the numbers obtained from the Fish and Wildlife Service. It found that between 2004 and 2015, imports deriving from more than 4,000 lions came from the country, says Teresa Telecky, the organization’s director of wildlife. More than 1,500 of those involved captive hunts.
The documentary Blood Lions, which aired in the U.S. in October, exposed South Africa’s canned hunting industry. That’s when ranches breed and raise lions in captivity and then release them into confined areas to be shot with no chance of escape by hunters in exchange for big fees that may exceed $40,000 for a big-maned lion. “There’s no relationship at all with what goes on there and the conservation of wild lions,” Telecky says.
South Africa’s hunting association voted to distance itself from the captive-bred lion hunting industry, Africa Geographic reported last month. The move by the Fish and Wildlife Service could help U.S. hunters avoid the practice, too.
As to whether the U.S. will follow the likes of France and Australia, it’s up in the air. But it’s been proposed. The CECIL Animals Trophies Act, introduced by New Jersey Democrat Sen. Bob Menendez, would make it illegal to import parts from any animal considered threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
Flocken would like to see a ban. “There’s no need or place for killing imperiled species for sport,” he says. “Today’s decision is definitely putting us in the right direction.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Jani Actman on Twitter.