Opinion: Why Are We Still Hunting Lions?

How can we save lions when Americans are killing them for sport?

A safari vehicle comes close to a roaring young male lion at the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana.


Editor's note: Jeff Flocken is North American director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

The United States government is considering whether to add lions to the list of species protected by the Endangered Species Act. Such protection would ban the importation of dead trophy lions into the U.S.

The proposed move, supported by a coalition of wildlife groups that includes my own, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, raises an obvious question: Why on Earth are we still allowing this animal to be killed for "fun" when it's in danger of disappearing from the wild in our lifetimes?

The most recent study, led by a scientist from Duke University, shows that as few as 32,000 lions are left in the wild. Many experts say there could be far fewer. (See an interactive experience on the Serengeti lion.)

While habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict (often in the form of retaliatory killings after lions kill livestock and sometimes even humans) are the primary causes of the lions' disappearance from Africa's forests and savannahs, trophy hunting adds to the problem. Approximately 600 lions are killed every year on trophy hunts, including lions in populations that are already declining from other threats. These hunts are unsustainable and put more pressure on the species.

Unfortunately, Americans are primarily to blame. Approximately 60 percent of all lions killed for sport in Africa are shipped to the U.S. as trophies.

There are several reasons why trophy hunting is so bad for lions, beyond the obvious one that it kills healthy members of an imperiled species. The adult male lion is the most sought-after trophy by wealthy foreign hunters. And when an adult male lion is killed, the destabilization of that lion's pride can lead to more lion deaths as outside males compete to take over the pride.

Once a new male is in the dominant position, he will often kill the cubs sired by the pride's previous leader, resulting in the loss of an entire lion generation within the pride.

Trophy hunting is also counter-evolutionary, as it's based on selectively taking the large, robust, and healthy males from a population for a hunter's trophy room. These are the same crucial individuals that in a natural system would live long, full lives, protecting their mates and cubs and contributing their genes to future generations.

Despite the wild claims that trophy hunting brings millions of dollars in revenue to local people in otherwise poor communities, there is no proof of this. Even pro-hunting organizations like the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation have reported that only 3 percent of revenue from trophy hunting ever makes it to the communities affected by hunting. The rest goes to national governments or foreign-based outfitters.

The money that does come into Africa from hunting pales in comparison to the billions and billions generated from tourists who come just to watch wildlife. If lions and other animals continue to disappear from Africa, this vital source of income—nonconsumptive tourism—will end, adversely impacting people all over Africa.

Attempts to introduce sustainable methods for sport hunting of lions have been discussed for decades. But the lion population continues to decline, and reform of the hunting industry appears to be far off. Even a new, much-hyped method of targeting aging lions, so that the animals are killed after contributing to the genetic pool, are difficult to pull off and rely on age verification after the lion has already been killed.

African lions are the only big cat not currently protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Listing African lions as an endangered species and banning trophy imports to the U.S. would send an important message: The African lion is disappearing, and the global community needs to act to stop the trend before it is too late or too costly to reverse.

It's a message that won't be heard as long as it is common and legal to kill lions for sport. Why should anyone spend money to protect an animal that a wealthy American can then pay to go kill?