US Provides Endangered Species Act Protections for African Lions -- Seeks to Avoid Sequel to Cecil Killing

A wild lion cub sitting with its mother in Kenya
A wild lion cub sitting with its mother in Kenya

In a move sure to be jarring to the worldwide trophy hunting industry, and that could gut South Africa's canned hunting industry, the United States signaled that it will classify the African lion as threatened or endangered across its entire range in Africa. This action comes four and a half years after several organizations, including The HSUS, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and Born Free, petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to list the African lion as endangered - long before Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer came to personify the threat that globe-trotting trophy hunters pose to the animals.

This listing decision - one of the most consequential to come out of the FWS in years - is likely to dramatically change the equation for American trophy hunters who have been killing animals by the hundreds each year for their parts. This decision puts the United States in a much stronger position to play a productive role in the conservation of lions, who have suffered a 60 percent population decline across much of Africa and now number fewer than 30,000 due to habitat loss and human-caused killing. American trophy hunters are directly responsible for slaughtering at least 5,647 lions in the last 10 years, according to import data we've mined from the FWS. And a robust domestic market in lion parts, such as hides sold as rugs, further threatens their continued existence. Listing all lions under the Endangered Species Act will prohibit the import of trophies and other parts except in very limited circumstances, and will send a signal to the world that this big cat is in need of comprehensive preservation efforts.

I applaud the FWS for taking this action, formally ending the free-for-all for Americans who wish to kill these animals and import them through our ports with no meaningful scrutiny or oversight. These new regulations will take away a primary motivation for American hunters to kill the lions, since they almost certainly will not be able to bring the lions' heads and hides back into our country. By highlighting the plight of the animals, and restricting gratuitous killing, the listing decision should encourage photographic tourism and other forms of wildlife appreciation.

This is the latest in a series of beneficial developments for lions. In the wake of the killing of Cecil, The HSUS and other animal protection groups persuaded 45 airlines to stop shipping trophies of African lions and other members of the Africa Big Five (elephants, rhinos, leopards, and Cape buffalo) coveted by trophy hunters. Members of Congress also took up the call: Senator Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Representatives Raul Grijalva, D-AZ, and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-TX, introduced bills to ban all imports of trophies and parts from African lions and other at-risk species into the United States.

Following Australia's similar import prohibition earlier this year, France recently banned the import of lion trophies and other European countries are also considering a similar measure. Businesses are also beginning to recognize that trophy hunting is not good business. The African Hunting Exposition in Canada recently had to cancel its events after three hotels - the Saskatoon Inn, Holiday Inn Gateway Centre, and Holiday Inn Toronto International Airport - refused to host their gathering celebrating the senseless killing of wildlife.

We are particularly pleased that the listing will likely prevent Americans from importing lions killed on captive hunting ranches in South Africa, an appalling practice that was recently exposed in the Blood Lions documentary (broadcast on MSNBC), where lion cubs are bred for profit, first to be used in cub petting and interactive experiences, and then sold to unskilled hunters in search of an easy, guaranteed kill. The rule will similarly improve the plight of lions bred in the United States by roadside zoos that value adorable cubs but may dispose of these animals to meat producers; the animals finally end up as lion tacos on specialty menus. For symbolic and practical reasons, this is one of the most consequential American actions for African wildlife, along with the U.S. decision to crack down on the ivory and rhino horn trade and the listing of all chimpanzees as endangered.

The world must get past an era of a handful of people killing the most magnificent animals in the world to adorn their trophy rooms. These creatures have their own desires to live, and we shouldn't snuff them out for bragging rights and a higher perch in the pantheon of the trophy-hunting world. As an economic matter, it's the right decision for Africa. Lions are much more valuable to African nations as subjects of wildlife watching rather than wildlife killing. A hundred or a thousand people can watch a lion, and support all the businesses associated with that set of experiences. A trophy hunter provides a one-time use of the animal, and puts a low ceiling on the creature's economic value.

Today's announcement is, without question, a turning point for the future of the lions now roaming Africa.

This article first appeared on Wayne Pacelle's blog, A Humane Nation.