The Obama administration’s decision to extend Endangered Species Act protections for two breeds of lions is a turning point for the lions now roaming Africa, say advocacy groups who petitioned the federal government to list the lion as endangered. The global outcry that ensued was unprecedented. Last month, a new anti-poaching bill was passed by the US House of Representatives. A week later, the French government announced a ban on the import of lion trophies, with UK ministers threatening the same. Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, released the following statement.
“This bipartisan bill provides additional tools and resources to curb illegal killing of some of the world’s most iconic and at-risk species and trafficking in their parts. Poaching is a global crisis, and the world needs U.S. leadership on the issue. This legislation is a vital matter for global security, since illegal wildlife trafficking has become a key source of revenue for terrorist groups. It will help the United States and partner countries counter the terrorist organizations, rebel groups and international criminal syndicates that are profiting from international wildlife trafficking. Illegal trafficking in wildlife and wildlife parts is fueling an international poaching crisis that has reached epidemic proportions. The risk of extinction in the wild for some of our most iconic species looms unless strong action is taken.
The Global Anti-Poaching Act would strengthen law enforcement’s tools to address this problem by making wildlife trafficking violations (where the products involved have a total value of more than $10,000) predicate offenses under the Travel Act, Money Laundering and RICO statutes. It would also authorize the President to provide security assistance to African countries for counter-wildlife-trafficking efforts, and pressure countries that are failing in their commitment to end wildlife trafficking to step up their efforts”.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has now signaled it would classify the lion as threatened or endangered across its entire range in Africa. The listings are accompanied by a directive that appears to touch on circumstances surrounding the killing of a well-known lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe earlier this year. The order states that the Fish and Wildlife Service will deny a permit to import a sport-hunted lion to anyone who has been convicted or pleaded guilty to violating federal or state wildlife laws. The move is a triumph to those see the Western developed nation as the incentivizing culprits in creativing a lucrative market in the slaughter of animal solely for sport and trophies.
Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who shot Cecil with a bow and arrow, had pleaded guilty in 2008 to making false statements to the Fish and Wildlife Service about a black bear fatally shot in western Wisconsin outside an authorized hunting zone.
The Fish and Wildlife Service cautioned against linking the order with Cecil’s death, describing the action instead as a redoubling of efforts to ensure that violators of wildlife laws don’t reap future benefits from importing wildlife and wildlife products.
The administration signaled it would protect lions in Africa long before Cecil’s case caught the public’s attention. The Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a rule in October 2014 to list the African lion as threatened. After getting feedback, the agency revised its findings.
It determined that two subspecies of lions live in Africa. One group, found primarily in western and central countries, is more genetically related to the Asiatic lion. Only about 1,400 remain in Africa and India. The agency is listing that subspecies as endangered, meaning it risks extinction.
The Endangered Species Act requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to list species as endangered or threatened regardless of the country where they live.
“If we want to ensure that healthy lion populations continue to roam the Africa savannas and forests of India, it’s up to all of us — not just the people of Africa and India — to take action,” said Dan Ashe, the agency’s director.
Conservationists have largely praised the decision by the FWS. The African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), a conservation group, called it “one we hope will give some relief to Africa’s lions, which face many threats.”
The International Fund for Animal Welfare said that while it falls short of a full ban on importing lion trophies, “it is still a huge step in the right direction.”
The listings will bring extra protection for both subspecies: A permit would be required before importing any live or sport-hunted lions. The bar for an import permit would be highest with the endangered group, with permits granted if importing the animal would enhance the species’ survival.
The permitting process for the threatened group would require the import to come from nations that have sound conservation practices and use trophy hunting revenue to sustain lion populations and deter poaching. Currently, sport hunters don’t need a permit from the U.S. to bring in a trophy lion.
The Humane Society of the United States projects that American trophy hunters imported 5,647 lions in the past decade. The group’s president and CEO, Wayne Pacelle, said he expects that the regulations will make it much harder to bring lion hides back to the U.S, thus removing a key motivation for hunters.
“If a particular hunt is not associated with a broader conservation program, it can’t come in,” Pacelle said.
Ashe said trophy hunting can and does contribute to the survival of species in the wild as part of a well-managed conservation program. The new permitting requirements in the U.S. will encourage African countries to improve their lion management programs. The agency said hundreds of sport-hunted trophy lions are brought into the U.S. each year.
The agency already has authority to deny an import permit to individuals who have violated federal and state wildlife laws. Ashe’s order essentially turns that authority into a requirement.
“Importing sport-hunted trophies and other wildlife or animal parts into the United States is a privilege, not a right, a privilege that violators of wildlife laws have demonstrated they do not deserve,” Ashe said.
The agency said its investigation into the Cecil’s killing is ongoing and declined to comment directly on the case.
Cecil was a major tourist attraction in Hwange National Park and was being monitored as part of an Oxford University study. Palmer said he shot the big cat outside the park’s borders, but it didn’t die immediately and was tracked down the next day.
Palmer said he would not have shot the animal if anybody in the hunting party has known of the lion’s status. Zimbabwe officials cleared Palmer of wrongdoing in October, saying he didn’t break the country’s hunting laws.
This is clear from the new moves, “The burden of proof is now shifted,” Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit lion expert Hans Bauer told the New York Times. “Under this new ruling, countries must not only prove that hunting is not bad for lions; they must prove that it is good for lions.”
“Many have challenged the hunting industry to show some figures to support their claim that the revenues from lion hunting support lion conservation, but the industry has been notoriously opaque and has long resisted calls for reform,” he continued. “This must now change.”