The Fish and Wildlife Service today announced it will finalize Endangered Species Act protections for lions in Africa and India to confront growing threats from habitat loss, a declining prey base and increased killings from humans.
The move, which was cheered by wildlife advocacy groups, comes as lion populations have fallen by 43 percent over the past couple of decades and follows the July baiting and killing of a well-known lion named "Cecil" in Zimbabwe that sparked international condemnation.
"The lion is one of the planet’s most beloved species and an irreplaceable part of our shared global heritage," Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said in a prepared statement. "If we want to ensure that healthy lion populations continue to roam the African savannas and forests of India, it’s up to all of us — not just the people of Africa and India — to take action."
Wildlife organizations petitioned FWS in 2011 to list the African lion subspecies as "endangered" under ESA. A year ago, FWS proposed listing it as "threatened" with a special rule to allow sport hunting in countries that maintain sustainable harvests and use permit revenues to support lion conservation, among other steps (Greenwire, Oct. 27, 2014).
Agriculture and grazing have carved up lion habitat and people are hunting more and more of the lion’s prey, FWS said at the time. Retaliatory killings — a result of lions threatening livestock — are also a concern.
Based on newly available scientific data, FWS today announced the western and central populations of African lions are more genetically related to the Asiatic lion and will be listed together as "endangered." Those lions — estimated to number 900 in just over a dozen African populations and 523 in India — are now considered the same subspecies, FWS said.
Importing these lions into the United States will be generally prohibited unless FWS determines it will enhance the species’ survival.
Lions in southern and eastern Africa, which number about 18,000, are to be listed as "threatened" because they are less vulnerable and "not currently in danger of extinction," FWS said. However, while lion numbers are on the rise in southern Africa, there are local declines due to ongoing threats.
For these lions, FWS is finalizing a special rule under Section 4(d) of ESA that will allow permits to be issued to import live lions and sport-hunted trophies as long as they are legally obtained in range countries that have established a "scientifically sound management program that benefits the subspecies in the wild," FWS said.
"Sustainable trophy hunting as part of a well-managed conservation program can and does contribute to the survival of the species in the wild, providing real incentives to oppose poaching and conserve lion populations," Ashe said. "Implementing a permit requirement will give us the authority we need to work with African countries to help them improve their lion management programs."
FWS said it will also increase permit fees to ensure African sport hunting programs can be thoroughly vetted, which could fully offset the cost of implementing the permitting process.
In addition, Ashe announced he’s issuing an order ensuring that people convicted of or who have pleaded guilty to violations of wildlife laws are not issued future permits to take imperiled species, including federally protected African lions.
"We are going to strengthen our efforts to ensure those individuals — people who have acted illegally to deprive our children of their wildlife heritage — are not rewarded by receipt of wildlife permits in the future," Ashe said.
The final listing rule will be published in the Federal Register on Wednesday and go into effect 30 days later.
While Ashe has emphasized that well-regulated sport hunting is not a "contributory cause" to the decline of lions, wildlife groups today cheered the agency’s decision to more closely scrutinize foreign hunting programs.
"The last things lions need is American hunters killing them for fun," said Jeffrey Flocken, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s North America region. "This announcement makes clear that the status quo allowing this without question isn’t good enough."
IFAW, Born Free USA, the Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife and the Fund for Animals were among the groups that petitioned for the listing in March 2011.
Adam Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA and the Born Free Foundation, today lauded FWS’s decision to list as endangered the "rapidly disappearing" population of western and central African lions, calling it "a vital component to long-term conservation strategies."
"The Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to also list lions in east and southern Africa as threatened, with a special restriction to prevent trophies from coming into America but for an affirmative finding that sound management systems are in place, could ensure that populations in these regions of Africa do not decline dramatically in the future," he said.
Lions are considered one of the "big five" sport hunting species along with leopards, elephants, rhinoceroses and cape buffalo, according to the FWS draft listing. They’re coveted trophies because of the challenge of killing them, with their nimbleness, speed and behavioral unpredictability.
As of May 2014, roughly 18 African nations allowed lions to be killed for sport. The Humane Society of the United States says 3,703 lion trophies have been imported into the United States since 2010.
Safari Club International President Larry Higgins said his organization "will carefully examine the final rule to ensure the USFWS capitalizes on the important conservation benefits that are generated from U.S. hunters traveling to Africa."
Hunting licences can generate major revenue for African nations. In the late 1990s, for example, Tanzania said it generated $30 million annually from all trophy hunting, with South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia all reporting between $12 million and $28 million in revenue, according to research cited by FWS. In its proposed listing rule, FWS noted such revenue can increase a country’s ability to sustain rare and imperiled wildlife but that raising conservation money by killing sensitive species is "complex and counterintuitive to many."
SCI hunters have killed more than 2,000 African lions, according to a Humane Society report. Chip Burkhalter, an SCI spokesman, said proceeds are dedicated to anti-poaching and conservation projects, according to CBS News.
Joseph Hosmer, the SCI Foundation’s president, said this morning he has not read the final rule but hopes it is backed by science. He pointed to recent genetics research that found the central and western African lions closely linked to their Asiatic kin, which have been classified as endangered since 1970 and are taxonomically different from the lions that exist in southern and eastern Africa.
"SCI Foundation rejects the finding that lions in southern and eastern Africa will be listed as threatened for the same reasons that we presented in the public comment period opened for the proposed rule on January 27, 2015," he said. "We will be looking to see how the USFWS substantiates its final rule, as we currently believe the record of information fails to justify this listing."