In a move that is likely to put a major dent in South Africa’s canned hunting industry for lions — a practice involving the shooting of these majestic predators in fenced enclosures in a pay-to-slay arrangement— the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced that it will institute important new measures to protect lions under the Endangered Species Act.
The move comes after lions suffered a 60% population decline across much of Africa, and its most direct impact is to restrict the import of lion trophies from African countries to the United States, the world’s largest importer.
The measures will prohibit the import of lion trophies and other parts, and live lions, except in very limited cases. The action, more than four years in the making, will dry up the U.S. clientele for South Africa’s lion canned hunting industry. US trophy hunters are directly responsible for slaughtering at least 5,647 lions in the last 10 years, according to USFWS import data compiled by The Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International, which joined other organizations to petition the agency to protect lions.
“This U.S. action should end the free-for-all for Americans who wish to kill these animals and import them through our ports just for a head-hunting exercise” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The HSUS. “More than half of the lion trophies imported to the U.S. in 2014 came from South Africa’s canned hunts, where wealthy fat-cats shoot down endangered big cats trapped behind fences and unable to escape.”
Of the 719 lions whose parts were imported to the U.S. in 2014, 620 were imported from South Africa and 370 (or 51%) were killed in that country’s captive lion hunts. Other import data from 2014 are: 42 from Zimbabwe, 40 from Tanzania, 10 from Mozambique, three from Namibia, two from Burkina Faso and one each from Benin and Cameron.
In a US Federal Register notice published on Dec. 21, the agency states that South Africa’s captive breeders often claim that their operations help reintroduce species back into the wild, yet the notice notes that “we do not believe that the captive-lion industry currently contributes to, reduces, or removes threats to the species.” Without this evidence of contribution to species survival, no imports of lions killed in South Africa’s canned hunts will be permitted into the U.S.
Similarly, lion trophy imports will also be prohibited from other African countries that fail to show how trophy hunting enhances lion conservation, amounting to a near ban on lion trophy imports since this would be such a high bar to meet. Tanzania and Zimbabwe are the second and third largest exporters of lion trophies to the U.S., after South Africa, and the United States has already stopped all imports of elephant trophies from those two countries because of structural problems in the wildlife management programs of these nations.
The measure will result in the African lion sub-species Panthera leo leo, located in India and western and central Africa listed as endangered, and Panthera leo melanochaita, located in eastern and southern Africa listed as threatened.