10,000 years ago, lions were the most populous large mammals in the world after humans. Family groups of lions, or prides, roamed across continents, from Europe to sub-Saharan Africa to Western Asia.
Today, these big cats are greatly imperiled. Over the last three decades, the number of African lions has declined 50 percent, and their range has shrunk to a handful of African countries. Fewer than 35,000 lions are left in the wild.
But this week brought some possible good news for lion lovers: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that African lions may qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Last year, five conservation groups filed a petition asking that lions be listed under the ESA because of threats to the population posed by U.S. trophy hunters.
Between 1998 and 2008, over 7,000 wild lion parts were traded around the world. The U.S. is by far the largest importer of lion parts, accounting for 64 percent of the lions killed for trophies.
Thousands of wild lion parts, including skulls, claws, and hides, are commercially traded in the U.S., and the numbers are growing, according to the petition.
The five conservation groups, which include the Humane Society and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, say that U.S. hunters should not be allowed to play a role in the decline of African lions.
The possible listing under the Endangered Species Act wouldn’t ban Americans from traveling to Africa to hunt lions, but it would make it illegal to ship lions back to the U.S.
“We believe this will make a huge difference in the number of lions killed for sport annually,” said Jeffrey Flocken of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, one of the organizations that applied for protection for the big cats. “It will wipe out almost all of the U.S. trophy market.”
Unfortunately, trophy hunting is not the only threat to the long-term survival of these majestic animals.
African lions now occupy land that covers just 22 percent of their historical range. Habitat loss due to human development and agricultural production has pushed lions into smaller and smaller areas. The availability of prey has declined accordingly.
Human populations have expanded in the lions’ home territory, causing a rise in the bushmeat trade. Civil unrest and desertification that have played a role in the crisis.
And then there’s the retaliatory killings, like the high-profile slaughter in Nairobi earlier this year. When lions can’t find enough food, they are known to prey on livestock of neighboring human communities, leading to attacks on nearby lion prides.
Because of these stark threats, of the 35,000 African lions that remain, scientists say that two-thirds are neither protected nor viable in the long term.
The public comment on the proposed ESA listing which began this week will remain open until January 28th, 2013. The International Fund for Animal Welfare has created a website through which comments can be submitted:
“Unsustainable trophy hunting is contributing to the problem and causing population declines,” Flocken said. “What we need now is the political will to make sure that the U.S. government makes the right decision for the lions.”
Of the seven feline species considered to be “big cats” (tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars, snow leopards, cheetahs, and cougars), lions are the only one of the group that currently receive no protections under the Endangered Species Act.