France’s Ban on Lion Trophies Could Spread to U.S., Wildlife Advocates Say

Wild lion numbers plummet as the legal trade in trophies hides an illegal slaughter.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protesters hold pictures of Cecil the lion in front of the Department of the Interior building on Aug. 5 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Nov 24, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Wild lions scored a win last week when the French government announced it would ban the import of lion parts from animals killed as trophies.

The decision—announced after a Nov. 17 screening of the documentary Blood Lions at the European Parliament—was unexpected and “hugely important,” said Adam Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA and the Born Free Foundation.

“I was absolutely surprised but pleasantly surprised,” said Roberts, whose group organized the screening in Brussels.

Blood Lions investigates South African facilities that breed lions in captivity and then supply the animals to highly controlled, “canned” trophy hunts. Despite being on the right side of the law, these hunts are wiping out wild lions by masking the transport and sale of parts from illegally hunted animals, conservationists argue.

RELATED: Cecil the Lion's Death Reveals Americans' Big Role in Trophy Hunting

“We’re happy anytime a government recognizes a conservation implication from trophy hunting and takes action to prevent that activity from continuing to cause the deterioration of a population,” Roberts said. France is the first EU country to ban the import of trophy lion parts. Only Australia has similar prohibitions, he said.

The move is significant because lions are listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which means they can be killed and legally shipped to other countries without an import permit.

Nearly 120,000 trophy items were legally imported into the EU between 2003 and 2012, including almost 3,500 lion trophies, according to CITES data analyzed by Born Free. France is the third-largest market for wildlife trophies in the EU, behind Spain and Germany, with 183 lion specimens imported between 2007 and 2011, the group has found.

“If you can’t bring lion trophies back to France, [that] will have a measurable impact on lions in the wild,” Roberts said. He hopes France’s move—along with the global outcry over the killing of Cecil the lion by an American dentist in July—will spur other countries to adopt similar bans.

The biggest target is the United States, he said, where no import permits are required and more than 500 lion carcasses are imported each year.

That may change soon.

Carney Anne Nasser, an attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has committed to relisting lions as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

“This means that individuals who want to do a prohibited activity with lions, such as bringing their body parts back to the U.S. for trophies, [will] have to get permits, and there will be stricter regulations,” said Nasser. “It will make it more difficult for hunters to bring back lion trophies.”

The new rules, which the agency is expected to release by late January, will also protect lions grown domestically as exotic food products or as targets on private hunting ranges, Nasser said.

Then there is the CECIL Act, introduced in Congress last July after the killing of the famous big cat.

“It’s a stopgap that would extend [Endangered Species Act] protection to species while their listing is pending and the Fish and Wildlife Service is finalizing its rules,” Nasser said.

There are also at least two proposed state laws, in New York and New Jersey, which would ban the importation of many animal trophies.

By clamping down on demand, conservationists hope to save the supply. Wild lions in Africa have lost 30 to 50 percent of their total population in the last 20 years, according to Born Free.

Lion populations in West, Central, and East Africa are likely to suffer another 50 percent drop over the next 20 years, a recent study found.

“If wildlife trafficking is going to lose its profitability because of more law enforcement to prevent it from happening, fewer animals will be poached,” Roberts explained. “If you’re not moving the product, you’re not killing animals.”