African Lions Gain Protection Under the Endangered Species Act
After months of public outcry following the death of Cecil, the famed Zimbabwean lion who was lured out of a national park and shot by an American dentist in July, the U.S. government has announced it will strengthen conservation efforts and crack down on trophy hunting by protecting African lions under the Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will list two lion subspecies—one native to India and Central and Western Africa and the other to Eastern and Southern Africa—as endangered and threatened, respectively, the federal agency said on Monday. Director Dan Ashe also issued an order that would make it tougher for those accused of violating wildlife laws to acquire permits and licensing for future activities, including importing sport-hunted trophies.
“The lion is one of the planet’s most beloved species and an irreplaceable part of our shared global heritage,” Ashe said in a 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.”
About 20,000 lions live in the wild in Africa today, a sharp decline from the 200,000 lions that roamed the continent a century ago, the conservation group Panthera estimates. A report published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in October suggests an even more bleak reality: Half of Africa’s lions are projected to vanish over the next two decades, owing in part to loss of habitat, a reduction in prey, and killings by trophy hunters.
The move from the government is the latest in a series of hunting regulations proposed shortly after Cecil’s death sparked outrage across the country, including a teary-eyed monologue from late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel. Facing mounting pressure from animal activists, three U.S. airlines in August announced they would no longer transport the carcasses of animals known by trophy hunters as the big five: lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and buffalo. Three months later, the House of Representatives passed the Global Anti-Poaching Act, a bill aimed at strengthening enforcement of wildlife trafficking violations worldwide.
The decision by the FWS, which will go into effect on Jan. 22, 2016, comes more than a year after the federal agency published a 12-month finding and proposed a rule listing the African lion as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The proposal was spurred by wildlife organizations that created a petition to the FWS in 2011. Those advocacy groups applauded the announcement this week.
Adam M. Roberts, CEO of the D.C.-based nonprofit Born Free, said he was thrilled by the decision but expressed frustration that it had taken so long to make. He estimated that in the four years since his group created the petition to the U.S. government, at least 2,232 African lions have died at the hands of hunters.
Jeffrey Flocken, North American regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, called the protections a “welcome surprise” and a step in the right direction, even if it wasn’t the full ban on lion trophy imports that his group has advocated for.
Humane Society president and CEO Wayne Pacelle praised the decision, calling it “one of the most consequential to come out of the [FWS] in years” and a definitive turning point for the future of Africa’s lions.