After two decades of dramatic decline, African lions are finally getting the status that they, sadly, deserve. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Monday that it would list one subspecies of lion as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act and another subspecies — of which only 900 remain in Africa — as "endangered," meaning it is at risk of extinction. The tough new regulations are a welcome move to protect these extraordinary animals, which find themselves under tremendous environmental strain.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, African lions are dying because of loss of habitat and prey, weak management of protected areas and conflicts with humans. As a result, their population has tumbled 43% over the past 20 years. The new listings should help stem that decline. Currently, there are no restrictions on the import into the U.S. of lion parts — such as lion heads prized by trophy hunters. According to research by the Humane Society of the U.S., in the past 10 years, parts of 5,647 lions were imported into the U.S. by hunters. When the new rules take effect next month, no lion trophies or parts or live animals will be allowed into the U.S. unless the government has issued specific permits for them. To do so, the Fish and Wildlife Service would have to find that the import enhances the survival of the species in the wild, was obtained as part of a well-managed, biologically sustainable hunting program in the country, and was done so legally.
That's not impossible, but it is a high bar for hunters to clear. Under the new guidelines, importing trophies from so-called canned hunts — in which lions are bred to be put into a fenced-in area and killed for sport — would generally be disallowed by the agency, according to Humane Society officials. In the case of endangered lions, permits would be granted so rarely that they would basically be prohibited, the Fish and Wildlife Service says. The government would also be allowed to deny permit applications to hunters who have previously been convicted of or plead guilty to violations of wildlife laws.
Had that order been in place last summer, it's possible that Minnesota dentist and big-game hunter Walter Palmer, who legally killed a beloved and recognizable male lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe in July, might not have gotten a permit to hunt there.
Cecil, known for his unusual black mane, was being tracked in a long-term scientific study before he was lured out of Hwange National Park in western Zimbabwe into unprotected territory, where Palmer killed him, according to conservationists. Cecil's death sparked a worldwide public outcry so intense that the dentist had to go into temporary hiding.
There's no doubt that the killing of Cecil focused a much-needed spotlight on the plight of these majestic creatures. But the effort to have lions listed as threatened or endangered predates that incident. Animal welfare groups petitioned the U.S. government to list the animals nearly five years ago. The new rules were proposed by the agency in October 2014.
It was important that the Fish and Wildlife Service make its new ruling based on science, not emotion. And that it did — noting that newly available scientific information shows that lions in western and central Africa are more genetically related to the Asiatic lion, which faces a far greater threat. Instead of listing all African lions as threatened, which the U.S. government initially proposed, it listed this particular Asiatic subpopulation as endangered based on the new evidence. The other subspecies, which roam southern and eastern Africa, number between 17,000 and 19,000 and were listed as threatened.
The new listings are appropriate, and the U.S. should strictly enforce them.