WASHINGTON D.C.––“Wild” African lions may in the future exist only as a species cultivated for trophy hunting, anticipates an October 29, 2014 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposal to list them as a “threatened” species.
Published in the October 29, 2014 edition of the Federal Register, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service notice of proposed rulemaking is open for 90 days of public comment, ending in January 2015, before taking effect.
The listing proposal was hailed as a victory for the trophy hunting industry by Safari Club International, and was mourned as an at least partial defeat by the Humane Society of the U.S., Humane Society International, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Defenders of Wildlife, and Born Free USA, whose 2011 petition to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service initiated the “threatened” species listing process.
Lions down by half since 1980
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that there are now about 32,000 to 33,000 African lions, down from 75,000 circa 1980. Most of the remaining African lions, the IUCN believes, are concentrated in 10 regions of eastern and southern Africa. Barely 400 lions are believed to survive in the whole of west Africa.
The IUCN numbers are conservative. Laurence Frank of the University of California in a September 2003 article for New Scientist argued that the African lion population had plummeted from as many as 230,000 circa 1980 to just 23,000.
Accepting the IUCN figures, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service population analysis also took into account that, “Captive-held African lions, including those that are managed for trophy hunting in South Africa and lions held in captivity in zoos, are believed to number between a few thousand and 5,000 worldwide.”
Wild vs. captive
Failing to distinguish fully wild and free-roaming African lions from lions raised in captivity or quasi-captivity for much of their lives, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lion population analysis concluded––almost by default––that lions have little or no future as a part of the African wildlife ecology, except within protected habitat.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lion population analysis also did not qualitatively differentiate between habitat protected as a complete working ecosystem, as in large national parks, and habitat protected exclusively to propagate hunted species.
In effect, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lion population analysis puts animal advocates in the awkward position of having to argue against a proposal which for the most part assigns equal status to both wild and captive lions.
Animal rights and welfare philosophies, and animal rights and welfare organizations, mostly hold that wild and domesticated animals should have equivalent moral standing, with equivalent protection from exploitation.
Effectively opposing the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lion population analysis would appear to require either overturning much of the scientific data it incorporates, frequently taken from some of the same sources used by the Humane Society of the U.S., Humane Society International, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Defenders of Wildlife, and Born Free USA in their petition to protect African lions, or arguing that wild and free-roaming African lions should be regarded as intrinsically different and more valuable than those raised in captivity to be shot.
The animal advocacy organizations contended in petitioning for African lions to be protected that the existence of the lion trophy hunting industry jeopardized wild lions in several different ways: among others, by directly encouraging the deaths of wild lions; by encouraging African nations to allow populations of wild and free-roaming lions to be replaced by populations of short-lived captives; and by permitting the growth of a lion bone export industry which––for a time, anyhow––might be supplied by the bones of wild lions as well as those of lions who had in effect been farmed.
The petitioners hoped that obtaining a “threatened” designation for African lions from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service would close the U.S. to all imports of lion trophies. This would not only have protected wild African lions, but also have all but closed the “canned lion” hunting industry, a longtime focus of humane concern.
David Macdonald of the Oxford University Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, editor of the Encyclopedia of Mammals, in a September 2003 address to the Zoological Society of London mentioned that hunters caused 63% of the lion mortality he had recently documented in a five-year study of lions in Botswana and Zimbabwe.
Macdonald’s findings helped to fuel a decade of activism leading to the petition for African lions to be listed as threatened.
But the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recognized hunting as a threat to the survival of African lions as a species only in contexts involving indigenous African people.
“The lion’s prey base has decreased in many parts of its range for various reasons, “ the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lion population analysis said, “but a large factor is due to competition for meat from humans…Historically, subsistence hunting with spears was traditionally used to hunt wildlife, which had minimal impact to wildlife populations. Spears have since been replaced by automatic weaponry, allowing for poaching of large numbers of animals for the bushmeat trade.”
Among the species most often poached for bushmeat, most of which is exported to cities and sold for cash, are the hooved animals forming most of the African lion prey base.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service also recognized threats to African lions from farmers and pastoralists trying to protect livestock.
“In Tanzania, which is home to more than 40% of the African lion population, conversion of rangeland to agricultural use has blocked several migratory routes for wildebeest and zebra populations,” the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service observed. As both wildebeest and zebras are staples of the African lion diet, this “likely forces lions to rely more on livestock.”
Kenya Wildlife Service deputy director Samuel Kasiki and Elly Hamunyela, director of the Natural Resources Department of Namibia, estimated in April 2014 that loss of prey and retaliatory killing by pastoralists accounted for 95% of lion mortality in Kenya. Kasiki and Hamunyela reported that Tanzania had allowed trophy hunters to kill about 2,000 lions from 1999 through 2008, 870 lions had been shot for trophies in Zimbabwe during the same years, and 168 had been killed in Namibia.
As of May 2014, 18 nations allowed lion hunting for trophies, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service found, but only nine of them had any actual lion trophy hunting activity––possibly because they no longer had lions. Twelve nations had suspended or banned lion trophy hunting.
The British organization LionAid told Reuters earlier that lions have been extirpated from 25 African nations, and have nearly disappeared from 10 more, leaving only about half a dozen nations whose lion populations are not in imminent jeopardy.
“South Africa has not set a quota for the take of wild lions,” the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service noted, “since 99% of the trophy-hunted lions [in South Africa] are reportedly not of wild origin, but captive-born.”
South Africa has about 2,800 wild lions, plus as many as 3,500 captive-bred lions, of whom 680 to 1,000 per year are shot for trophies, according to Kasiki and Hamunyela––markedly more than were killed in South Africa a decade ago, according to data reported in 2007 by Humane Society International wildlife director Teresa Telecky.
“Most of the nearly 1,200 lion trophies exported from South Africa from 1994 to 2005 went to the U.S.,” Telecky said then. “In 2005, 206 of the 322 lion trophies exported were captive-bred. One hundred twenty of those went to the U.S.”
Altogether, 480 lions were known to have been killed in South Africa in 2006, 444 of them bred in captivity.
Hunters paid from $6,000 and $8,000 to shoot a female, and $20,000 and $30,000 to shoot a maned male.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service acknowledged the amount of money involved in lion trophy hunting. “Lions are reported to generate the highest daily rate of any mammal hunted (USD $2,650 per day), the longest number of days that must be booked, and the highest trophy fee ($24,500),” the population analysis mentioned.
The United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization has separately estimated that the average price of a lion trophy is $29,000.
“Given the financial aspects of sport hunting,” the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service allowed, “it is reasonable to assume that corruption and the inability to control it could have a negative impact on decisions made in lion management by overriding biological rationales with financial concerns.”
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service director Daniel M. Ashe told media that his agency “will want to know what’s happening to the revenue” derived from hunting.
“Does it go back to support the conservation of the species in the wild?” Ashe asked. “What do [lion trophy hunting nations] have to show us to determine if there’s a clear conservation benefit?”
But the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lion population analysis assigned greatest weight to the numbers of lions purportedly conserved, rather than to the conditions in which the lions exist.
“Results of modeling indicate that by 2050 about 43% of lion populations in unfenced reserves may decline to less than 10% of the carrying capacities of the unfenced reserves, including those in Botswana, Kenya, Cameroon, Ghana, Tanzania, and Uganda,” the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service summarized, naming several of the nations––Botswana, Kenya, and Cameroon––which prohibit lion trophy hunting.
Kenya banned all sport hunting in 1977. The ban has been under almost constant political attack from Safari Club International, the African Wildlife Federation, and other pro-hunting organizations ever since. Botswana suspended lion hunting from 2001 to 2005, but lifted the suspension for two years after intensive lobbying by former U.S. President George H. Bush, former U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle, and retired U.S. Army General Norman Schwarzkopf, on behalf of Safari Club International. Lion hunting in Botswana was again suspended in 2008.
“According to the same modeling results,” the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service continued, “lion populations in fenced reserves are expected to remain at or above the carrying capacity of the fenced reserves for the next 100 years, although most are small protected areas with small lion populations,” typically maintained by captive breeding among a limited gene pool.
USFWS conclusion favors hunters
Concluded the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “Although there is some indication that trophy hunting could contribute to local declines in lion populations through unsustainable quotas, corruption, and possible disruption of pride structure through infanticide and take of males who are too young, we do not find that any of these activities rises to the level of a threat to the African lion subspecies at this time…Because habitat loss has been identified as one of the primary threats to lion populations, it is notable that trophy hunting has provided lion range states incentives to set land aside for hunting throughout Africa…The total amount of land set aside for trophy hunting throughout Africa exceeds the total area of the national parks, providing half the amount of viable lion habitat…Therefore, we conclude, based on the best scientific and commercial information available, that trophy hunting is not a significant threat to the species.”
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service rejected the idea that the lion bone export trade, supplied mainly by the captive hunting industry, might be contributing to pressure on the lion population.
“Lion products, such as the trade in lion bone, seem to be primarily byproducts of trophy hunting; hunters are primarily interested in the trophy and skin, and therefore the bones and other parts are sold separately,” the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said.
Summarized Washington Post environment reporter Darryl Fears, “The proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would make the African lion the last big cat to receive federal protection under the Endangered Species Act,” but affords African lions little or no protection from trophy hunters.
“Hunting an animal listed as ‘endangered’ in Africa is legal if the host nation permits it,” Fears explained, “but the remains of the animal cannot be imported to the U.S. for a trophy. Hunting and trophies are allowed in the U.S. for ‘threatened’ animals, but hunters must apply for permits and the government can refuse a permit if it believes the plight of the species has worsened.
“Under the ‘threatened’ designation,” Fears wrote, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service “will put in place a new permitting system for importing lion hunting trophies. Such trophies will be permitted only from nations that [convince USFWS that they] carefully use hunting as a way to manage lions to help preserve the species. The proposal takes about a year to become final.”
Said IFAW North American regional director Jeff Flocken, “We thank the U.S. government for acknowledging that this iconic species is in grave trouble, but to allow trophy hunting to continue unabated is kicking an animal while it’s already down.”
Humane Society International wildlife department director Teresa Telecky took a more optimistic view. “While we are disappointed that the U.S. government appears poised to continue allowing the import of some lion trophies,” Telecky said, “it is vital that protective trophy import standards be put in place and that there will be transparency in that process. American hunters import about 400 trophies of wild lions each year, so we hope that the Endangered Species Act protection will significantly curtail this destructive activity.”
Pledged Born Free USA chief executive Adam Roberts, “Born Free and our partners on the ground in Africa will keep vigilant watch on lions and lion trade to ensure that the government’s decision today enhances conservation. The lion has no margin for error.”