Politics & Policy

After Cecil Uproar, the U.S. Lists Lions as Endangered — But Will It Help the King of Beasts?

(Patrick Roland/Dreamstime)

Unless you somehow avoided the Internet in 2015, you no doubt witnessed the uproar over Cecil the lion. The well-known lion was illegally killed by an American trophy hunter in Zimbabwe earlier this year, setting off a firestorm on social media and fueling calls for an end to trophy hunting in Africa. (Zimbabwe now says it will not charge Walter Palmer, an American dentist, for killing the lion, but charges are still pending for his guide and a nearby landowner for allowing the hunt without proper permits and for allegedly baiting and luring the lion outside of a national park.) Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responded by announcing that it will formally list African lions under the Endangered Species Act.

You might think the Endangered Species Act applies only to species found in the United States. But the FWS also imposes restrictions on trophy imports of foreign species that are found to be endangered abroad. With the new listing, imported lion trophies will be generally prohibited in the United States, except in cases “when it can be found that the import will have a benefit to the species.” Since American hunters make up the lion’s share of African-lion trophy hunts, this move could have a big effect on Africa’s conservation outcomes.

The new rule will create a permit process for importing lion trophies. Hunters will be able to bring sport-hunted lion trophies into the United States only if the trophies are legally obtained from countries with “a scientifically sound management program that benefits the subspecies in the wild.” Exactly how the FWS will determine whether a hunt benefits the species — and how much this new rule will limit trophy hunting in Africa — is not yet clear.

The listing also allows the United States to ban trophy imports even if a lion was hunted legally in Africa. If the FWS determines that the hunt does not contribute to broader conservation efforts, then the import permit will be denied, regardless of whether the hunt was legal or not.

RELATED: The Death of Cecil the Lion: A Shameful Waste, but Not a Global Tragedy

How the new listing will affect overall lion populations remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: It will raise the costs of trophy hunting in Africa. As Jeffrey Flocken of the International Fund for Animal Welfare told the New York Times, the listing will “greatly curtail” trophy hunting in Africa — an outcome that is viewed as desirable by some environmental groups.

But the reality is that habitat destruction, not trophy hunting, is the main threat to Africa’s lion populations. Other major threats include the loss of prey species and retaliatory killings due to human-lion conflicts — such as what happened earlier this month when several Maasai herdsmen poisoned a pride of lions in Kenya after the lions killed their livestock. Threats such as these account for ten times as many lion deaths as trophy hunting does each year.

#share#The key question, then, is whether banning hunting or restricting lion-trophy imports will help conserve lion habitat, and whether it engenders more tolerance for lions among the local communities who bear the costs of living with lions. That ultimately comes down to whether local communities and landowners have incentives to protect lions and their habitat.

RELATED: Cecil the Lion and the Cultural Perils of Internet Outrage

There is a mountain of evidence that legal lion hunting can contribute to lion conservation by encouraging more habitat protection. Hunting generates more than $200 million in revenue each year in Africa, according to a 2007 study in Biological Conservation. Much of this revenue (though certainly not all of it) goes to the communities that bear the costs of dangerous wildlife.

Banning hunting, as some conservationists suggest, can have the opposite effect. Since Kenya banned hunting in 1977, it has lost 60 to 70 percent of its large wildlife species. The Kenya Wildlife Service says it’s losing lions at a rate of 100 per year, and that all wild lions could be gone from Kenya within 20 years. And earlier this year, Kenya’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources estimated that up to 107 of the country’s wildlife species are facing extinction.

RELATED: Cecil and Cecile: Humaneness, but Not for the Human

A 2012 study in the journal PLOS One found that eliminating hunting revenues can undermine lion conservation because it can “reduce tolerance for the species among communities where local people benefit from trophy hunting, and may reduce funds available for anti-poaching.” In other words, trophy hunting can help make lions an asset to be protected rather than a liability to be destroyed.

“Hunting, as much as people might detest it, does have a role in conservation,” Andrew Loveridge, a researcher who collared and studied Cecil the lion, told the BBC earlier this year. “About 1.5 million square kilometers of African wildlife habitat is protected as hunting reserves. If there was no hunting, what would happen with that land?”

‘Hunting, as much as people might detest it, does have a role in conservation.’

– Andrew Loveridge

To its credit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledges the role that trophy hunting can play in lion conservation. “Sustainable trophy hunting as part of a well-managed conservation program can and does contribute to the survival of the species in the wild, providing real incentives to oppose poaching and conserve lion populations,” said FWS director Dan Ashe. “Implementing a permit requirement will give us the authority we need to work with African countries to help them improve their lion management programs.”

But it’s not clear the new listing will end up protecting Africa’s lions. The Endangered Species Act is a notoriously blunt regulatory tool that is ill-equipped for such a complex international conservation issue. There are many reasons to question whether it will be effective at encouraging lion conservation in the areas where the species is most threatened. And there are concerns over how the listing will affect responsible, legal trophy hunting, which is so critical to lion conservation in many parts of Africa.

If your goal is simply to restrict trophy hunting in Africa, then the latest move by the FWS is a roaring success. But if you actually want to conserve lions — and promote the critical habitat and human tolerance necessary to do so — it’s not so clear this is a win for the king of beasts.

— Shawn Regan is a research fellow at PERC (the Property and Environment Research Center), a nonprofit environmental-research institute in Bozeman, Mont.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated since its original publication.

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