In late December last year, the African lion received a special gift from the U.S. government. Over the past few years, non-profit groups, the national and international public, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service itself, have been rallying the government to protect lions under the Endangered Species Act. And just in time for Christmas last year, the king of cats got its name on the Act. But what does the listing really mean for lion conservation? In this blog we explore what an endangered listing on a U.S. document really means for an African species.
By Deirdre Leowinata
In the Chinese zodiac, 2015 was the year of the sheep. However, the illegal hunting of Cecil the lion, the Kenyan Marsh pride poisonings, and other highly publicized lion poaching incidents of 2015 made last year the year of the lion in the media. And as if by magic, a present came at the end of the year in the form of a “Threatened” listing for the African lion on the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The Endangered Species Act of 1973, under the leadership of Richard Nixon, was a defining point in U.S. and global environmental protection. It made incredible leaps over the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 and the original Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966. It not only recognized the value of species for education, research, and recreation, but also included species’ habitats under its umbrella of protection. In the original act, hunting and trading were not regulated at all. In less than 50 years, we have come a very long way in our policies for protecting wildlife. But we also live in an age where endangered species are disappearing faster than we can save them — scientists are calling it the sixth mass extinction. Conservation projects like our Northern Tanzania Big Cats Conservation Initiative have been working tirelessly to make sure that lions have a fighting chance as human and environmental changes put pressure on the remaining populations. However, lion numbers have declined by about 50% in the past 30 years, and the majority of the remaining populations are spread over only 10 regions in South and East Africa.
In 2011, five groups — the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Born Free, Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Humane Society International petitioned the U.S. government for a listing for lions in the ESA. The petition prompted a formal review of the subspecies. In 2014, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officially proposed ESA protection for lions after announcing that African lions were under threat of extinction by 2050. In December 2015, the landmark announcement was made: The African lion was under the protection of the ESA.
Internationally, the lion is already listed as “Vulnerable” under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN 2015) Red List of Threatened Species.
So what does an American listing mean for lions? Wild lions don’t roam the United States, so how does a listing for a species in another country help?
- Hunting Permits
The largest win for the ESA listing is arguably the effects of a section of the act that affects sport hunting imports. Regulations for importing trophies ensure they come from countries with sound management plans and sustainable lion populations, with penalties for those who do not follow the rules. This not only ensures that U.S. trophy seekers hunt from viable populations, but also incentivizes countries that rely on sport hunting to maintain population management standards. It is also up to the hunter to demonstrate that all of these standards have been met, and that requirement alone might slow down the number of permits processed.
- International Trade
The U.S. is currently the world’s largest lion trophy importer, with 24 countries in Africa participating in the lion trade. Closely related to the hunting permit provisions, controlling what can be imported will have a strong impact on the number of lion products (including trophies) that are crossing the border and the integrity of their source countries. Because of the ESA provisions for sustainable management as mentioned above, the listing will ensure that American importers or international exporters are doing so in a way that will not impair lion populations.
- Provision of Assistance for Conservation Efforts
Under ESA protection, lions and the programs that protect them will gain access to more financial assistance, as well as more help on the ground. This part of the Act is vague, but because of the ESA mandate to protect critical habitat of listed species, conservation groups may be able to levy this for government funding. In the very least, it increases the funding potential for environmental non-profits, which often struggle to make small budgets stretch across programs.
Like a handshake shared between two leaders, a gesture can send a very powerful message. By shielding lions under the proverbial wing, the U.S. is sending a message of solidarity to lion conservation groups and the rest of the world. Aside from the ways in which this document will aid in conservation funding and other assistance, a vote of support from the government can do a world of good in other ways.
At the African People & Wildlife Fund, we have committed to help conserve Tanzania’s lion populations through community-based projects, educating local people about the importance of the species, and continuing to work on projects like our Living Walls to prevent retaliatory lion killings, which the IUCN suggests is an even greater threat to lions than sport hunting. With your help, we are expanding our initiatives across rural communities in Northern Tanzania where most of these killings take place. Tanzania may be one of the last lion strongholds on Earth right now. Together with you and the new support of the ESA, we are extremely hopeful that we can help protect the lion populations of Tanzania so they can grow and thrive in Africa once more.
Echoing the words of hope from U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe, this is an opportunity for change, and it is up to all of us to help save these big cats.
If you would like to contribute to our growing efforts to protect big cats on the ground in Tanzania, please visit our donation page here.
Bauer, H., Packer, C., Funston, P.F., Henschel, P. & Nowell, K. (2015). Panthera leo. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T15951A79929984.http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2015-4.RLTS.T15951A79929984.en. Downloaded on 30 December 2015.
Florida Museum of Natural History. History of the United States Endangered Species Act.https://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/education/ESA.htm. Accessed on 4 January 2016.
Platt, J.R. (2014). African Lions Face Extinction by 2050, Could Gain Endangered Species Act Protection. Scientific American (2014).
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (2014). Service Proposes Endangered Species Act Protection for the African Lion.
Born Free U.S.A. www.bornfreeusa.org