Wildlife agency gives legal protection to African lions

Wildlife agency gives legal protection to African lions

A U.S. agency has listed two lion subspecies under the Endangered Species Act, offering them legal protection that will make it harder for hunters to import trophies into the country.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service listed lions found mostly in West and Central Africa as “endangered” and lions in eastern and southern Africa as “threatened” and said it would withhold permits from violators.

The measures, enacted under the world’s most powerful animal protection law, will take effect in January 2016. They follow the extension of protection to African elephants and cheetahs.

The two groups of lions covered by the listing once roamed the continent in the tens of thousands but populations have been decimated by loss of prey and habitat and killings by hunters, including many from local communities.

Several African countries such as Zimbabwe and Burkina Faso still allow tourists to hunt their lions, saying it provides an important source of revenue and helps support conservation.

But many condemn trophy hunting and contest its benefits. American dentist Walter Palmer sparked intense global controversy in July when he killed a rare black-maned lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe. Hunters like Palmer regularly import salt-packed skulls and skins of lions into the United States.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said at the time it was deeply concerned about the killing, which prompted a group of Democrats to press the agency for the listing, initially proposed by petition in 2011.

On Monday, a spokesperson for the agency denied that the new measures were linked to Cecil’s killing, which is being investigated separately.

Conservationists said the listing was significant since Americans make up around two-thirds of trophy hunters.

“The hunting industry says all the time that trophy hunting helps conservation. Now they are being asked to prove it,” said Luke Hunter, president of Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization.

Under the new measures, imports of a rare subspecies found in west and central Africa and in smaller numbers in India will “generally be prohibited,” the agency said, except where licencees can show they enhance the survival of the species.

Only around 1,400 of this type of lion remain and conservationists have warned it is threatened with extinction.

Permits are required for lions found elsewhere on the continent and only from countries “with established conservation programs and well-managed lion populations”, the agency said.

Apart from the Endangered Species Act, hunters are barred under America’s Lacey Act from importing wildlife or parts of animals that have been illegally killed, transported or sold.

France’s environment ministry also said last month that no more permits to import trophy lions would be issued. Australia has also passed similar measures.

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