With Africa’s lion population expected to drop by half over the next couple of decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced on Monday it would list two lion subspecies under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) commended the wildlife agency’s decision to list Panthera leo leo, a subspecies found in West and Central Africa and India, as endangered. It also welcomed the decision to list Panthera leo melanochaita, a subspecies found in East and Southern Africa, as threatened.
“This is a welcomed move by the U.S. government and one we hope will give some relief to Africa’s lions, which face many threats,” said Dr. Philip Muruthi, African Wildlife Foundation’s vice president of species protection. “If we do not act on this crisis now, lions could disappear from the wild in our lifetime, and that would have disastrous consequences.”
Muruthi explained that lions play an important and irreplaceable role in Africa’s ecosystems: “Lions are apex predators. If they disappear, the entire predator–prey equilibrium is disrupted.”
There are fewer than 20,000 lions remaining in Africa. According to a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, lion populations in Central, West and East Africa are likely to decline by 50 percent over the next 2 decades. Lion declines are occurring largely due to habitat loss, conflict with humans and a rapidly shrinking prey base.
The decision to list Panthera leo leo as endangered will largely prohibit hunters from importing this subspecies into the United States as a trophy. In listing Panthera leo melanochaita as threatened, the USFWS will establish a permitting system to strictly regulate the import of lions and their parts into the country, and ensure that all imports come from lion range states with good wildlife management programs. In addition, USFWS Director Dan Ashe further issued a Director’s Order to ensure that those persons who have violated wildlife laws in the past will not be granted permits in the future to import trophies, live animals or engage in other wildlife-related activities.
“When we look at the continental number as it relates to Africa’s lions, overall the species is declining,” said Dr. Patrick Bergin, African Wildlife Foundation CEO and a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking. “We simply cannot afford additional human-caused mortalities, which is why we are against the sport hunting of lions.”
Bergin said that while the threatened listing for Panthera leo melanochaita does not completely ban imports of trophies for the subspecies, it is a step in the right direction.
“A large percentage of all lion trophies are imported into the U.S. by American hunters,” he explained. “Both the U.S. government and American hunters have a responsibility to ensure sport hunting does not negatively impact wildlife populations in Africa.”
Panthera leo leo has an estimated 900 individuals remaining in Central and West Africa and is genetically related to the Asiatic lion found in India, of which there are approximately 523 individuals. In East and Southern Africa, the subspecies Panthera leo melanochaita numbers less than 19,000. In spite of overall increases in its population, the USFWS determined that Panthera leo melanochaita met the criteria to be listed as threatened under the ESA.
(This article originally appeared on AWF. It has been reprinted here with permission.)