Because South Africa was unable to demonstrate the conservation value of canned lion hunting, the United States last week banned the import of all trophies from captive lion hunts in the country.

According to the director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Dan Ashe, lion trophies may only be imported from exporting nations like South Africa if there is evidence of the hunts benefiting the long-term survival of the species in the wild.

"That burden of proof has not been met," said Ashe. "If and when such benefits can be clearly shown, we may reevaluate our position."

Most recent lion trophies imported into the United States have been from captive populations in South Africa, so the decision will likely substantially reduce the total number of lion trophy imports.

Caption: South Africa’s controversial canned hunting industry has received a lot of media attention lately, including in this exposé from the BBC. You can watch the full version (not for sensitive viewers) here.

Moves towards the ban began earlier this year after lions were declared as protected under the US Endangered Species Act, giving USFWS the responsibility to regulate the import of live lions, lion trophies, and other parts and derivatives.

The ban does not include the importation of trophies taken from wild or wild-managed populations if they have been authorised by the South African government. "But let me be clear," said Ashe, "we cannot and will not allow trophies into the United States from any nation whose lion conservation programme fails to meet key criteria for transparency, scientific management and effectiveness."

The agency noted that it had received import permit applications from US hunters seeking prey in Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe – for permits to import sport-hunted lion trophies.

"We are evaluating the sport hunting programmes in those countries and will only approve those applications if we receive sufficient evidence of long-term benefits to wild lions resulting from those programmes," said Ashe. 

In announcing the ban, the US government also expressed concern for wild lions in Africa, and for good reason. The human population of sub-Saharan Africa is projected to more than double by 2050 – pushing settlements, grazing and agriculture into lion habitats. Even protected areas are affected.

Humans are also depleting the wild prey that supports lions, consuming these animals or selling them as bushmeat. Faced with declining habitat and prey, the big cats are therefore increasingly targeting livestock and people – resulting in retaliatory killing.

"Unless effective measures are taken to protect lions, their prey and habitat, wild populations of lions may face extirpation from many parts of their historic range," said Ashe. "We understand that securing the lion's future depends upon finding solutions that recognise the needs of those people and communities who share the landscape with them."

For this reason, USFWS will be working with partners to protect lions and address the threats they face. This includes efforts to reduce cattle depredation and other lion-related conflicts, while also supporting tourism and other sustainable economic activities involving wild and wild-managed lions.

It will also be expanding its capacity to work with international law enforcement agencies to investigate, arrest and prosecute poachers and traffickers. 

Top header image: Arno Meintjes, Flickr
Supplied by Conservation Action Trust