August 7, 2015
Status of the African Lion and Sport Hunting
The Killing of Cecil the Lion
An American citizen was accused of illegally killing a
popular lion named Cecil near the Hwange National Park in
Zimbabwe in July 2015. The citizen reportedly paid some
$50,000 to conduct the hunt. The hunt reportedly was
illegal because the owner of the land on which the lion was
killed did not have a quota to hunt a lion and the local
hunting guide did not have an appropriate permit.
Zimbabwean authorities are seeking to extradite the U.S.
citizen to face charges associated with funding an illegal
hunt and have confiscated the lion’s severed head (i.e., the
trophy). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is
conducting an investigation into the incident.
The incident has stimulated debate on sport hunting and
raised questions about the relative importance of sport
hunting versus other threats to the species. Further, it has
raised questions about the status of the African lion under
the Endangered Species Act (ESA; P.L. 93-205). Some in
Congress cite this incident to contend that protections for
the African lion should be enhanced in U.S. conservation
laws. The incident also has highlighted ongoing federal and
congressional efforts to address global wildlife trafficking
Status of the African Lion (Panthera leo leo)
The range and population of the African lion has declined
in recent decades. Although it once ranged across most of
the African continent, scientists estimate that the African
lion now resides in 22% of its historical range. Recent
estimates suggest that the wild lion population in Africa
falls between 23,000 and 39,000, with most of the
population living in 10 regional strongholds—primarily in
protected and game management areas in Eastern and
Southern Africa. Nearly 40% of all African lions are in
FWS has stated that habitat loss and degradation, largely
caused by the expansion of agriculture and ranching in
Africa, are the main threats to the African lion. Associated
with this expansion is an increase in human-lion conflicts.
The most significant form of this conflict is the retaliatory
killing of lions that prey on livestock and, to a lesser extent,
that harm humans. FWS also concluded that sport hunting
was not a primary threat to African lion populations.
extinction. Although commercial trade in Appendix I
species generally is prohibited under CITES, sport hunting
is not considered a commercial activity. Sport-hunted
trophies of Appendix I species require both an export
permit from the country in which the animal was hunted
and an import permit from the trophy’s destination country.
Some countries have quotas for sport-hunted trophies. For
example, Tanzania has an annual quota is 50 lions per year
and Zimbabwe has one of 70 lions per year.
In the United States, laws related to international sport
hunting are governed by ESA, which implements CITES
and is administered by FWS. If a species is listed as
endangered, import of a sport-hunted trophy is prohibited
unless an enhancement of survival permit is obtained and
used. Enhancement of survival implies that the import of
endangered animals or their parts or products will provide
incentives for increasing the survival of the species in its
native habitat. If a species is listed as threatened, the same
rules apply unless there is a special rule, which may allow
for a limited number of trophies to be imported.
The illegal killing of a foreign species (according to U.S. or
foreign law) also could be a violation of the Lacey Act.
Under the Lacey Act, it is unlawful for any person to
import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase
in interstate or foreign commerce any wildlife taken,
possessed, transported, or sold in violation of any law or
regulation of any foreign law.
Protection of the African Lion
The African lion is listed under CITES as an Appendix II
species, the second-most-stringent category of trade
controls on protected species. Range countries are required
to issue export permits for the outbound transport of an
Appendix II species. Depending on domestic laws, a
destination country may require an import permit for an
Appendix II species. The permitting process aims to
regulate and monitor the conservation and management of
the animals, including those killed for sport.
Selected Regulations and U.S. Laws That Address
In the United States, the African lion currently is not listed
as a threatened or endangered species pursuant to ESA.
However, FWS issued a proposal in October 2014 to list the
African lion as threatened species under ESA. If listed,
FWS could regulate the import of sport-hunted trophies of
African lions into the United States. A listing under ESA
would not prohibit the hunting or killing of lions in Africa;
these activities are subject to the laws of the range country.
Sport hunting is addressed internationally through the
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species
of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Under CITES, species
are categorized into one of three appendixes corresponding
to how threatened their population is due to trade;
Appendix I consists of species most threatened with
FWS also is proposing a rule to accompany the listing,
referred to as a Section 4(d) rule. This rule would create a
permitting mechanism to regulate the import of sporthunted African lion trophies into the United States. The
proposed rule states that trophies may originate only from
Status of the African Lion and Sport Hunting
countries that are implementing a scientifically sound
management plan for African lions. If the rule is finalized,
FWS would monitor lion conservation in countries where
sport hunting is allowed. If sufficient management and
conservation practices were not being followed, FWS could
suspend the import of trophies to the United States, an
action that FWS took against sport-hunted elephant trophies
from Zimbabwe and Tanzania in 2014.
Figure 1. Top 10 Importers of all Mammal Trophies
(2008-2014, as reported by importing country)
including one specifically in response to Cecil’s death. S.
1918, the Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing the
Importation of Large (CECIL) Animal Trophies Act, would
amend ESA to prohibit the import or export of any species
proposed to be listed as threatened or endangered. Other
bills include the Rare Cats and Canids Act of 2015 (H.R.
2697), which would establish a separate account within the
Multinational Species Conservation Fund that could
provide assistance for the conservation of African lions,
among other specified wildlife.
Figure 2. African Lion Trophy Imports to the
(captive bred and wild imports)
Source: CITES Trade Database at http://trade.cites.org/.
Notes: Trophies compiled for countries with an asterisk are
reported by exporting countries.
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
International Sport Hunting
The killing of Cecil the lion has sparked a general
controversy over the practice of sport-hunting iconic
species in foreign countries. Proponents of sport hunting
contend that if hunting-related profits are used for the
conservation and management of animal populations, these
funds could support conservation goals. Further, they state
that sport hunting is an important contributor to regional
economies in some range countries. Critics argue that in
some range states where wildlife management practices
may be poorly implemented and where the profits
associated with sport hunting are not directly linked with
conservation efforts, species’ populations may continue to
be threatened by hunting. Sport hunting could be used to
conceal illegal wildlife trafficking, or the revenue sport
hunting generates may be lost to corruption. When species
are threatened by habitat loss, human-animal conflict, and
poaching, sport hunting could exacerbate a species’ decline.
The United States plays a dominant role in the sport hunting
of CITES-listed species, representing roughly 40%-70% of
the annual global trade. (See Figure 1.) However, in recent
years, European and other hunters have increased their
share in trophies. The United States is also a leading
country for importing sport-hunted lion trophies,
accounting for 64% of all lion trophies imported (See
Several Members have responded to the reported killing of
Cecil the lion by issuing public statements on the incident
and urging FWS to finalize the proposed rule on listing the
African lion under ESA. Several bills have been introduced
in the 114th Congress to address wildlife trafficking,
The killing of Cecil the lion may spark further interest in
legislation seeking to address global wildlife trafficking
generally, including the Global Anti-Poaching Act (H.R.
2494) and the Wildlife Trafficking Enforcement Act of
2015 (S. 27).
Advocates against sport hunting call for implementing
wholesale bans on the import of popular sport-hunted
species from Africa, expanding ESA’s extraterritorial reach,
prohibiting transport of game trophies of threatened and
endangered species through certain U.S. airports, and
addressing funding for FWS to expedite the endangered
species listing process. Advocates of sport hunting,
however, have questioned whether the focus on hunting
African lions would be better directed toward other
priorities, since FWS concluded that sport hunting was not
a threat to African lions.
Congressional reactions also may generate further interest
in evaluating the Obama Administration’s progress toward
implementing the February 2014 National Strategy for
Combating Wildlife Trafficking. Among several objectives,
the strategy states that the Administration will use
administrative tools to address the poaching of African
elephants and rhinos by limiting the number of sport-hunted
trophies an individual can import. A key question for
policymakers will be the scope of U.S. anti-trafficking
efforts and which species, if any, require enhanced policy
Pervaze A. Sheikh, Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
Liana W. Rosen, Specialist in International Crime and
Status of the African Lion and Sport Hunting
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