In response to the dramatic decline of lion populations in the wild, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) today announced it will list two lion subspecies under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Panthera leo leo, located in India and western and central Africa, will be listed as endangered, and Panthera leo melanochaita, located in eastern and southern Africa, will be listed as threatened.
Concurrent with this listing rule, to protect lions and other foreign and domestic wildlife from criminal activity, Service Director Dan Ashe also issued a Director’s Order to strengthen enforcement of wildlife permitting requirements. The order, which aligns with President Obama’s National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, will ensure that violators of wildlife laws are not subsequently granted permits for future wildlife-related activities, including the import of sport-hunted trophies.
In the last 20 years, lion populations have declined by 43 percent due to habitat loss, loss of prey base, and retaliatory killing of lions by a growing human population. Coupled with inadequate financial and other resources for countries to effectively manage protected areas, the impact on lions in the wild has been substantial.
“The lion is one of the planet’s most beloved species and an irreplaceable part of our shared global heritage,” said Ashe. “If we want to ensure that healthy lion populations continue to roam the African savannas and forests of India, it’s up to all of us – not just the people of Africa and India – to take action.”
In March 2011, the Service received a petition to list the African lion subspecies (P. l. leo) as endangered under the ESA. In October 2014, the Service published a 12-month finding and proposed a rule to list the African lion as threatened with a special rule under section 4(d) of the ESA.
Based on newly available scientific information on the genetics and taxonomy of lions, the Service assessed the status of the entire lion species and subsequently changed its earlier finding.
The new science resolved that the western and central populations of African lion are more genetically related to the Asiatic lion. These lions are now considered the same subspecies, P. l. leo. There are only about 1,400 of these lions remaining; 900 in 14 African populations and 523 in India. Considering the size and distribution of the populations, population trends and the severity of the threats, the Service has found that this subspecies meets the definition of endangered under the ESA.
The subspecies of P. l. melanochaita likely numbers between 17,000-19,000 and is found across southern and eastern Africa. The Service determined that this subspecies is less vulnerable and is not currently in danger of extinction. However, although lion numbers in southern Africa are increasing overall, there are populations that are declining due to ongoing threats. As a result, the Service finds the subspecies meets the definition of a threatened species under the ESA.
With an endangered listing, imports of P. l. leo will generally be prohibited, except in certain cases, such as when it can be found that the import will enhance the survival of the species. To further strengthen conservation measures for the threatened P. l. melanochaita, the Service is also finalizing a rule under section 4(d) of the ESA to establish a permitting mechanism regulating the import of all P. l. melanochaita parts and products, including live animals and sport-hunted trophies, into the United States. The process will ensure that imported specimens are legally obtained in range countries as part of a scientifically sound management program that benefits the subspecies in the wild.
The final 4(d) rule will allow the Service to support changes that strengthen the governance and accountability of conservation programs in other nations. Well-managed conservation programs use trophy hunting revenues to sustain lion conservation, research and anti-poaching activities.
“Sustainable trophy hunting as part of a well-managed conservation program can and does contribute to the survival of the species in the wild, providing real incentives to oppose poaching and conserve lion populations,” said Ashe. “Implementing a permit requirement will give us the authority we need to work with African countries to help them improve their lion management programs.”
Permits would also be required for scientific purposes, activities that enhance the propagation or survival of the subspecies in the wild, zoological exhibitions, educational purposes or other purposes consistent with the ESA.
Through the Director’s Order, the Service is redoubling its efforts to ensure that the world’s rarest species are protected from those who violate wildlife laws. The Service has the authority to deny future permit applications for activities such as sport-hunted trophy imports to anyone who has previously been convicted of or pled guilty to violations of wildlife laws. The order will ensure that this authority will be exercised to the fullest extent.
“Importing sport-hunted trophies and other wildlife or animal parts into the United States is a privilege, not a right; a privilege that violators of wildlife laws have demonstrated they do not deserve,” said Ashe. “We are going to strengthen our efforts to ensure those individuals – people who have acted illegally to deprive our children of their wildlife heritage – are not rewarded by receipt of wildlife permits in the future.”
The Service is also working to increase the fees it charges for these permit applications. Application fees facilitate the permit review process, including the evaluation of sport hunting programs to determine whether permits for the import of trophies may be granted. If finalized, the Service estimates an increase in permit fees could result in full cost recovery for the permitting program that would be used to make the necessary determinations.
The final lion rule will publish in the Federal Register on December 23, 2015, and will go into effect 30 days after publication on January 22, 2016. For more information, a copy of the final rule and Director’s Order, please visit: http://www.fws.gov/endangered/what-we-do/lion.html.
The ESA provides numerous benefits to foreign species, primarily by prohibiting certain activities including import, export, commercial activity, interstate commerce and foreign commerce. By regulating these activities, the United States ensures that people under the jurisdiction of the United States do not contribute to the further decline of listed species. Since 1973, the ESA has prevented the extinction of more than 99 percent of the species listed as threatened or endangered. In addition, more than 30 once endangered or threatened species have been delisted due to recovery, including the bald eagle, American alligator and peregrine falcon. Others, such as the manatee, whooping crane and California condor, have been pulled back from the edge of extinction.
To learn more about the Endangered Species program’s Branch of Foreign Species, visit: http://www.fws.gov/endangered/what-we-do/international-activities.html.