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U.S. to Protect African Lions Under Endangered Species Act


Five months after a lion named Cecil was shot and killed in Zimbabwe by a Minnesota dentist, the Obama administration has decided to place lions in Africa under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, an action that will set a higher bar for hunters who want to bring lion trophies into the United States.

Lions in central and West Africa will be listed as endangered, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is expected to announce the change on Monday. Lions in southern and East Africa will be classified as threatened, with a special rule that prods countries to regulate sport hunting of lions in ways that promote conservation.

Both designations, the agency said, will result in stricter criteria for the import of live lions and lion parts, like heads, paws or skins.

Trophies from countries where lions are endangered will be “generally prohibited,” except in very limited circumstances, the agency said.

Trophies could still be imported from nations where lions are listed as threatened — like Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa, all popular countries for American hunters — as long as they met the standards set under the special rule and the animals were killed legally.

Daniel M. Ashe, the director of the wildlife service, called the lion “one of the planet’s most beloved species.” The agency said its decision was a response to the drastic decline of lion populations in the wild.

The government is acting almost five years after conservation groups petitioned to have the African lion listed as endangered, and the final ruling offers stronger protections than a 2014 proposal by the administration, under which lions in all African countries would have been classified as threatened.

The wildlife agency attributed the change to “newly available scientific information on the genetics and taxonomy of lions.”

But Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States, one of five conservation groups that petitioned to have the lion listed, said he thought that the killing of Cecil was “a defining moment.”

Wildlife biologists and conservation groups have warned for years that lion numbers had plunged across much of Africa, depleted by habitat loss, retaliatory killings by farmers and herders, and, in some countries, poorly regulated trophy hunting. In a recent study, scientists projected that without major intervention, the number of lions in Africa could be halved in the next 20 years. Only about 20,000 lions remain on the continent, according to some estimates.

But the killing of Cecil, a lion that had been lured out of a protected national park, seemed to galvanize public attention.

Cecil’s death in July set off an international debate and incited so much vitriol on the Internet that the dentist, Walter J. Palmer, was forced to close his office for several months.

In the months since, France has banned the import of lion trophies, and Britain has said it will do so in 2017, barring “significant improvement in the performance of the hunting industry.” More than 40 airlines have also said they will no longer transport hunting trophies.

Mr. Pacelle said Cecil had “changed the atmospherics on the issue of trophy hunting around the world.”

He added, “I think it gave less wiggle room to regulators.”

Most conservation groups and wildlife biologists said the government’s decision was a step forward.

“This is huge, and we’re really excited,” said Jeffrey Flocken, the North American regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which was also a petitioner.

He said he hoped the listings, which will go into effect Jan. 22, would “greatly curtail” trophy hunting. In some African countries, like Kenya, lion hunting is already illegal.

The federal government cannot regulate hunting in other countries, but because many trophy hunters are American, the tougher standards for imports could reduce the number of lions killed by hunters.

Hunting organizations, however, said the administration’s action, by making it harder to import trophies, would end up hurting lions.

“We will be looking to see how the U.S.F.W.S. substantiates its final rule, as we currently believe the record of information fails to justify this listing,” said Joseph Hosmer, the president of the Safari Club International Foundation, referring to the wildlife agency.

The foundation and other pro-hunting organizations, as well as many Africans, argue that the money from sport hunting in Africa helps poor countries maintain robust conservation programs and provides aid to local residents.

But Hans Bauer, a lion expert at Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, said the tighter regulation imposed by the threatened listing seemed to represent “a last chance” for sport hunting in East Africa.

“The burden of proof is now shifted,” Dr. Bauer said. “Under this new ruling, countries must not only prove that hunting is not bad for lions; they must prove that it is good for lions.”

He added: “Many have challenged the hunting industry to show some figures to support their claim that the revenues from lion hunting support lion conservation, but the industry has been notoriously opaque and has long resisted calls for reform. This must now change.”

Wildlife experts said listing lions under the Endangered Species Act was likely to influence international classifications of the big cats.

Currently, lions are listed under Appendix 2 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which comprises species that are not yet threatened with extinction but may become so. The action by the United States, some experts said, could lead to some lions being moved to Appendix 1, which prohibits almost all international trade.

The listings by the Fish and Wildlife Service treat lions in different regions as two genetically distinct subspecies, a division that echoes international classifications and is supported by scientific data.

One, in central and West Africa, has numbers that are so low — only about 900 — that the endangered status was “a bit late,” Dr. Bauer said. Lions in India belonging to the same subspecies, which number about 500, are already on the endangered list.

Lions in southern and East Africa, where most trophy hunting occurs, number from 17,000 to 19,000, according to the wildlife agency. Under the new rule, the agency will create a permit process, and hunters who want to bring lion trophies into the United States will have to show that the imports were “legally obtained” from countries that have “a scientifically sound management program that benefits the subspecies in the wild,” according to the wildlife service.

The agency said it planned to collect information from conservation groups and scientists about the hunting and conservation practices of countries and would not rely solely on what governments said about their policies.

But some conservationists and lion experts said they would watch closely for how rigorous the agency would be in vetting countries.

“We are anxious to see how it works in practice,” Mr. Pacelle said.

Craig Packer, a lion expert who for 35 years ran the Serengeti Lion Project in Tanzania and has been critical of hunting practices in that country, said, “I hope they will take seriously the impact that corruption has on the performance of particular countries, particularly Tanzania.”

Dr. Packer said corruption “subverts any good conservation practices in these hunting blocks.” He added that bad behavior by hunting companies and government officials should have consequences.

Along with listing the lions under the Endangered Species Act, Mr. Ashe, the wildlife agency director, is issuing an order that will prohibit anyone who has been convicted of or pleaded guilty to a wildlife violation from obtaining a permit to import sport hunting trophies.

“Importing sport-hunted trophies and other wildlife or animal parts into the United States is a privilege, not a right,” Mr. Ashe said.

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