We may never know whether Minnesota’s trophy-hunting dentist who killed Cecil the Lion knew that his hunting guides purposely lured the beloved lion off its protected preserve with bait.
That glaring void reveals the main problem with the shadowy international trophy hunting industry – there’s so much we don’t know, and will never know.
And it makes clear why in the coming months the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must finalize its proposal to protect African lions under our Endangered Species Act. These protections would allow the agency to tightly regulate the import of sport hunted African lion trophies.
The need is pressing: Lions once occupied most of the African continent, even large stretches of the Sahara. Today, they are extinct in North Africa and research indicates they are gone from more than 75 percent of their historic range on the continent. They face numerous threats to their survival, such as habitat loss and poaching.
As a result, lions are now restricted mainly to protected conservancies and game management areas. Lions are even declining in some protected areas and, with a couple of exceptions, are virtually absent from unprotected areas.
The proposed Endangered Species Act protection of lions would require that anyone wishing to import “African lion specimens” get prior approval from the Fish and Wildlife Service. Permits could only be issued for “scientific purposes, the enhancement of propagation or survival of the species, economic hardship, zoological exhibitions, educational purposes, or special purposes consistent with the purposes of the Act.”
In effect, an Endangered Species Act listing would place the burden on the person requesting the permit to prove ahead of time that their request meets those standards. And that would likely sharply decrease the number of dead lions imported into the U.S.
Without Endangered Species Act protections, the trophy hunting industry will continue to profit as lion populations plunge closer to extinction. And lion hunting is big business. The Eden Prairie dentist who killed Cecil paid more than $50,000 for the hunt. And a 2009 study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimated that trophy hunters kill around 600 lions a year.
Questions abound over how much of the hunt fee is used for lion conservation, if at all. Some studies have indicated a tiny percentage of those fees – as little as 5 percent – actually go to fund conservation activities.
Equally troubling is that the limits on how many lions can be killed by trophy hunters are rarely based on sound science. Instead, they’re too often calculated to ensure maximum funds are generated. And scientists have warned that trophy hunting can lead to the death of lion cubs – after trophy hunters kill a male lion, a new male will take over the pack leadership and kill cubs sired by the dead male lion.
The furor over Cecil’s death has also exposed Congress’ habitual underfunding of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Without adequate funding, the agency has been unable to promptly act to protect lions under the Endangered Species Act. According to the standards set out by the Act, lions should have been protected years ago: The petition seeking that protection was filed back in March 2011.
And hardly is funding a problem limited to foreign species. Many highly imperiled U.S. animals and plants have waited decades for protection decisions, in no small part due to lack of funding.
The tragic death of Cecil the Lion shows why we need to end trophy hunting and is a vivid reminder of the high cost of putting off the protection of rare wildlife.
Collette Adkins is a Minnesota-based attorney and biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity where much of her work focuses on protecting imperiled predators.
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