Walter Palmer, a dentist in Minnesota, could never have imagined that he would become a household name when, in July 2015, he flew to Zimbabwe for the latest in a series of trophy hunting trips. His subsequent killing of the popular and much-studied lion, Cecil, by luring him from his home in Hwange National Park, sparked global outrage and propelled the issue of trophy hunting into the public consciousness.
From Friday 22 January 2016, changes to the Endangered Species Act, enforced by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), take effect, making trophy hunting of lions all but illegal. The Act will now recognise two new lion subspecies – Panthera leo leo (P. l. leo), located in India and western and central Africa, and Panthera leo melanochaita (P. l. melanochaita), located in eastern and southern Africa – as respectively ‘endangered’ and ‘threatened’. As a result, official permits will be required to hunt these animals, and trophies banned from being imported into the US by anyone who cannot show that they were ‘legally obtained in range countries as part of a scientifically sound management program that benefits the subspecies in the wild’.
Dwindling lion populations has become a major conservation issue, with FWS figures showing global population numbers declining by 43 per cent over the last two decades. P. l. leo animals now only number an estimated 1,400 – around 900 in Africa and 523 in India. P. l. melanochaita populations are faring slightly better, however their numbers are still diminishing, currently standing at between 17,000 and 19,000 wild animals. The causes for these declines vary across the world, however it is principally down to a combination of a loss of habitat and death by human hands.
‘The lion is one of the planet’s most beloved species and is an irreplaceable part of our shared global heritage,’ says Dan Ashe, FWS Director. ‘If we want to ensure that healthy lion populations continue to roam the African savannahs and forests of India, it’s up to all of us – not just the people of Africa and India – to take action.’
However, Ashe does believe there is still a role for small-scale trophy hunting of P. l. melanochaita as part of the conservation process, and therefore the changes to the Endangered Species Act do not entirely ban the practice outright, but instead attempts to manage and regulate the way it operates. ‘Sustainable trophy hunting as part of a well-managed conservation program can and does contribute to the survival of the species in the wild,’ he says, ‘providing real incentives to oppose poaching and conserve lion populations. Implementing a permit requirement will give us the authority we need to work with African countries to help them improve their lion management programs.’
‘Importing sport-hunted trophies and other wildlife or animal parts into the United States is a privilege, not a right,’ he continues, ‘a privilege that violators of wildlife laws have demonstrated they do not deserve. 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.’
Both Australia and France banned the import of hunting trophies in 2015, while the UK will follow suit by 2017, ‘unless there is a significant improvement in the performance of the hunting industry and of those countries’, according to Environment Minister Rory Stewart. However, the annual imports of such animal parts are dwarfed by those entering the US, now the world’s second largest consumer of wildlife products (behind China).