Americans kill hundreds of African lions each year. They don't do it for protection or for food or as a cultural tradition passed down from generation to generation. They do it for one reason only -- fun.
Trophy hunting is the act of killing a wild or captive animal for pleasure or sport, typically followed by the hunter bringing home all or part of the slain animal as a memento or trophy. Between 1999 and 2008, at least 5,600 trophy-hunted lions were exported from African range states to other countries, and over half of those came to America.
The psychology that drives someone to fly half way around the world just to kill a creature as magnificent as a lion for "sport" is beyond me. But ethical considerations aside, the fact of the matter is that if it doesn't stop soon, there won't be any more lions to hunt.
African lions are facing a steep and frightening decline. Their numbers have plummeted by nearly 50% in the past 30 years, and they have disappeared from just under 80% of their historic range. Scientists estimate that there are less than 40,000 wild lions left in the world, and possibly as few as 20,000, with most remaining populations too small and isolated from other populations to be viable for long-term survival.
In 2008, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature found that the African lion was facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. At that time African lions were found in 30 countries. Today, just three years later, they are no longer found in three of those countries, maybe more. The speed in which these animals are disappearing is shocking.
What's killing them? A swelling human population, which leads to loss of habitat and prey, is partly to blame. Lions are also killed in retaliation for livestock losses and conflict with humans -- again linked to encroaching human populations. Commercial trade in their parts for traditional medicines and other products is a threat. And then there is the matter of trophy hunting.
Trophy hunting has a particularly harmful impact on lions because of their biological and evolutionary behaviors. Lions are the most social of big cats, and live in male-dominated groups called "prides." When a dominant male in a pride dies, the pride becomes unstable and vulnerable to a take-over by outside males. During an attempted take-over, males on both sides of the battle can be mortally wounded. If the take-over is successful, the new dominant males will frequently kill all the cubs in the pride under 9 months of age -- a practice known as infanticide. This is done in order to increase the likelihood of the new male's genes being carried on. Additionally, female lions can be killed defending their cubs from the new males.
In a normal system where the strongest males live a natural life cycle protecting the pride, this would not be a problem. However, trophy hunters target adult male lions. This results in a high turnover of dominant males and increased pride instability. So not only are the trophy-hunted lions being killed -- at least 5,600 in the last decade -- but there is an add-on effect of other lion deaths whenever a dominant male in a pride is killed.
All the most recent science has shown that the practice of trophy hunting is contributing to the decline of lion populations. In countries where trophy hunting is permitted, lion populations that are hunted with the greatest intensity have suffered the steepest declines.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all this is that Americans are by far the biggest contributor to the problem. Between 1999 and 2008, 64% of the trophy hunted lions exported came to the United States. That's a minimum of 3,600 lions. And despite the significant and continuing population and range decline that lions have suffered, the number of lion trophies imported into the US is increasing -- more lions were imported into the U.S. in 2008 than any other year in the previous decade, and more than twice the number in 1999.
Up to today, maybe these hunters had the excuse that they didn't know that lion populations were crashing. But hopefully this week's announcement that several conservation and animal welfare groups have petitioned the U.S. government to list African lions as Endangered under the US Endangered Species Act, coupled with movies like National Geographic's "The Last Lion" or DisneyNature's "African Cats" will make them reconsider.
If lions are listed as Endangered under the US Endangered Species Act, the imports of lion trophies will generally be prohibited, which would help to give many lion populations a chance to recover. I sincerely hope the U.S. Department of Interior will listen to the science and take the appropriate action as soon as possible. The species is in crisis and deserves a break from American trophy hunters.
Of course it's always possible that trophy hunters will recognize the problem and voluntarily stop the hunting of lions, but there's no fun in waiting to find out while the species continues to suffer.
Jeff Flocken is the D.C. Office Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.