Since the inauguration of World Lion Day in 2013, there have been successes to celebrate, setbacks to contemplate, and a realization that to ensure a safe future for one of the world’s most iconic species, much more needs to be done.
Among the successes, we can list the decision by the USA early this year to place lions as a threatened species on their Endangered Species Act. This listing will require much more stringent rules to be met before any trophy can be imported – including the virtually impossible requirement that the trophy import is beneficial to the conservation of the species. Recently, the Humane Society of the USA published a report that showed that not a single lion trophy had been imported into the US since the new ruling – whereas US trophy hunters were responsible for over 60% of all trophy hunts in previous years. It might have taken the US Fish and Wildlife Service 52 months to make up their mind to list lions as a threatened species, but now they have set high standards for all other world nations (including the UK) that still allow lion trophy imports.
Staying with the successes, Australia, France and the Netherlands banned all lion trophy imports; the UK Parliament heard another debate on lion conservation secured by LionAid late last year; former Undersecretary of State for Environment Rory Stewart met twice with LionAid to define the UK position on lion conservation and trophy imports; the IUCN published their latest revision of remaining lion populations in their Red List of Threatened Species; and the African nation of Rwanda successfully reintroduced lions into Akagera National Park – becoming the first recent example lions slightly expanding their geographic range after being reintroduced to Swaziland in 1994.
Nevertheless, the overall picture for lions remains pretty dire. The IUCN Red List report mentions that lions declined by 66% in western Africa and by 59% in eastern Africa since 1993. Only by including small fenced populations in southern Africa did lions there scrape by with a slight increase over the same time, and there are now pessimistic scientists who claim that fenced populations remain the best hope for the future of the species. Conflict with livestock and retaliation by pastoralists remains a problem for many of Africa’s lions, as does disappearance of their natural prey via the illegal bushmeat trade. Some say that habitat loss also adds to lions’ woes, but others feel that since numbers of lions are now so low, there are far more square kilometres available than lions to occupy them. The legal and illegal lion bone trade to Asia remains a threat, as does cub smuggling to supply the exotic pet trade in the Middle East.
The Parties of the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) will meet at the end of September, and one of the items on the agenda is a proposal to list lions on CITES’ Appendix I, meaning an end to commercial trade of lions and their parts. This is unlikely to happen, and influential CITES members like the European Union have already expressed an opinion that lions should be “split listed” – western lions on Appendix I, southern lions on Appendix II (trade allowed) and eastern African lions to be debated. That means that CITES, despite all evidence to show that African lions are decreasing faster than the polar ice cap is melting, will still allow wild lions like Cecil to be hunted in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and possibly Tanzania.
Sadly, hardly any significant progress has been made to curb captive breeding of lions to be trophy hunted in South Africa. This is despite awareness-raising through recently released documentary films like Blood Lions and persistent attempts to convince volunteer agencies not to send their clients to breeding facilities. Overall, “canned” hunting of lions has remained a growth industry in South Africa with a minimum of 1,150 trophies exported in 2014 (an increase of almost 20% over the year before), and indications that lion breeding facilities are being established in Zimbabwe and Namibia. There seems to be no end in sight for this cruel but very lucrative industry, and certainly no will on the part of the South African government to intervene or any other world government (except those of Australia, France and the Netherlands) to prohibit imports of these lions purpose-bred to become wall hangings or rugs.
Clearly, much remains to be done and we must redouble our efforts to ensure a wild future for this species. Failure and complacency are not acceptable – after all we are talking about a species arguably more iconic than any other, more embedded in our world cultures and religions than any other, and more important to the faunal diversity and stability of Africa’s savanna ecosystems than any other. We should all work towards celebrating a World Lion Day in the not-too-distant future with news that lion populations are recovering and that their roar will once again be heard on previously silent savannas.
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