The tragedy of legal trade loopholes for lions

By Rosalind Johnson, Care for the Wild Projects and Development Assistant

Right now we have around 35,000 wild African lions on the planet, at first glance this figure doesn’t sound so bad when you compare to their cousins the tiger – already down to 3,200 in the wild.

However, if you look closer, this 35,000 number is split across 70 regions with 5 strongholds housing 56% of all lions whereas the other 44% consists of ever increasingly isolated populations. We are witnessing a downward trend in the wild, but with the absence of legal restrictions, both nationally and internationally, we are seeing the rise of hugely lucrative lion-based trades.

A few facts you may be surprised to hear:

  • South Africa houses 3,500 lions ‘farmed’ just to be hunted by international tourists. Most of these will be shot in confined areas.
  • Lions are the only big cat not to be listed as Appendix I by CITES, thus they continue to be legally traded.
  • Two thirds of lion trophies have ended up in the United States over the last decade.
  • Only 3-4% of trophy hunt profits are estimated to be shared with local communities.

International Trade

As an Appendix II listed ‘vulnerable’ species, trade in parts and live lions can legally occur internationally with permits and regulation. As an Appendix I species, all trade would be banned, and enforced – cutting off one of the growing risks to wild lions – the hunting industry.

In total, looking at all exports in a decade, over 10,000 lions have left Africa as skin and trophy ‘parts’.  The US is the biggest single importer with around 4,000 lions traded as ‘parts’ over ten years and a further 1000 as live trade, and is followed by the EU.

The legalised trade of lions is only just beginning to be recognised internationally as a potential issue for the species – and both of these two importer regions are currently looking at protecting lions internally. Many NGOs in the US are now making headway to potentially protect African Lions via the Endangered Species Act. In the EU last month a review began on trade regulations. This is the first time that hunting and the effect of import on wild populations in stimulating demand is starting to be recognised as a genuine threat.

From current understanding, trophy hunting and trade may not be the main cause of the wild decline at the moment but it is a factor and it is a growing industry, with new emerging markets such as Asia where they are used as a ‘replacement’ for tiger bone in traditional medicines.

Hunting vs traditional tourism

A tourist hunter will pay up to $23,000 for a single lion which, the industry argues, finds its way into the economy and supports conservation. Nationally however hunting in range states accounts for 1-5% of overall tourist revenue. There is no doubt that the practice is niche in its popularity, and even puts traditional tourism at risk such as in South Africa where successes in Kruger conservation of lions are overshadowed by the controversial practice of farmed lions for canned hunts. So why, when taken as part of overall tourist income, have these businesses held such clout on policies of trade nationally in Africa and even internationally?

Lions remain understudied, with declines across their range and increasing threats universally- is it just me or does the argument so often used that ‘trophy hunting funds and aids lion conservation’ need revisiting?

Skewing the Figures

One issue is the fact that lion ‘conservation research’ is underfunded internationally as other species retain priority – this has allowed invested companies to ‘skew’ and mould data to fit their agenda. Vested lobbyists pick and choose data, and have the funds to selectively create the arguments proposed to politicians and this is not just the case for lions, but is instrumental in the recurrent ivory and rhino horn stockpile trade debates.

For example, the Zambian government announced earlier this year that lion hunting permits had been abused and placed a blanket ban on the industry. The population is now at 700 maximum, however back in 2002 a survey conducted with backing from hunting groups gave a national lion population of around 3,000 – whereas independent survey placed the number at 2,000. On the basis of this, the national legal hunting quota of 60 lions per year was in place for over ten years.

A ban is now also scheduled in Botswana – we hope that locally the exporting nations of Africa’s lions start to recognise that 1-5% of their tourist income should not dictate the success of the remaining 95%, or the continued survival of a species.

We work on the ground in Africa to reduce habitat destruction in lion ranges and reduce retaliatory killing, we have campaigned to increase awareness of canned hunting and work at policy level to argue for the increased protection of lions from trade. On the eve of the International Day for Lions we are encouraged by the rare glimmers of hope that international recognition of the legal state of lions is making headway in 2013 – but more remains to be done.

Join our petition to stop the use of bred lion cubs as ‘photo props’ here
Read more about sport hunting on our RIGHT-tourism campaign site here
Give a regular donation to our anti-poaching patrols in Kenya here