Months after the killing of one of Zimbabwe's protected lions sparked global outrage, US wildlife officials announced steps to make shooting Africa's most famous big cats tougher and more expensive for trophy hunters.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has placed two African lion subspecies under its protection, declaring one type in west-central Africa endangered and the other, found in eastern and southern Africa, threatened. That means anyone who wants to import lion trophies or other animal products will face "a much higher burden than they have in the past," the agency's director, Dan Ashe, told reporters Monday.
"It does not bar those imports outright, but it will raise the bar substantially," Ashe said.
The announcement comes less than six months after an American trophy hunter killed Cecil, a 13-year-old male lion, which lived on a park preserve in Zimbabwe. Ashe said the rule wasn't a response to the killing of Cecil or any other incident, "but rather an overwhelming body of science that says lions are endangered or threatened with extinction, and we need to change the curve."
The latest research suggests that barely 20,000 lions remain — and only about 900 of those are the west-central African variety, which the service classifies as the same subspecies as India's rare Asiatic lion. By comparison, scientists estimated Africa was home to more than half a million lions at the beginning of the 20th century.
There was no immediate response from two African hunting clubs VICE News contacted for comment on the news. But the announcement drew praise from conservation groups, which had petitioned the agency to list lions under the Endangered Species Act in 2011.
Luke Hunter, a zoologist and president of the global wild cat conservation group Panthera, said importing lion trophies "will be as good as prohibited" under the new rules.
"It's still possible, but the sea change moment here is the service is going to require that for a permit to be issued, that it's shown that trophy hunting is a benefit to lion populations," he said. "I think that's a really significant step."
The Humane Society of the United States estimates that American trophy hunters have killed more than 5,600 lions over the past decade. Monday's announcement is tougher than the rule the agency proposed a year ago, which would have listed both animals as threatened, but not endangered.
The black-maned Cecil and his pride were closely studied by researchers and were a popular draw for tourists. The lion's killer, a Minnesota dentist named Walter Palmer, apologized, saying he didn't know he was taking a collared animal. But he was hounded by protesters back home, and the backlash spurred numerous airlines — including major US carriers Delta, American, and United — to strike exotic animal trophies from their manifests.
Palmer's guides face criminal charges in Zimbabwe, but authorities there said Palmer won't be charged since he had the proper hunting permits. Many hunters argue those costly permits support conservation work. But Ashe said that if hunting is part of a conservation strategy, "It's going to have to do much, much better."
"I believe the American hunter can be an integral part of a vibrant conservation strategy," said Ashe, who noted that he's a hunter, too. "But the burden will be on the hunter, not the hunted. I think we need to ask for the hunter to bear a much higher burden than they have in the past."
Lion populations are shrinking largely due to loss of habitat, as human populations and their livestock encroach on the big cats' territory and drive off their prey. A study co-authored by Panthera researchers recently projected that lion populations were likely to fall by half over the next two decades without action.
Hunting isn't the biggest problem, Ashe said, "But if we are going to continue to have hunting, then hunting needs to be a much clearer part of the solution. That's what we're going to be looking for from the hunting industry and the range states and individual hunters."
Under the new designations, the Fish and Wildlife Service will have to make "a clear and unequivocal determination" that hunting permits support a well-managed national conservation program in the country where the hunt will take place, Ashe said. The agency will be raising fees for importing trophies to fund its own enforcement efforts, and the host nations will be held "to a higher standard than we have ever held them before."
Other countries, including France and Australia, have banned the importation of trophy lions outright, Hunter said. Britain and much of the European Union are considering similar bans.
"In principle, the hunting industry and the hunting community should have nothing to worry about this, because the service is just asking for proof of what they always claim," Hunter said. "Prove now that hunting brings all these benefits that you, the hunters, always say — things that the revenue that it generates brings new revenue to conservation ... that's a new standard, and it's a science-based one."
Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl
Watch **Ivory Crush in Times Square here:**