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March 19, 2013

Lions On The Brink

When it comes to sharks, big cats, bears and wolves, we humans are conflicted. We admire their physical prowess and power, but we also fear those attributes. Scientists have documented the essential role they play in ecosystem health, but ranchers, and even commercial fisherman, fear the very idea of predators killing their livestock or their catch.

These predators inspire so many of us, but they also inspire fear in others – principally because they are physically stronger and capable of killing us. I’ve long believed that fear of big predators (along with snakes, spiders and rats) is hard-wired in humans. That aversive feeling toward some animals can be overcome through education and rational analysis. But some fall prey to that fear, and they want to subjugate or dominate, and sometimes entirely wipe out, these big cats, bears and wolves.

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It’s no surprise then that The HSUS is advocating for predators and for tolerance and understanding all over the world. We are working hard to end shark finning. We are grappling with wolf issues, trying to stop the slaughter of wolves in Alaska, the Northern Rockies, and particularly the Great Lakes – where we are pushing a bill in Minnesota and a ballot referendum in Michigan to stop the trophy hunting and commercial trapping of these wild canids. We are trying to protect polar bears in Canada from American trophy hunters and others who trade in their parts. And we are working to list African lions as endangered - one effect of that listing would be to prevent American hunters from bringing home trophies of the “king of beasts” for bragging rights.

Yesterday, a senior Tanzanian official pleaded with American officials, on the pages of the New York Times, to not provide additional protections for lions. He argued that Tanzanians make a lot of money allowing wealthy Americans to kill lions, and this aids conservation. It’s unfortunately true that American trophy hunters are the number one importer of African lions killed in Tanzania. Of the approximately 220 African lions killed in Tanzania by foreign trophy hunters each year, we import about 100.

The claim that they are providing a net benefit to conservation of species, through their license fees and other spending on the hunt, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Scientists who have studied lions and the trophy hunting industry in Tanzania have not only demonstrated that lion trophy hunting there is unsustainable, but it is also the primary threat to the survival of the species, causing population declines in recent decades. Trophy hunting is particularly harmful for lions because hunters prefer males, especially the large ones with big manes. These very same males live in prides of related females and their cubs, where their presence is a stabilizing factor. When such males are killed, new males take over the prides, killing all of the cubs, and sometimes the females who fight to protect their cubs. For each male lion killed by a trophy hunter, up to 20 other lions may die in the social chaos that results.

The African lion clearly qualifies as an endangered subspecies: there are as few as 23,000 left in all of Africa, down from 75,800 in 1980, a 48.5 percent decline; and lions occupy only 22 percent of their historic distribution. Listing the African lion as endangered would allow the U.S. to play a significant role in protecting this iconic animal from extinction.

The $1.96 million in revenue generated by lion trophy hunters each year, along with other revenue related to their hotels and guiding services, is a pittance compared to the $1.4 billion in revenue generated by the country’s tourism industry each year – one based largely on wildlife viewing. Kenya forbids trophy hunting and also generates billions in wildlife-associated tourism. Indeed, economics is important to the survival of these species, but it must also be the kind of commerce that promotes and enhances life, not the kind that denies and nullifies it.

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