American horror show: Trophies from canned lion hunts continue to flow into the U.S. despite ESA protection
Our federal government illegally allowed U.S. trophy hunters to import at least 280 lion trophies from South Africa’s cruel captive lion breeding and killing facilities. It allowed body parts to come into the country in spite of a policy implemented at the beginning of last year that shooting and then importing these lions in fenced-in enclosures does not contribute to the conservation of the species and is therefore illegal under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The HSUS made this alarming discovery about the massive influx of lion trophies from canned hunts after reviewing international trade data, raising concerns about how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is enforcing the ESA listing for lions, and also calling into question the agency’s entire approach to allowing trophy imports of species threatened with extinction.
Last week, President Trump announced he was putting on hold actions by the USFWS to clear the way for elephant and lion trophy imports from Zimbabwe and Zambia. The president said that trophy hunting of “elephants and other animals” was, in his words, a “horror show” and he’d be “hard pressed” to change his mind on the issue. In short, he was emphatic that he was prepared to reject the agency’s decision to encourage more trophy hunting of the animals by allowing Americans to import elephant tusks and lion heads.
While the president is at it, he should look at the USFWS actions that are giving comfort to American hunters killing captive African lions in South Africa. While any trophy hunting of threatened and endangered species is outrageous on its face, it’s even more appalling that the animals are bred for shooting and are killed at point-blank range in enclosures from which they cannot run or escape. These same lions are also used for cub selfies, cub petting, and lion walks, and once their heads and manes are big enough to attract the interest of trophy hunters, they are offered up for shooting in a penned area.
According to the government of South Africa, private operators hold about 6,000 captive African lions in approximately 200 facilities where canned lion hunts sell for up to $20,000 each. Of the 1,052 trophies from captive lions traded internationally in 2015, Americans killed 686, and imported their body parts into the United States – about 65 percent of the total. Since American trophy hunters are the main clients of the canned lion trophy hunting businesses, we rejoiced when our petition to list the African lion under the ESA resulted in a moratorium on the import of trophies from captive lions effective January 22, 2016.
Based on the USFWS redesignating lions as “threatened with extinction,” there should have been no imports of captive lion hunting trophies from South Africa to the United States since January 22, 2016 (when the new legal protections were imposed). Instead, The HSUS has discovered, while reviewing data from the database of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) for 2016, that there were at least 280 such imports.
Specifically, this data suggests that the USFWS is allowing hunters who killed captive lions prior to 2016 to abuse an exception to the import prohibition for so-called “pre-Act” wildlife. However, by statute this exception only applies to animals who were held in captivity before the date of ESA listing if such animals were not held “in the course of a commercial activity.” According to the government of South Africa, “captive lions are bred exclusively to generate money;” and the USFWS has issued a formal finding in agreement, stating that the lions are “bred for financial gain.” Indeed, in addition to captive hunting and cub petting (much like the nefarious cub petting industry we’re combating in the United States), South Africa recently approved the export of lion bones from these captive breeding facilities in order to meet the Asian demand for increasingly rare trafficked tiger parts. All are clear examples of commercial activities.
Again, there should have been zero captive-bred lion trophies allowed to be imported into the United States beginning January 22, 2016. Allowing them to come into the country contravenes the agency’s own findings and the agency should never have allowed these lions to come into the country. It was illegal. On a go-forward basis, it is imperative that the USFWS take steps to ensure that it is not unlawfully applying the narrow pre-Act exception in the ESA.
Even many trophy hunters, including the Operators and Professional Hunting Associations of Africa, disagree with the practice of trophy hunters shooting captive lions, mainly as a matter of fair chase and because of an absence of conservation benefits.
South Africa has also previously struggled to comply with CITES requirements to ensure that it is properly labeling captive- versus wild-sourced specimens. While USFWS has claimed that less than a dozen wild and “wild-managed” lions from South Africa are allowed to be killed by trophy hunters each year, it is alarming to think that hundreds more wild lions could have been killed and imported under the guise of being captive-bred.
President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke should shut the door on all of this nonsense. Newspapers throughout the United States have lauded the president for taking a stand against the trophy hunting of elephants. It’s time to end all imports of sport-hunted trophies of threatened and endangered species in Africa coveted by American trophy hunters. Elephant, lion, and leopard populations are all spiraling downward despite decades of active trophy hunting to “conserve them.” The last thing we need are rich Americans killing them, with the biggest body count amassed at canned hunting facilities.
A horror show indeed.