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Lions Have a New Guardian: The U.S. Government

“The lion is one of the planet’s most beloved species and an irreplaceable part of our shared global heritage. If we want to ensure that healthy lion populations continue to roam the African savannas and forests of India, it’s up to all of us – not just the people of Africa and India – to...

“The lion is one of the planet’s most beloved species and an irreplaceable part of our shared global heritage. If we want to ensure that healthy lion populations continue to roam the African savannas and forests of India, it’s up to all of us – not just the people of Africa and India – to take action,”- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced this week that it will be placing the lion on the list of species protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). Lions, which now occur only in two dozen African countries, as well as in India, exist in less than ten percent of their historic range. A 2012 scientific paper by Duke University researchers and funded by National Geographic notes that lion population numbers had shrunk by seventy five percent in the preceding half century. Recently, another paper asserts that lions may decline by an additional fifty percent over the next two decades. Threats to lions’ survival in the wild include habitat conversion, conflict with humans over livestock, use of lion parts in traditional Asian medicine, insensitive infrastructure projects, and unsustainable trophy hunting. With these and additional data in mind, the U.S. government has taken a strong stand for lion conservation by listing them under the ESA, which will likely have both practical and symbolic ramifications.

Protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and subsequent regulation by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) is among the most powerful actions the U.S. government can take toward species conservation. The ESA, first signed in to law in 1973 by President Nixon, is designed “to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend,” whether or not those species occur within the territorial or political boundaries of the United States. While an ESA listing does not itself directly control activities involving listed species outside U.S. borders, it does provide strict regulation of the importation and transfer of organisms or any parts of species listed into or within U.S. borders. This is particularly relevant to the practice of lion trophy hunting: the ESA can’t prevent American hunters from traveling overseas to kill a lion, but it does limit the ability to import lion trophies or parts back into the U.S., unless the activities used to acquire the parts can be shown to have been undertaken “ for purposes that enhance the propagation or survival of the species”  (USFWS guidelines). The USFWS also notes that in the case of lion (for example) trophy hunting, “the import of listed trophy species may only be shown to enhance the species if it is taken from a well-managed and supported conservation hunting program” and furthermore can only be from countries “with established conservation programs and well-managed lion populations.”  The IUCN and the International Fund for Animal Welfare have noted that imports into the U.S. represent almost two-thirds of all lions killed in expatriate hunts.


In the absolute sense, lions being listed under the ESA  will not eliminate all trophy hunting of the species. In the practical sense, however, it places a much higher burden of proof on Americans seeking to import lion trophies into the U.S. to show that these animals were taken as a part of a well-managed population conservation program that has oversight on both local and foreign national scales. As a result, the numbers of lions killed by American hunters seeking to return home with their trophies will likely see a substantial decrease.

In addition to the practical aspects of protection for the species, lions’ listing under the ESA also presents a great symbolic win for the species. The lion now joins tigers, cheetahs, giant pandas, gorillas and more than 500 additional species found in foreign countries that receive protection under the ESA. The species inclusion marks the official arrival of an important new ally in its conservation: the U.S. government and its weight, influence and resources. Inclusion under the ESA puts the world on notice that America has taken a stand and expects results for enhanced lion conservation. This isn’t an unfunded mandate, either; exposure as a result of ESA listing certainly increases public awareness and can drive additional funding for research and field-based conservation efforts.

Photo Courtesy of Luke Dollar

Field-based conservation efforts are the most critical tool in effective protection of imperiled species. Field interventions, such as those funded by National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative (BCI), continue to work at the interface where people and big cats are in greatest conflict and losses are among their worst. National Geographic Society has awarded 80 grants to big cat conservation programs in 27 countries since 2010, and our grantees and partners have made great advances in saving lions, leopards, cheetahs and other big cats.  Through programs such as Build a Boma, the Society has aided in the fight to save lions in innovative, effective, and cost-effective ways. BCI has also identified, supported and scaled up funding for some of the best field conservation programs in existence today, such as the efforts of the African People and Wildlife Fund, the Ewaso Lions Project, the Zambia Carnivore ProgramAnne Kent Taylor Conservation Fund and the Ruaha Carnivore Project. But there is much more to do. Please join us in this battle. Visit, learn more, and lend your support today.

Photo Courtesy of Luke Dollar

All photos courtesy of Luke Dollar.

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Meet the Author

Luke Dollar
While his own research focuses on learning about and protecting the fossa, Madagascar's elusive top predator, Luke Dollar has also devoted himself to promoting smart and effective conservation throughout the world. As a part of this larger dedication, he also heads up National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative. Learn More About Luke Dollar and His Work