World Lion Day, the African Lion and CITES

Stephen Wiggins Article 6 Comments

World Lion Day_10 August 2016

On the 10 August, it will be World Lion Day……so what events can we look forward to that gives us hope that this iconic species can survive in the wild for future generations to see and enjoy?

In September this year, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), will host the Conference of Parties (CoP17) in Johannesburg, South Africa.

CITES CoP17 Logo

There is a proposal to transfer all African populations of the African lion (Panthera leo) from Appendix II to Appendix I. This is not the first time that ‘Uplisting’ the African lion has been proposed at CITES, but hopefully this time there is more commitment and resonance to the proposal.

What do the hunters think of ‘Uplisting’ the African lion to Appendix I?

Predictably, the Safari Club International (SCI) (and others) don’t want to acknowledge that wild Panthera leo populations are in any sort of crisis that warrants change (and the negative fallout that might have on hunters continuing to kill lions for trophies unimpeded).

The SCI has stated (28 July 2016) that:

“……an Appendix I listing for lions is not warranted because none of the three basic listing criteria for Appendix I are met” (see Resolution Conf. 9.24 (Rev CoP16), “Criteria for amendment of Appendices I and II ).

So let’s take a look at the SCI’s ‘thinking’ on Panthera leo…….


1. “The wild population is not small” – Safari Club International (SCI)

The Criteria for amendment of Appendices I and II states that a species meets the criteria for Appendix I if:

A. The wild population is small, and is characterized by at least one of the following:

i) an observed, inferred or projected decline in the number of individuals or the area and quality of habitat;

ii) each subpopulation being very small;

iii) a majority of individuals being concentrated geographically during one or more life-history phases;

iv) large short-term fluctuations in population size; or

v) a high vulnerability to either intrinsic or extrinsic factors.

Well of course any judgment on a ‘small’ population or otherwise is subjective – the CITES “Criteria for amendment of Appendices I and II” – Annex 5 definition gives guidance:

The judgement that a wild population is small is taxon-specific and can be justified by a number of considerations, for example the population of a related taxonomic group. For some low-productivity species where data exist to make an estimate, a figure of less than 5,000 individuals has been found to be an appropriate guideline (not a threshold) of what constitutes a small wild population, but the number could be higher for higher productivity species. However, this figure is presented only as an example, since it is impossible to give numerical values that are applicable to all taxa. There will be many cases where this numerical guideline does not apply.

The Panthera leo is considered to have a high reproductive rate (when conditions permit), so “5,000” and “low-productivity species” does not apply. So what is a ‘small’ population for the African Lion? 40,000? 20,000? 10,000?………we’ll have to see what the CITES’ CoP17 decides.

But, in the case of Panthera leo, there is certainly evidence(4, 5, 6, 9) to support the argument that there is indeed a case to ‘Uplist’ to Appendix I in accordance with “Criteria for amendment of Appendices I and II” guidance:

  • an observed, inferred or projected decline in the number of individuals or the area and quality of habitat” – A. i):

Panthera leo has declined as a wild species at an alarming rate, from an overall population of some 450,000 in the 1940s to a 2014 estimate of as low as 18,726 (Bauer and van der Merwe (2004), a 96% implied decline – Ref. “Threats to Panthera Leo“_Table 2

1900 – up to 1 million

1940s – 450,000

1980s – 100,000

1990s – 50,000

2015 – as few as 20,000 officially classed as ‘Vulnerable’ with the West African population ‘Critically Endangered(6).’

However, the bottom line is, no one really knows how many lions are left – the best guess estimates (Ref. “Threats to Panthera Leo“_Table 1 and 2) of lion population number are just that, guesstimates (and not very recent ones at that, based on past census data and extrapolations), with key sub-population monitoring data pointing to steep declines between 1993 and 2014:

Botswana             -26% (based on the 46% decline of the largest sub-population in Okavango)

Kenya                   -40%

Tanzania              -66%

Zambia                 -28%

Only four Southern African countries have bucked this trend*: Botswana (Kwando/Chobe + 84%, Makgadikgadi +121%, but Okavango -46%), Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Together, these four nations are home to an estimated 24-33% of Africa’s lions. Here, lion numbers have increased by 12%. But much of this gain, especially in South Africa, is the result of reintroductions into fenced*, intensively managed and relatively well-funded reserves—a scenario not replicable for most of the remaining lion range.

* Of the 23 southern African lion populations examined, 15 are fenced – all but two (Etosha NP in Namibia and Kruger NP in South Africa) are heavily managed and to some extent artificial – see notes at 3. below.

  • each subpopulation being very small” – A. ii):

A sub-population of less than 500 is considered unsustainable, because of the potential for genetic mutation through in-breeding:

A population of 500 is widely considered the minimum population size (Packer et al., 2011) to sustain an adequate gene pool, and/or survive other overbearing threats, or stochastic events having a potentially devastating impact on the population

Sub-populations of less than 500 are evident across many African countries (where populations are even known) – Ref. “Threats to Panthera Leo“_Table 1 and/or IUCN  15951_Panthera_leo_2016-1.pdf.

  • large short-term fluctuations in population size” – A. iv):

Panthera leo has declined as a wild species at an alarming rate, from an overall population of some 450,000 in the 1940s to a 2014 estimate of as low as 18,726 (a 96% implied decline) – Ref. “Threats to Panthera Leo“_Table 2

  • a high vulnerability to either intrinsic or extrinsic factors” – A. v):

Habitat loss – For human needs for agriculture and livestock. As the human population increase (particularly in Africa) this will no doubt place more pressure on habitat, then the economics of hunting reserves and protected areas will become more strained. This ‘shift’ has been evidenced by the reported buying up of African lands by the Chinese for future agricultural growth, but the full potential extent of Africa’s ‘green revolution’ is yet to fully materialise and negatively contribute to habitat loss.

Loss of Prey Base – Commercial hunting of the lion’s natural prey to supply “bush-meat” for human consumption is on the increase. This ‘hunting’ shows little regard for wildlife, with indiscriminate snares widely used and seemingly accepted. This ‘hunting’ drives the lion to roam wider in search of prey, potentially the lion targets livestock thereby increasing the occurrence of human-lion conflict.

Human-lion conflict – As human activities encroach ever closer to hunting and protected areas (and even encroachment that is sanctioned, or otherwise onto protected areas), this brings with it conflict, as livestock herds become lion prey. In retaliation, either herdsmen directly seek to poison lions, or hunting concessions are granted to help ‘eradicate’ the lion threat on lands where such conflicts occur.

Disease – As habitat is lost, lions are brought into closer contact with humans and domestic animals, which can present new diseases to the lion’s immune system. Lions can be susceptible to one-off, stochastic events that can have enough of an impact in terms of numbers lost to devastate small lion populations. For example, in Serengeti in 1994, an outbreak of morbillivirus (a strain linked to domestic dogs carrying canine distemper virus (CDV)) killed 35% of the Mara Lion Conservation Unit (Roelke-Parker et al. 1996).

In 2016, an outbreak of Tuberculosis (TB) killed wildlife in Kruger National Park, including lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs, honey badgers, mongooses, warthogs, kudu, nyala, bushbuck and rhinos.

Plus, smaller lion sub-populations enhance the chances of inbreeding and genetic deficiencies that potentially make recent generations more susceptible to disease.

Trade Panthera leo is known to be in trade, and trade has or may have a detrimental impact on the status of the species in contradiction of “Criteria for amendment of Appendices I and II” – Annex 5 – (Ref. Proposal 04).


2. “The species does not have a restricted area of distribution” – Safari Club International (SCI)

The ‘area of distribution’ of a species is defined as the area contained within the shortest continuous imaginary boundary which can be drawn to encompass all the known, inferred or projected sites of occurrence, excluding cases of vagrancy and introductions outside its natural range (though inferring and projecting area of occurrence should be undertaken carefully, and in a precautionary manner). The area within the imaginary boundary should, however, exclude significant areas where the species does not occur, and so, in defining an area of distribution, account should be taken of discontinuities or disjunctions in the spatial distribution of species. This encompasses the concept of area of occupancy. For migratory species, the area of distribution is the smallest area essential at any stage for the survival of that species (e.g. colonial nesting sites, feeding sites for migratory taxa, etc.). The determination that a species has a restricted area of distribution is taxon-specific and should take into account considerations such as habitat specificity, population density and endemism” – “Criteria for amendment of Appendices I and II”

“Criteria for amendment of Appendices I and II” states that a species meets the criteria for Appendix I if:

B. The wild population has a restricted area of distribution and is characterized by at least one of the following:

i) fragmentation or occurrence at very few locations;

ii) large fluctuations in the area of distribution or the number of subpopulations;

iii) a high vulnerability to either intrinsic or extrinsic factors; or

iv) an observed, inferred or projected decrease in any one of the following:

– the area of distribution;

– the area of habitat;

– the number of subpopulations;

– the number of individuals;

– the quality of habitat; or

– the recruitment.

Well, Panthera leo certainly meets B. i), ii), iii) (with habitat loss, disease etc. ) and iv) through undisputable decreased habitat/range:

Lions now occupy only about 8% of their historical range (which once spanned an area of over 13 million km2) and are reported to have already vanished from 12 African countries, with possible recent disappearance in another four countries. Moreover, little is known about the lions of Angola, Central African Republic, Somalia and South Sudan where civil conflict and poorly funded or maintained PAs are suspected to have driven steep declines. African lions are classified as Vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. However, the lions of West Africa are considered Critically Endangered, having lost nearly 99% of their historical range and with just 400 individuals (including large cubs and sub-adults—fewer than 250 are adults). Of these 400, 350 are in a single subpopulation, W-Arly-Pendjari (WAP) complex, which spans Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger. West African, Central African and Asiatic lions are genetically similar and likely comprise a separate subspecies (Panthera leo leo) from the East and Southern African lion (Panthera leo melanochaita). Only six countries unequivocally harbour more than 1,000 wild lions: Tanzania and Kenya in East Africa, and Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe in Southern Africa” – “Green With Envy,” SATIB Conservation Trust Newsletter, Edition 7 – 2016

African Lion Populations_Range

Figure 1 – African Lion Populations and Distribution


3. “The species has not experienced a marked decline of 50% or more in the last three generations” – Safari Club International (SCI)

“Criteria for amendment of Appendices I and II” states that a species meets the criteria for Appendix I if:

C. A marked decline in the population size in the wild, which has been either:

i) observed as ongoing or as having occurred in the past (but with a potential to resume); or

ii) inferred or projected on the basis of any one of the following:

– a decrease in area of habitat;

– a decrease in quality of habitat;

– levels or patterns of exploitation;

– a high vulnerability to either intrinsic or extrinsic factors; or

– a decreasing recruitment.

Again the “50%” quoted by SCI is not a fixed parameter – “Criteria for amendment of Appendices I and II” – Annex 5 gives guidance:

A general guideline for a marked recent rate of decline is a percentage decline of 50% or more in the last 10 years or three generations, whichever is the longer. If the population is small, a percentage decline of 20% or more in the last 5 years or 2 generations (whichever is the longer) may be more appropriate. However, these figures are presented only as examples, since it is impossible to give numerical values that are applicable to all taxa because of differences in their biology.

The IUCN’s 2015 Red List assessment of Panthera leo (Bauer et al. 2015a) details serious declines in lion populations across much of their African range. According to the assessment, which is based on 47 well monitored lion populations, lion numbers are inferred to have declined by 43% from 1993 – 2014 (approximately 3 lion generations)” – (Ref. Proposal 04).

So, Panthera leo has been acknowledged as declining by 43% (1993 – 2014) in the last three generations, but for the SCI that’s just not bad enough! Clearly, a 43% decline meets C., i) criteria and habitat loss (outlined above) meets C. ii) criteria.

However, the IUCN’s Red List (2014 assessment, Published 2016)  of Panthera leo, used to derive the 43% decline, would appear to rely “heavily on a single publication by Craig Packer and dozens of other co-authors in a 2013 paper entitled “Conserving large carnivores: dollars and fence” (Ecology Letters 16(5): 635-641)” – IUCN Lion Report Raises Questions,” by Dr Pieter Kat (LionAid), Annamiticus, 3 August 2016

Furthermore, the above referenced piece postulates that of the 23 southern African lion populations examined, 15 are fenced:

Of those 15 fenced populations, all but two (Etosha NP in Namibia and Kruger NP in South Africa) are heavily managed and to some extent artificial“…….”By excluding the fenced populations (but leaving in Etosha and Kruger as large and natural areas), the population numbers” would indicate “a decline in numbers of 9% rather than an increase of 8% for southern Africa.”  In other words, “if those fenced populations were excluded from the continent-wide analysis, the inferred decline from 1993 would have been 49% as admitted by the IUCN – pretty close to the 50% decline “needed” to place lions on the Endangered list” IUCN Lion Report Raises Questions,” by Dr Pieter Kat (LionAid), Annamiticus, 3 August 2016

The IUCN appear to agree with Dr. Pieter Kat’s analysis:

…the Red List Guidelines are ambiguous as to the inclusion or exclusion of fenced areas. Their exclusion from the analysis would raise the inferred Lion decline rate to 49%. Following through on our supposition that unmonitored Lion populations have undergone an even higher rate than our monitored sample, this could potentially have been interpreted as a suspected rate of decline over 50%, qualifying the Lion as Endangered” – IUCN’s Red List assessment of Panthera leo

But, the IUCN ‘chose’ to include fenced areas regardless:

However, we did not exclude fenced populations from our assessment….We consider that management of Lions in the concerned areas aims to mimic natural processes, aims to retain adaptive potential and follows a meta-population management approach. We further consider that fences have been documented as effective tools in Lion conservation (Packer et al. 2013). We find this sufficient justification for inclusion of these reserves” – IUCN’s Red List assessment of Panthera leo

Panthera leo has no doubt declined as a wild species at an alarming rate, from an overall population of some 450,000 in the 1940s to a 2014 estimate of as low as 18,726 (a 96% implied decline – Ref. “Threats to Panthera Leo“_Table 2) – does this not say that the current ‘approach’ is not working, or do we have to wait for the next CoP to understand that unless urgent action is taken, the decline is irreversible (regardless of whether it’s 50%, or 43% over the last three generations, the trend is clear)?

While lion populations have declined, international trade in lion specimens has increased markedly in recent years. Data from the CITES Trade Database on trade in lions and parts and products derived from them for the ten – year period 2005 – 2014 reveal a total of 29,214 lion items declared to have been exported by 102 Parties, 19 of which are range States. 11,164 of these items were declared to have been derived from wild lions (CITES Trade Database 2015).

How Could an Appendix I Listing Help?

Currently, Panthera leo is only listed under CITES Appendix II. Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.

An Appendix I listing includes species threatened with extinction whose trade is permitted only under exceptional circumstances, which generally precludes commercial trade of any kind. The import of specimens (both live and dead, as well as parts and products) of an Appendix I species generally requires the issuance of both an import and export permit under CITES. Import permits are issued only if findings are made that the import would be for purposes that are not detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild and that the specimen will not be used for primarily commercial purposes.

Therefore, this CITES Appendix I approach would force all 181 parties to CITES (that did not opt out) to comply with ensuring any lion trophy import was derived from a sustainable source dedicated to conservation of the species. This would help dictate (as per the USFWS’s intentions on behalf of the United States) that hunting quotas and hunting rules are in accordance with current thinking (such as “off-take” age restrictions etc.). Of course, this does not ensure compliance, but any country that wants to promote and sustain a ‘reputable’ lion hunting industry would eventually find market forces dictating compliance:

An Appendix I listing would reduce the impacts of international trade on the species, strengthen domestic protection by permitting stronger penalties for illegal trade, encourage further international efforts (including access to resources) to protect the species, offer opportunities to increase public awareness of the threats facing the species, and provide greater impetus for the implementation of national and regional conservation strategies” – (Ref. Proposal 04).

Would an Appendix I listing mean that wild lion population numbers will be enhanced? Well it will certainly make lion trophy hunting (and ‘canned’ lion breeding) far less attractive (due to trophy import and lion ‘product’ export restrictions). This market demand for lion trophies is predominantly from the United States, so the USFWS imposed restrictions from January 2016 are already having a significant impact, but Appendix I listing would mean all other nation signatories to CITES would be obliged to also make similar restrictions (unless that want to face the shame of opting out).

Thus an Appendix I listing would in turn make many hunting concessions within Panthera Leo’s range States commercially unviable, because most concessions owners, or leasing operators rely very heavily on hunters wanting to kill lions, but tagging on a few other wildlife kills (ie water buffalo) whilst they are at it for extra income/profit.

So, yes, an Appendix I listing would certainly reduce the overhunting(4, 5) of Panthera leo, but at the same time this species faces many other threats to its survival from mankind’s activities; taking away the lions’ prey base (bush-meat trade) and humans encroaching evermore onto the lion’s territory, both making human/lion conflict far more prevalent.

There is an argument that lion trophy hunting has protected (to some extent) lion habitat (the hunters’ main ‘conservation’ claim), but at the same time over-hunting has declined lion population numbers to the point where some sub-populations have been devastated(4, 5, 6).

So, there’s not much point continuing with protecting habitat, but not the key inhabitants. Regardless, trying to fund any kind of non-altruistic endeavour based upon ‘sacrificing a few to save the many’ is unethical – if such an approach was applied to funding human poverty relief for example, it would be rightly condemned. So why should such an approach be ‘ethical’/acceptable when applied to other species and everyone somehow pretends that it is OK?

What Happens if Panthera leo is ‘Uplisted’ to Appendix I?

The questions are if Panthera leo is ‘Uplisted’ to Appendix I:

  1. Will wild Panthera leo habitat be protected? The answer has to be yes. There is an enormous, non-invasive demand to view iconic wildlife for photo-tourism. Any country that once profited from lion trophy hunting will have to adopt (some already have) a new strategy to protect lions for general tourism income (rather than also seeking to profit from lion killing and hoping the killing would somehow remain sustainable, which it clearly has not);
  2. Will an Appendix I listing help curtail the massive ‘trade’ in lion product to Asia for nonsensical status symbols, such as the use of lion bones as a substitute in ‘Tiger Bone Wine?’ Well, it might help shut down the side line in lion body parts emanating out of South Africa’s ‘canned’ predator breeding industry for example. But, the tiger has been CITES Appendix I listed and that has not curtailed the abuse of the species for China’s ‘demand’ and exploitation of tigers in cramped, poorly housed conditions in China, with the ‘market’ supplemented by poached wild tigers as well. So, it depends on enforcement, compliance, world ‘acceptance’ with any Appendix I listing in the first place;

At the moment, my home country, the United Kingdom (UK) currently implements CITES regulation through European Union (EU) regulations and laws. With the UK’s forthcoming exit from the EU (‘Brexit’) then implementation of CITES regulations in my own country will become distanced from the EU’s block approach in time. But for the forthcoming CoP17,  hopefully the UK and EU have reached consensus to back the proposal to ‘Uplist’  the African lion (Panthera leo).

Public opinion is overwhelmingly against trophy hunting – pandering to the desires of a minority is no longer in the long term interest of any lion hosting nation (unless of course certain key Government Officials in range States which to maintain their immoral and corrupt income(4, 5, 8) from unsustainable lion trophy hunting?).

Time to change is long overdue…..


  1. CITES Issue African Lion,” Safari Club International (SCI), 28 July 2016
  2. Criteria for amendment of Appendices I and II” – Resolution Conf. 9.24 (Rev. CoP16)
  3. Consideration of the Proposals for Amendment of Appendices I and II (Panthera Leo)” – CoP17 Prop. 4 – Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, the Niger, Nigeria and Togo
  4. Review of Panthera Leo from the United Republic of Tanzania and from Zambia,” UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), Technical Report, August 2015
  5. How Do We Save Panthera Leo?” IWB, 5 January 2016
  6. Are Lion Hunting Quotas Based on Science?” IWB, 17 December 2015
  7. TB Killing Kruger Park Wildlife,” The Times, 4 January 2016
  8. Lions in the Balance,” Craig Packer, University of Chicago Press (2015), ISBN-13: 978-0-226-09295-9
  9. Green With Envy,” SATIB Conservation Trust Newsletter, Edition 7 – 2016
  10. Threats to Panthera Leo” Tables 1 and 2, IWB, Draft 03
  11. IUCN Lion Report Raises Questions,” Dr Pieter Kat, LionAid, Annamiticus, 3 August 2016
  12. IUCN’s Red List assessment of Panthera leo, Assessed 19 June 2014, Published 2016

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