Lion Hunting Trophy Imports

Stephen Wiggins Article 2 Comments

Banner image – courtesy of Mwana – Kanimambo Creations

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Service Director Dan Ashe has recently announced (20 October 2016) that the United States will no longer permit the import of lion trophies from captive hunts in South Africa.


Melissa Bachman poses with the lion she ‘hunted’. Photo: Melissa Bachman via Facebook.

This follows on from the USFWS listing of sub-species of the African lion onto the Endangered Species Act (ESA), January 2016, but it has taken some time to clarify the application. Writing in the Huffington Post (“A Major step forward for lion conservation in Africa,” Huffington Post, 20 October 2016), Ashe stated:

Beginning today, the United States will not allow the import of lion trophies taken from captive lion populations in South Africa. While U.S. law has not prohibited such imports in the past, the protections now afforded to lions by the ESA do not allow us to issue import permits……….. We cannot and will not allow trophies into the United States from any nation whose lion conservation program fails to meet key criteria for transparency, scientific management and effectiveness

However, it is not all good news as Ashe also stated that “wild” South African lions would not be spared:

We have determined that sport hunting of wild and wild-managed lions does contribute to the long-term conservation of the species in South Africa, thanks to the effective management program overseen by South Africa’s Ministry of Environmental Affairs. As a result, we will allow the import of lion trophies taken with the authorization of the South African government from wild or wild-managed populations………..We have also received applications from U.S. hunters that hunted or will be hunting in four other African nations – Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe – for permits to import sport-hunted lion trophies. We are evaluating the sport hunting programs in those countries and will only approve those applications if we receive sufficient evidence of long-term benefits to wild lions resulting from those programs

What exactly is a “wild-managed” population? Presumably, this encompasses South Africa’s fenced lion populations (of between 2,000 – 2,500), so can we expect their “off-take” to now rise in response?

South Africa’s first Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP) for the African Lion, 7 April 2015 (Gazette No. 38706), seeks to encourage the trade in lion bones and recommends that wild lion populations should be downgraded from the current IUCN status of “Vulnerable” to “Least Concern” in South Africa, mainly because of the ‘stability’ offered by all the 7,000 ‘canned’ lions held in the 200 odd ‘canned’ farms across South Africa. However, if wild lion populations are to be increasingly “harvested” to maintain hunting income, then a census of South Africa’s lions needs to take place.

South Africa’s justification for reducing lion protections is based on bad science. Their Department of Environmental Affairs claims that there are about 1,600 mature individual lions in South Africa, and that when the population tops 1,500, the IUCN’s Red List should change the status of the species. But any recent lion population data is clearly missing for any scientific based decisions to be made.

The last lion survey was done in Kruger National Park in 2005 – nearly 11 years ago. According to Dr. Pieter Kat of LionAid, “you cannot use [that data] in any management plan as it is well beyond the ‘sell by’ date.” And the Management Plan itself admits that truly “wild” lions (those outside of protected reserves) have not been studied at all. Until more research takes place, there just isn’t the science available to make sound decisions regarding the management of wild lions in South Africa.

In terms of the other countries stated as under review by the USFWS (based upon IUCN Red List and “Review of panthera leo from Tanzania and Zambia,” UNEP/WCMC Technical Report, August 2015):

Mozambique – Lion overall population is unknown (but with some 1,200 lions in one sub-population reported). Males only to be ‘shot’ of 6 years old+ believed to have been introduced as a hunting guideline (but hard to implement in the field), but a full lion conservation strategy commitment is still due (as far as I am aware);

Namibia – Holds only around 700 lions, so any hunting quota’s sustainability looks dubious;

Zambia – Based upon Defra’s, 26 May 2016 reply, the EU’s Scientific Review Group (SRG) has permitted (though its reasoning remains opaque) lion hunting trophies to be imported into the EU from 2016. The Netherlands and France have maintained their bans, as has Australia, the United Kingdom/Defra is yet to implement its promised ban on lion trophy imports from Zambia. Zambia has set a hunting quota of 24 lions (2016/17) from a known population of perhaps just 307 – 465 lions. This population is based on the EU’s own assessment of Zambia’s lion population in Kafue (Midlane et al., 2015), South Luangwa (Rosenblatt et al., 2014) and Lower Zambezi (Becker et al., 2013), when Zambian Government/Authorities failed to reply to UNEP-WCMC (2015) on how they had arrived at their ‘estimates’ of 1,500 – 2,500 lions. Also refer to LionAid’s article, 30 August 2016;

Zimbabwe – Holds a lion population of about 700 lions, many (500) within the Bubye Valley Conservancy – Update: Ref: “The great emptiness is upon us” (Oxpeckers, 7 November 2016) – Zimbabwe ’empty’ of leopard and lions still being baited out of the relative safety of Hwange National Park to be shot by trophy hunters:

“…..the wild lions of the Lower Dete Valley have also been wiped out, and hunting outfits now rely on baiting lions out of Hwange to satisfy their clients. “The illegal hunting is much worse than before Cecil’s death” – Anonymous professional hunter quoted in “The great emptiness is upon us.

Zimbabwe certainly has problems with ‘sustainable’ trophy hunting of Cape buffalo, elephant, greater kudu and sable antelope populations of the Matetsi Safari Area in the northwest of the country. Critically, the referenced October 2016 paper (PLOS ONE) concludes that hunting quotas with Zimbabwe are not based on science;  Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) is confronted with the dual task of generating revenue, while simultaneously playing “the regulatory role in trophy hunting and wildlife conservation issues in Zimbabwe” – a clear contradiction that does nothing to say conservation of wildlife, or ‘sustainable’ wildlife utilisation is a key driver within ZPWMA.

1. There is some concern on a couple of issues that makes the USFWS assessment of any given import permit for a lion trophy open to potential abuse. CITES permits for any trophy are issued with a “source code” indicating if the source was wild (“W”), captive (“D”, “C”, or “F” – ref CITES Glossary), or other. However, as Pieter Kat (LionAid) has recently highlighted on a facebook (Animal Advocacy) closed group post, the ‘source code’ is not a reliable marker:

For example, in 2014 South Africa exported 1,150 lion trophies. South Africa listed 804 of those trophies as “captive bred” – originating from the canned lion breeding industry – but also listed the remaining 346 trophies as “wild”. No way possible. South Africa does not allow much hunting of wild lions. Perhaps 10 per year are made available on quotas around Kruger National Park and the Kalahari National Park. Meaning that all the rest are source code violations – Ref. LionAid’s facebook page

Does such CITES ‘violations’ provide confidence that the source of any lion trophy the US Customs/USFWS is being asked to consider for import (particularly from South Africa) can be confidently assessed for “for transparency, scientific management and effectiveness” when the trophy’s source is a potential lie? 

2. When it comes to assessing the effectiveness of the merit of any lion trophy and its proven link to a positive contribution to a lion conservation programme, what does this mean? Is there simply an opportunity for the hunter to make out a cheque for a ‘lion conservation programme’ that somehow is supposed to offset the lion trophy taken (regardless of source) to provide “evidence of the hunts benefiting the long-term survival of the species in the wild?” However, these potential loop-holes are under intense scrutiny:

  • Any lion conservation group purporting to be in the business of protecting wild lions that is accepting such blood money, will if necessary, be outed and no doubt ostracised;
  • The USFWS have been made aware of the potential falsification of a given hunting trophy’s source and the potential attempt that some will make to “offset” their kill with a cheque book donation.

3. Of course ‘captive’ bred lions, means ‘canned,’ or “ranch” – the latter is a non-legally binding ‘differentiator’ attempt perpetuated by the SAPA (reference Myth 8 in the linked article) and should not be confused with CITES own definition of ‘Ranching.’ So, the USFWS’ ruling on lion trophy imports covers all ‘captive’ bred lions. The South African Supreme Court of Appeal ruled (“The Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) of South Africa Judgement,” Case No. 72/10, 29 November 2010) in November 2010 that ‘since no captive-bred lions have ever been released back into the wild, then lion farming had nothing to do with conservation’ – no ‘captive’ bred lion (‘canned,’ or “ranch” [sic]) has any conservation value even within South Africa’s own legal rulings, let alone an outsider’s trophy import assessment.


It is encouraging (a view shared by Blood Lions et al.) that formal steps are being taken to clarify the lack of social and moral acceptance of ‘captive’ big cat breeding, that has no conservation value.

The ‘captive’ industry serves no other purpose than to make money for ‘captive’ entrepreneurs (and their advocates), serving a twisted market’s notion of ‘hunting’ and at the same time fuelling (and profiting from) a nonsensical demand/trade for big cat bones in Asia.

The assessment of the conservation value of lion hunting trophies from other countries (based upon Zambia’s example) appears to be somewhat clouded, but no doubt the need for income and intense lobbying from pro-trade/pro-hunting advocates are at the epi-centre of it.

Further Reading:

Bank says no finance to captive lion trade,” Azizzar Mosupi, Times Live, 26 October 2016

Unsportsmanlike Trophies,” Edward Flattau, The Huffington Post, 27 October 2016

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