lionThe African lion (Panthera leo leo) faces the threat of extinction by the year 2050, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe warned today. The sobering news came as part of the agency's announcement that it has officially proposed that African lions receive much-needed protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The decision to list the big cats as threatened—one level below endangered—would allow the U.S. government to provide some level of training and assistance for on-the-ground conservation efforts and restrict the sale of lion parts or hunting trophies into the country or across state lines.

The total population of lions in Africa is currently estimated at about 34,000 animals, down by at least 50 percent from three decades ago. Those numbers, however, tell only part of the story. As Ashe pointed out during a press conference today, about 70 percent of the remaining lions—24,000 cats—live in just 10 "stronghold" regions in southern and eastern Africa. Lions in other regions, such as West Africa, have been almost completely wiped out.

FWS identified three main threats currently facing lions: habitat loss, loss of their prey base to the bushmeat trade, and human-lion conflict. All three threats are inexorably linked. The human population of sub-Saharan Africa is expected to double by the year 2050, which will result in more conversion of habitat to agriculture, more hunting of the wild ungulates the lions depend upon for prey, and more instances of hungry lions attacking livestock and then being killed in retaliation. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), retaliatory or preemptive attacks against lions are the worst threats the species faces. The IUCN lists African lions as a whole as vulnerable to extinction.

Lions do face another major threat: sport hunting. The proposal to protect lions comes in response to a 2011 petition from five conservation groups, who revealed that hunting occurs in 16 of the 20 countries in which lions remain and that the number of lion trophies imported back into the U.S. by American hunters doubled between 1999 and 2008. The official FWS position, however, iterated today by Ashe, is that sports hunting does not contribute to lions being endangered, especially when revenues from these hunts support lion conservation efforts. This is consistent with other hunting-as-conservation positions taken by FWS, including last year's decision to allow a hunter to import a black rhino trophy into the U.S. for the first time in 33 years.

Still, Jeff Flocken, North American regional director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare—one of the groups backing the original petition—calls the FWS announcement "very significant." Although Endangered Species Act protection would not block American hunters from traveling to Africa to hunt lions, the proposal does establish a new permitting process that would require any hunters importing lion trophies back to the U.S. to apply for and receive a permit first. These permits, Ashe said, would only be granted if the lion were taken from a scientifically proven hunting program that actually helps lion populations and if the number of lions taken by hunters is sustainable.

Flocken says the new permit process could "quickly and easily" help to minimize the threat that hunters pose to African lions by identifying trophies that come from areas where lions are more at risk—or from "canned hunts," in which captive-raised lions are shot in controlled situations. "The permit system will allow the U.S. government to monitor and evaluate the trophies that are coming in," Flocken says.

Ashe called today's announcement an opportunity for awareness about the challenges that wildlife faces worldwide as human population dramatically increases. He added that this was a chance for optimism: "We can be successful here," he said. "We can change the course of events. The U.S. has great experience in wildlife management and hopefully we'll be able to bring that to bear in working with our African partners."

The proposal to list lions as threatened will be published in the Federal Register on October 29, after which the public will have 90 days to submit comments.

Photo: A lion photographed in South Africa's Kruger National Park by Michael Jansen. Used under Creative Commons license