Why do U.S. restaurants keep trying to sell lion meat? This month a Florida restaurant called Taco Fusion put $35 lion tacos on its menu, and a California restaurant called Mokutanya announced $70 lion skewers, its second such promotion in the past year. Public outrage rose up almost immediately, forcing both restaurants to remove the controversial fare from their menus.

Taco Fusion and Mokutanya were not isolated cases. "There have been about 10 incidents in the past two years where restaurants have said they were adding lion meat to their menus for a very short time," says Jeffrey Flocken, North American regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). "All of them have put it forward in kind of a gimmicky, promotional type way. Each time there have been public outcries. I would call it an extremely dangerous way to drum up business."

Although lions have experienced at least a 50 percent population decline over the past three decades, African lions (Panthera leo) are the only big cat species not currently protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). That may change in the near future: Earlier this month the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced an initial status review to see if listing lions under the ESA is warranted. (The species is protected under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which requires signatory nations to get a license before exporting lions or their bodily parts. No import license is required on the other end of the transaction.) An unknown number of African lions, probably numbering in the thousands, currently live in the U.S. in backyard pens, roadside zoos and other less-than-desirable circumstances.

Although lions are increasingly imperiled in their home ranges, many Americans are unaware of the species's plight. People see lions on television and in zoos and assume that the cats must be doing well in the wild. Events like these short-term lion meat sales compound the problem, Flocken says. "We definitely believe that it undermines our conservation efforts, in that it makes it seem like this animal is so populous that people should eat it as a dining choice." Although Flocken doubts the restaurants sourced their lion meat from the wild—it probably comes from those roadside zoos and backyard exotic animal enthusiasts—he says the promotions "send a message that it is okay to eat this animal. If for some reason this became popular or trendy, that would then really impact the wild because it's always cheaper to hunt and kill a lion in the wild than to raise it, slaughter it and get it to the market."

The restaurant sales also illustrate the shady side of the exotic meat market. Many previous sales have claimed the lions were raised and slaughtered humanely and that the meat had been inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). "We have investigated this," Flocken says. "We have called the USDA and we have spoken with investigators at the USDA and the FDA. Every time they have said that they do not inspect lion meat, that it's not part of their remit, and that they have no history of inspecting lion meat."

Although the source of the meat in this month's sales has not yet been disclosed, many of the other restaurants selling lion meat over the past few years have purchased their supplies from a Chicago-area butcher named Czimer's Game & Seafood. Owner Richard Cizmer was convicted in 2003 for selling what he claimed was lion meat but which turned out to be tigers and leopards—which are federally protected under the ESA. He spent six months in prison. "He's back now, and he's back operating this butcher shop in Chicago," Flocken says. "We're finding that most of this meat is going back to him again. Where he's getting his meat, he refuses to say. He says he gets it from a taxidermist and neither he nor the taxidermist will say where it's coming from. We're also wondering, are these diseased animals? Are they surplus animals from roadside zoos or is it part of this strange culture in the U.S. where people have these big cats in private captivity?"

Restaurants aren't the only ones selling lion meat. In addition to Czimer's (whose site says it does not currently have lion available) I found at least one online vendor whose offerings, billed as "American lion," include four ounces of stew meat for $49.99, a lion penis "with set of Rocky Mountain Oysters" for $999.99 (sold out, by the way) and a 10- to 15-pound shoulder roast for $1,999.99. The site also sells lion bones for $999.99 a pound. Lion bones have recently become highly valued on the black market, where they are taking the place of tiger bones in traditional Asian medicine.

IFAW and other organizations are working on a few different fronts to stem this shady trade. The ESA could take care of most of it, because the sale of these products would not be allowed under the act, although the process to get lions listed under the ESA is still in its early stages and could take a few more years. IFAW has also been working with California Reps. Buck McKeon (R) and Loretta Sanchez (D), who last week introduced the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act. If passed, the act would ban private ownership of all big cats—including lions and tigers. The animals currently in private hands would be grandfathered in, but owners would need to register their cats with federal authorities.

"I don't want to exaggerate the restaurant angle," Flocken says, pointing out that habitat loss and American trophy hunters are bigger threats to lions than restaurants. But he notes that the public outcry to restaurant sales comes more from a visceral reaction to the idea of eating a venerated animal, not due to public awareness that lions are threatened with extinction. Unfortunately, as long as that public misperception exists, conserving these increasingly rare cats will remain a constant challenge.

Photo by Angela Huxham. Used under Creative Commons license

Previously in Extinction Countdown: