The Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing the status of the African lion for possible listing under the endangered species act. This decision was made in response to a petition filed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and other conservation groups. As Jeffrey Flocken of IFAW explained at the Huffington Post, the petition argues that ESA protections are necessary to protect the carnivorous predators from sport hunting. Much of the discussion of the lion is an emotional appeal. In the Washington Post, a professor who studied the lion argues that the public can get behind listing the African lion because “lions are the kind of ‘animal cracker animals’ everyone has revered since childhood.” Mr. Flocken calls for “everyone who loves big cats” to “show your courage” for the lion and points to an IFAW-commissioned poll that allegedly shows that “89.8 percent of of Americans support the U.S. government in taking actions to prevent trophy hunting of African lions.” Based on that poll, another spokesman of IFAW claims that “[t]here is a lot of smoke and confusion about hunting being all about conservation. Step back and think that through. It’s a sport and thankfully, as this survey shows, the vast majority of people now get that.”
But it’s not so simple. While the ESA can frustrate domestic conservation efforts by punishing property owners, when applied to foreign species, it could hamstring entrepreneurial efforts to solve the endangered species problem. The effect of protecting the species under the ESA will be to ban importation and trade of the lion. As the Washington Post story explains, the revenue stream from hunting the lion creates a disincentive to convert habitat to other uses. Dr. Luke Hunter of Panthera — a conservation group dedicated to protecting wild cats — responded on the Huffington Post:
Which is why I’m not happy about the ESA petition. If American hunters, by far the largest market for big game safaris in Africa, can no longer hunt, lions and other wildlife will probably lose out. As unpalatable as it may be, until we find alternative mechanisms to generate the hard cash required to protect wilderness in Africa, hunting remains the most convincing model for many wild areas.
Let me state it again; I think sport hunting big cats is repellent and I would welcome its demise. But my personal distaste for hunting won’t help lions if shutting it down removes protection from African wilderness. Whatever one’s personal feeling, hunting should be regarded as yet another tool in the arsenal of options we must consider if we are to conserve the lion.
Interestingly, the petition discussed the presence of African lions in Namibia, but relied on evidence of declining numbers during the 1980s and 1990s. However, Namibia fundamentally reformed its approach to endangered species protection in 1998 by giving local property owners and communities property rights in the species. The petition doesn’t even mention this reform.