It’s a big moment for the world’s lions. For the first time, the great cats are being afforded legal protection by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which classifies one subspecies as “endangered” and another as “threatened.”
It’s a moment conservationists have been awaiting for years, as the number of African lions has plummeted to just half of what it was two decades ago. The animals are under assault by poachers, game hunters and farmers who kill them in retaliation for lost cattle. Scientists have said they expect populations to fall by half again in the next 20 years without significant intervention.
The American protections are important because they forbid hunters from bringing the remains of an endangered animal into the U.S. for a trophy. Hunters may apply for a permit to bring the remains of a threatened animal into the country, but the government can reject it if the species’ plight is worsening.
This has been a year of turmoil for the big cats, highlighted by Cecil the lion’s killing by an American hunter in July and the poisoning of a famed pride in Kenya. Retribution killings are on the rise as human expansion prompts greater interaction with lions, which can prey on farm animals that encroach on hunting grounds.
Even the world’s greatest predators are no match for a bullet or a dose of cyanide.
Here are five numbers that put the plight of lions into perspective. No, it’s not all hakuna matata from here on out.
The estimated number of lions remaining in the wild.
There were an estimated 450,000 in the 1940s. Since 1993, the population has been halved.
The number of lions afforded the “endangered” protection by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
There are two subspecies recognized under the new U.S. categorization. Panthera leo leo, also known as the Barbary lion, found in India and western and central Africa, will be classified as endangered. Any imports of lion trophies or parts from these animals will be mostly prohibited into the United States, except “when it can be found that the import will enhance the survival of the species.”
The other protection goes to Panthera leo melanochaita, or the cape lion, located in eastern and southern Africa, which will be listed as “threatened.” There are up to 19,000 of these animals remaining. Hunters will be able to import some trophies and animal parts into the U.S., but these lions will fall under new restrictions in the Endangered Species Act to ensure all animals are obtained legally without significant impact on wild populations.
Lions killed for sport hunting every year, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The number of lions that may end up dead for every male lion legally hunted, poached or killed in retribution.
Lions live in prides dominated by males, which breed with several females to pass on their genes. When a sexually mature male lion is killed, as was the case with Cecil, another lion will often come in and kill all of that animal’s cubs to take over the pride. Depending on the size of the family group, more than a dozen lives could be at risk.
The number of African lions that scientists predict will still be alive in parts of Africa in 40 years.
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