Cecil the Lion: One of Many – More than 20,000 US-imported lion trophies since 1977

If there’s any possible way that you missed the news, last month, Cecil the lion was killed in Zimbabwe by an avid big game hunter from the United States, Walter Palmer. For whatever reason, Cecil’s killing and the associated aftermath have become a focusing event for the debate over wildlife conservation and trophy hunting.

Cecil was hardly the first lion killed by a trophy hunter from the United States and perhaps an important part of unraveling the complexity of the situation is in understanding the scale and scope of African lion hunting.  Leah Libresco at FiveThirtyEight took at look at CITES data to find out where lion trophies typically end up, and found that most are imported to the United States. I wanted to dig a little deeper into this data, to find out where most of these lions are coming from.

CITES is the international treaty regulating the trade in species among the majority of the world’s nations. The African lion is listed on Appendix II of the treaty. Species on this appendix are not thought to be immediately threatened with extinction as a result of international trade, but are monitored for changes that may lead to their detriment. Trading species on this appendix only requires a permit from the exporting country. The African lion was listed on CITES Appendix II in 1977.

To focus just on lions imported as a result of hunting, I limited my search of the CITES trade database to imports whose purpose was listed as “Hunting Trophy”, “Personal”, or imports without a listed purpose. A term lists the form in which the animal is imported, and I focused my search on “trophies”, “bodies”, “skins”, “skulls”, “heads”, and “skeletons”. I didn’t focus on other derivative parts such as bones, claws, or teeth since it would be difficult to estimate a total number of lions killed using these counts. The exporter and importer reported quantity of items traded occasionally differ, and in these instances, I used the larger of the two. Finally, the origin of the trophy was either the origin as reported by CITES, or the exporting country in cases when no origin was listed.

Since 1977, more than 20,000 lion trophies have been imported to the US. More than 95% of these trophies have come from just five countries – South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana. Both Zambia and Botswana banned trophy hunting in 2013 though Zambia’s ban has since been lifted. Since 2006, the total number of trophies has averaged nearly 900 annually.

It’s worth asking whether lions can endure any hunting at all. Lion populations were estimated to total only 32,000 continent-wide in 2012. There are obvious welfare implications for any form of hunting, but the shift to captive-bred lion hunting presents a whole other set of welfare concerns. —GW


Do you see any mistakes? Please tell me. Are you interested in collaborating? I would be happy to provide policy research, analysis, and advocacy for your organization. Please email me at gwigtil@gmail.com

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