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U.S. Stands Up For Lions In Wake Of Cecil's Death

The Obama administration has finally agreed to protect lions under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a move that could help stem the influx of lion trophies into the U.S. and put a damper on the rapid reduction of wild lion populations.

Lions have lost around 95 percent of their population since the 1940s; there are only around 20,000 left in the wild. Each year big game hunters kill around 600 more, an annual population loss of 2 to 3 percent that's entirely unsustainable, especially when combined with deaths due to poaching and livestock protection.

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Around half of those lions are killed by American hunters, who do it largely so they can import lion heads and other trophies into the U.S. Protecting lions under the ESA would make importing lion parts significantly more difficult, and could dissuade American big game hunters from killing the animals.

The move has long been support by conservation groups and the general public - a Change.org petition asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to list lions under the ESA had nearly 200,000 signatures as of Monday. Public sentiment surrounding the decision was kickstarted by the recent death of Cecil the lion, a pride leader who was illegally shot and killed by an American dentist this summer and became the focus of an international furor over lion hunting - though FWS has said that the decision was unrelated to the incident.

Unfortunately, the decision isn't a total win for lion advocates. Only a small subspecies of lions in western and central Africa with about 1,400 members will be listed as endangered, according to the Associated Press. The larger population, which lives in south and east Africa and includes around 19,000 individuals, will be listed as threatened.

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And while FWS would only issue permits for the bodies of endangered lions in exceptional circumstances, the department will issue permits for the bodies of the threatened lions if the country where the lion was shot uses trophy hunting to aid conservation, according the the Associated Press. While the effectiveness of the conservation programs would have to be scientifically backed, this is still concerning as the arguments for trophy-hunting-as-conservation have been well debunked; countries that use trophy hunting to control wild populations usually end up harming them.

Yet the move is a step forward for lions, as their addition to the ESA comes with a provision that anyone convicted of or who pled guilty to violating wildlife laws at a state or federal level would be ineligible for the lion permits - perhaps a subtle nod to Walter Palmer, the man who killed Cecil, as he had a history of previous hunting violations in the U.S.

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"It has been a very long four years waiting for this decision, with each year seeing more lions slaughtered by hunters for trophies," Adam M. Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA, said in a statement, describing the decision as a victory. "We are hopeful the USFWS will be rigorous when investigating any management plans in lion range states and proposed trophy imports, and that the U.S. government will set the bar incredibly high before allowing any trophies to come in."

"While this falls short of a full ban on lion trophy imports that IFAW would like to have seen, it is still a huge step in the right direction," the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) wrote on Monday.

The U.S. announcement follows France's decision last month to ban the import of all lion heads, paws and skins as trophies. France was the first EU state to do so. Australia issued a similar ban in March.

FWS is expected to announce the details of the changes on Monday.

This post has been updated to include a statement from Adam M. Roberts.