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African Lion Poised for Threatened Species Status

WASHINGTON (CN) - The majestic African lion has been proposed for threatened species status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), with a special exemption for trophy hunting under certain circumstances.

The listing proposal was prompted by a petition filed by six animal protection groups, according to the action published Wednesday.

The main threats to the lions are habitat loss, loss of prey and increased human-lion interactions resulting from livestock kills and retaliatory lion kills by humans, according to the action. The lions target livestock because their natural prey is hunted at "unsustainable levels" by a growing human population. Sport hunting of the lions was not found to be a threat at this time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in its press release.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), in conjunction with the Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society International, the Born Free Foundation/ Born Free USA, Defenders of Wildlife and the Fund for Animals, petitioned the USFWS in March 2011 to list the African lion as an endangered species.

The agency determined that an endangered listing status, meaning they are currently in danger of extinction, was not warranted at this time, but agreed that the lions are in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future, which is the definition of a threatened species under the ESA.

The animal welfare coalition maintains that sport hunting is a major factor in the decline of the big cats. "African lion populations have decreased by more than half in the last 30 years, with potentially fewer than 32,000 left in the wild. Given the drastic declines, we forced the agency to consider how trophy hunting is contributing to the deteriorating population numbers," Jeffrey Flocken, Regional Director of the North America branch of the IFAW was quoted as saying in the group's response to the listing proposal.

Despite the USFWS' assertion that sport hunting is not a contributing cause of the lion's decline, coalition members noted that the proposed Section 4(d) exemption rule under the ESA that would require permits for importing lion trophies into the United States would only be issued to countries that have a sound management plan for the animals. "A strong permitting system is critical because the U.S. imports over half of the hundreds of lion trophies brought home by trophy hunters globally each year," the Born Free Foundation said in its response to the proposal.

Section 4(d) rules allow harm to threatened species under certain conditions. The exemption is not allowed for species with an endangered listing status.

The USFWS and the ESA only have jurisdiction in the United States, but an ESA listing can benefit foreign species by regulating imports and other commercial activities, and by increasing awareness, sharing research and, in some cases, providing funding and training for conservation programs.

Lion hunting is lucrative for many African nations. "In the late 1990's, Tanzania reported annual revenue of $29.9 million from all trophy hunting, South Africa reported $28.4 million, Zimbabwe reported $23.9 million from all trophy hunting, Botswana reported $12.6 million, and Namibia reported $11.5 million," the action noted. The revenue provides local jobs and in some cases can contribute to the development of management programs and help to reduce poaching. The agency found that "if trophy hunting of lions is part of a scientifically based management program, it could provide considerable benefits to the species, by reducing or removing incentives by locals to kill lions in retaliation for livestock losses, and by reducing the conversion of lion habitat to agriculture," according to the action.

Public hearing requests are due Dec. 15, and comments on the listing proposal are due by Jan. 27, 2015.

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