Trump Administration OKs First Lion Trophy Import Since Species Listed as Threatened

The Trump administration has authorized a Florida hunter to import a lion trophy from Tanzania. (Robin Silver / Center for Biological Diversity)

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Trump administration has authorized a Florida hunter to import a lion trophy from Tanzania, a move environmental organizations say signals an opening of the floodgates to allow imports of the threatened species.

Hunters make their way to Tanzania – home to 40% of Africa’s lions – to track down mature male lions with manes that are considered desirable trophies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a permit in May 2019 for the U.S. hunter Carl Atkinson to bring home a lion’s skin, skull, claws and teeth, taken between July and August 2019 from a game reserve.

This was the first such permit issued since the lion was granted protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act as a threatened species in January 2016.

A spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service said the permit authorization followed a decision by the agency to replace countrywide findings for a range of species across several countries with an evaluation of trophy imports on an application-by-application basis.

Tanya Sanerib, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said that, given outdated population counts, there should be no permitted lion hunting at this time. 

Justifying its issuance of the permit, the Fish and Wildlife Service cited the current Tanzanian lion population at approximately 17,000 – data reported by the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute in 2010. 

Sanerib said the fact that the U.S. is allowing trophy hunters to kill lions without a recent count of the population is “really, really terrifying.”

The hunter first applied for the permit in 2016 but recently initiated a second push for approval.

“My safari starts fairly soon and I was wondering if you could update me on the status of my application,” Atkinson wrote to the Fish and Wildlife Service in April 2019. 

The Center for Biological Diversity and Humane Society International acquired the communication among other documents received in response to a public records request made in June, after the organizations learned of a Tanzanian news article reporting the U.S. had greenlighted trophy hunter imports. 

Backed by a lawyer from the Trump administration’s International Wildlife Conservation Council, an advisory board that promotes trophy hunting, Atkinson made the case that his kill fell within regulated hunting, helping promote wildlife conservation. 

“Legal, well-regulated hunting as part of a sound management program can benefit the conservation of certain species by providing incentives to local communities to conserve the species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation,” Laury Marshall, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman, said in an email Thursday. 

Sanerib said this “pay-to-play” argument does not add up. She argued the corruption surrounding hunting regulations is blocking the flow of money to conservation efforts. 

“There is some obvious concern in Tanzania about the money not actually benefiting wildlife, not benefiting local communities that live with wildlife, but benefiting hunting concessioners and a handful of government officials,” Sanerib said. 

The Center for Biological Diversity is also concerned that once a lion is killed, a new pack leader will kill off the hunted lion’s offspring to assert dominance.

While there is no evidence in the documents acquired by the Center for Biological Diversity that the Fish and Wildlife Service considered this in assessing Atkinson’s permit application, Sanerib said the occurrence is so well-founded in scientific research that she has absolute faith the agency is aware that the import authorization results in the death of more than just one lion. She said the outcome is not only harmful because of the death of additional lions but because it diminishes the genetic pool.

Noting the Trump administration has also lifted the Obama administration ban on elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe, Sanerib is concerned that this first permit approval marks an effort by the Fish and Wildlife Service to begin ramping up trophy imports. 

“You see an indication of that, I’m sure, in that email from Fish and Wildlife Service to Atkinson,” Sanerib said. “How he’s the first one, it’s taking longer, it’s going to go faster after this.”

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