A Florida trophy hunter has permission to import what is thought to be the first lion trophy from Tanzania since January 2016, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based nonprofit that advocates for endangered species.
In that year, two subspecies of African lions were listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, meaning that those lions can be killed for trophies only if it can be shown that the hunts would enhance the survival of the species in the wild.
In May, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that oversees trophy hunting imports to the United States, approved a hunter’s application to import the skin, skull, claws, and teeth of a lion killed in Lukwati North Game Reserve, a hunting concession leased from the government and run by Tanzanian safari operator McCallum Safaris. That’s according to records obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by Tanya Sanerib, international legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity. (See more from FOIA: We asked the government why animal welfare records disappeared.)
The hunter, whose identity could not be confirmed by National Geographic, originally applied to import a lion trophy from Tanzania in November 2016. It’s unclear exactly when he killed the lion. Nor is it clear whether the trophy has been imported. The permit to do so, issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service, expires in May 2020, a year after it was issued.
African lions have disappeared from 94 percent of their historic range, and populations have halved, to fewer than 25,000 since the early 1990s, according to the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Network. The main causes of the decline are retaliatory killings of lions that attack villagers and depletion of their prey animals. Tanzania is home to 40 percent of Africa’s lions.
Sanerib, who calls the country a “stronghold” for lions, worries that the decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service could be a signal that the Trump administration will “open the floodgates” for future Tanzanian trophy imports for lions and other species, including elephants. The news of this approval of a lion import comes on the heels of a decision last week to allow a U.S. hunter to import a black rhino trophy killed last year in Namibia.
According to Laury Marshall Parramore, a spokeswoman with the Fish and Wildlife Service, “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.”
Sanerib says she’s concerned about the lack of detail in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s determination that this hunt enhances lion conservation in Tanzania. She claims that the service didn’t do due diligence when approving the import permit. As part of her FOIA request, she says she obtained emails in which the service asked general questions of Tanzanian government officials, such as whether they were monitoring trophy hunting.
“Those are not the basic questions that I think that our government should be asking before we approve these types of practices. We should be way down in the weeds, getting all of the details to ensure that these programs are actually going to enhance the survival of species.”
“Organizationally, we’re opposed to trophy hunting—we don’t think we should be killing threatened and endangered species,” Sanerib says. “But if we are going to do it, if it is going to happen, Fish and Wildlife Service needs to follow the law, and they really need to ensure—and this is their own regulatory requirements—that this program has all the adequate safeguards to ensure that it’s going to be sustainable for the lion population.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service did not respond to a request for specific information about how this hunt benefits lions in Tanzania and for reaction to Sanerib’s concerns.
The lion decision is particularly troubling given Tanzania’s history of mismanaging trophy hunting, Sanerib says. In 2017, Hamisi Kigwangalla, Tanzania’s minister for natural resources and tourism, revoked hunting concession lease permits that previously had been issued to companies for a low set fee, citing a need for greater transparency about the process. The government then began auctioning off concession leases instead. But according to biologist Craig Packer, who had studied lions in Tanzania since the late 1970s, only undesirable concessions were put up for auction, a move he calls a “halfhearted” effort to reform.
Kigwangalla did not respond to a request for comment.
In 2015, Packer was barred from entering the country after he characterized the nation’s trophy hunting industry as corrupt. Trophy hunters are supposed to target only older male lions, thought to be less crucial to reproduction, but Packer says there was no accountability or oversight by Tanzania to ensure that this was happening. As trophy hunting declined in popularity, Packer says, concession operators charged hunters fees so low that they couldn’t possibly be providing enough revenue to maintain roads, hire rangers, and prevent illegal farming or grazing in the hunting reserves.
Whether this particular trophy import is good or bad depends on whether the hunt was shown to have a conservation benefit, Packer says. If the U.S. is rewarding responsible hunting operators, it will incentivize others to follow suit. “As long as the sport hunters are showing that they’re making a positive impact, good on them,” he says. “It would be great if the system is actually forcing some kind of reform.” But, he adds, the Fish and Wildlife Service “has no way of confirming whether Tanzania’s well-meaning policies are really being implemented.”
Representatives from the Tanzania Wildlife Authority, which implements the country’s Wildlife Conservation Act, the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, an organization under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism that conducts wildlife research, and the Tanzania Tourist Board did not respond to requests for comment about how the country manages its trophy hunting.
John Jackson, a member of the International Wildlife Conservation Council, an advisory group to the Secretary of Interior, is the Florida hunter’s attorney. Jackson welcomes more frequent trophy imports from Tanzania and says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been “too slow” to issue these permits—a pace Jackson calls “inexcusable.” Since 2016, he says, many hunting operators have had to surrender their lands because of a lack of revenue, which leaves the animals in those lands unprotected. More frequent trophy hunts would allow concession operators to afford anti-poaching safety measures. “Hunting is the single most important mechanism to save lion,” he argues.
Jackson disagrees that Tanzania’s trophy hunting is mismanaged. As home to about 40 percent of Africa’s lions, he says, the country has “managed to save more lions than anybody else.”
“I wish there was another country equal to it,” he says. “It’s easy to criticize people, but it’s much more important to work with them and support them.”
Sanerib says Tanzania deserves credit for having a “phenomenal system” of protected areas but that its lion conservation success has been despite trophy hunting rather than because of it.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s findings for lions also could apply to elephants, Sanerib says. In 2014, the Obama administration effectively banned trophy imports of elephants from Tanzania because of a poaching crisis in the country and concerns about the management of its trophy hunting industry. Sanerib says this lion trophy import decision may indicate that the Trump administration plans to overturn that ban.
In 2017, the service reversed the ban on elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe. “So we have some history—some very recent history—to point to as evidence of them, I would say, leaping before they take a look,” Sanerib says. (After President Trump tweeted his dissatisfaction with the Zimbabwe decision, the service reversed course and decided to evaluate applications on a case-by-case basis. Since then, no elephant trophies are known to have been imported from Zimbabwe.)
Anna Frostic, the managing wildlife attorney for Humane Society International, says the decisions to issue lion and black rhino trophy import permits indicate that there are more to come. She says the Fish and Wildlife Service “is making these decisions behind closed doors and without the input of independent scientists and the public.”
“The issuance of this one lion trophy import from Tanzania will likely be replicated and applied to the more than 40 other applications for Tanzania lion trophies that are pending,” she says.
Even though Tanzania is a stronghold for lions, she says the fact that overall lion numbers are dwindling means this potential new pattern is “extremely concerning.”
“The decision to legitimize that type of activity,” Frostic says, “is not only unethical and scientifically unjustifiable but is unlawful” based on the decision’s merits and because of the service’s lack of transparency in its decision making.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society's nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to email@example.com.