4 Signs the Tide May Be Turning Against Lion Hunting, and 1 It Isn’t

International outcry over Cecil the lion’s death is sparking changes around the world.

Who could shoot a lion?

That’s the question many people are asking on social media and in protests outside the offices of big game hunters, after the illegal killing of Cecil the lion last month. Although some hunting groups are digging in on their support of the legal, regulated pastime, there are also signs that a cultural shift away from big game hunting may be happening.

Social outrage, leading to action

There have been more than a million signatures to online petitions calling for the end of legal lion hunting.

National Geographic conducted a survey of more than 1,000 American adults over the weekend to gauge their response to Cecil’s story and the broader issues of hunting and conservation. The polling firm Ipsos found that 71 percent of respondents were familiar with Cecil’s shooting, and ten percent of those respondents had signed an online petition on Cecil’s behalf. Four percent said they donated to a related charity.

Despite high familiarity with the story, a more modest 41 percent of respondents were aware of the rapid decline of big cats in general and only 19 percent feel much more aware of the issue as a result of recent news coverage

A century ago Africa had more than 200,000 lions, but today there are an estimated 30,000. With so few lions left, none should be put in the crosshairs, says Jeff Flocken, North American director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “Killing for conservation sounds like an oxymoron and it is,” says Flocken.

The old arguments in favor of trophy hunting—raising money for conservation and culling disruptive individuals—“no longer hold water,” says Flocken. “Economically it makes more sense to have renewable, wildlife-friendly value through ecotourism than a one-time kill fee.”

Flocken says more people are coming to realize that, in 2015, “we don’t have to kill an animal to save it.”

Airlines ban lion trophies

Today, about 65 percent of legal trophy hunts in Africa are done by Americans. And this week, three major U.S. airlines made it harder for those hunters to bring back their trophies.

Delta, United, and American announced that they would no longer allow the transport of hunting trophies from endangered animals on their flights. This follows a ban enacted by Emirates in May and by a South African carrier before that.

These bans “reflect our values as a society, since many people clearly have a visceral reaction to trophy hunting of endangered species,” says Flocken.

Hunters can still ship their trophies back to the U.S. if they secure permission from the Fish and Wildlife Service and if they use a freight company like UPS, which has declined calls for a ban.

“But the more challenging it is to bring back a trophy the less likely American hunters will be to engage in that hunt,” says Flocken, who notes that trophy hunting of polar bears plummeted after their trophies were banned in the U.S. in 2008.

Legislative pressure in the U.S.

Cecil’s death has also resulted in a bill in Congress. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) has introduced the Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing the Importation of Large (CECIL) Animal Trophies Act, which would prevent importation of trophies from animals that are being considered for listing as endangered by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

A petition to list the African lion as endangered was filed in 2011, but the Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to finalize its ruling. Since that time, more than 1,700 lions have been killed legally, on top of even more killed illegally, says Flocken.

Debate in Africa

Although many Africans had not heard of Cecil and are not involved in trophy hunting or tourism, the international outcry has resulted in changes on the continent. Zimbabwe, where the hunt occurred, has suspended hunts of several species in the region where Cecil lived, pending investigations.

After Cecil’s death, a spokesperson for the government of Botswana said, “It is our stern belief that safari hunting of threatened species such as lions has the potential to undermine our regional anti-poaching efforts as it encourages illegal trade which in turn promotes poaching.”

Botswana outlawed trophy hunting in 2013, along with Zambia.

Last month, Hermann Meyeridricks, president of the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa (PHASA), asked his membership to reconsider its position on hunting lions in private reserves.

“It has become clear to me that those against the hunting of lions bred in captivity are no longer just a small if vociferous group of animal-rights activists,” wrote Meyeridricks. “Even within our own ranks, as well as in the hunting fraternity as a whole, respected voices are speaking out publicly against it.”

All these recent developments “are good first steps” toward protecting lions, says Flocken. But it’s not yet clear whether long-term changes will result from the death of one of Africa’s most famous lions, because …

Some hunters remain committed

It’s safe to assume most of the people who signed petitions to ban trophy hunting were not trophy hunters. In response to the outcry over Cecil’s death, the hunting association Safari Club International suspended the membership of those involved in his hunt. The group has not responded to request for comment but issued a statement that condemned illegal hunting but upheld the right for people to pursue big game in accordance with local and international laws.

Despite recent criticism, the club continues to support “the conservation of wildlife, protection of the hunter’s rights, and education of the public concerning hunting and its use as a conservation and management tool.”

A pair of Idaho big game hunters also recently made news by defending trophy hunting, calling it “about the pursuit and the adventure of the hunt.

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