Lion Heads Arrive in Record Numbers as U.S. Considers Crackdown

  • U.S. wildlife officials may list African cat as threatened
  • After Cecil uproar, hunters say killing is key to conservation

Big-game hunters are killing African lions in record numbers as U.S. regulators threaten to curtail one of world’s most exclusive, expensive and controversial pursuits.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has an Oct. 29 deadline to make a final determination on the status of the African lion, which it has proposed to list as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The agency has also recommended requiring a special permit to import lion trophies. Those findings could curtail the number of slain lions entering the U.S., while also driving up safari costs that are often more than $100,000.

A sign on the door at River Bluff Dental in Bloomington
A sign on the door at River Bluff Dental in Bloomington
Photographer: Renee Jones Schneider/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

That’s leading to a rush of Americans taking their guns to Africa in pursuit of the king of the jungle. Last year, Americans imported a record 745 African lions as trophies, up 70 percent since 2011 and more than double the total in 2000, according to data from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Guys fearing that I’ll never get my opportunity to get a lion, they’re getting it while the getting’s good,” said Aaron Neilson, an African safari broker based in Colorado whose exploits, including lion hunts, are featured on a Sportsman Channel television show. “The overall consensus among everybody selling lion hunts has been, ‘Man, get it now.”’

Cecil Outrage

Trophy hunting has had a target on its back for years as animal-rights groups seek to end a practice they see as pointless and brutal. The sport came under renewed scrutiny after a Minnesota dentist on a trophy hunt shot and killed Cecil, a beloved lion who lived in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, igniting a firestorm on social media. In response, airlines including United Continental Holdings Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc. banned the shipping of certain African game trophies.

Mia Farrow's Tweet
Mia Farrow's Tweet
Source: Mia Farrow/Twitter

In July, Donald Trump, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, was forced to answer for his sons after actress Mia Farrow tweeted a picture of them posing with a dead leopard. The next month, activists launched a boycott of Champaign, Illinois-based sandwich company Jimmy Johns LLC after photos of its founder, Jimmy John Liautaud, in front of a lifeless elephant circulated online.

Last year, the U.S. banned the importation of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Tanzania following reports that the species was in decline. Voters in Washington next month will decide on a ballot item backed by billionaire Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen that would criminalize the trafficking of animal parts from several hunted species, including leopards and rhinoceroses.

Dwindling Numbers

The trophy-hunting rush comes as wildlife experts try to stem a three-decade decline in the African lion population, which has been decimated by the loss of natural habitats, poaching and urbanization. There are as few as 20,000 wild lions left on the continent, according to data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an environmental organization based in Switzerland. That’s down from more than 75,000 in 1980.

Proponents argue that curtailing legal hunting could imperil the lion even more because the fees generated go toward anti-poaching efforts and other conservation work, while also supporting local economies in Africa. That counterintuitive notion is acknowledged by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which has said trophy hunting isn’t to blame for the lion’s decline.

Animal-rights activists say ending trophy hunting is a sure way to halt the species’ decline.

‘Blood Sport’

“This is a blood sport,” said Jeffrey Flocken, North American regional director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “It’s 2015. We don’t need to kill species to save them.”

The sport has always been an endeavor of the elite, from 16th century German royals whose castles doubled as hunting lodges, to the British, who became known for their trophy-hunting exploits in Africa. Today it remains the province of the wealthy. Gun store Beretta Gallery on New York’s Madison Avenue sells safari gear and custom rifles in a store adorned with carved Italian stone. African safari operators offer private chefs and spa services.

Captains of finance on Wall Street for decades have made a metaphor of eating what they kill. They have long had an affinity for the real-life sport, including Peter Hathaway Capstick, a former Wall Street stockbroker-turned-professional-hunter who has a rifle cartridge named after him, and Sir David Scholey, a former director of the Bank of England whose lion hunts have sparked efforts to strip him of his knighthood.

Lion hunts are particularly expensive, with some of the most exclusive costing $175,000, according to John J. Jackson III, chairman of Conservation Force, a group that advocates hunting as a means to conserve wildlife. A listing could make them even more exclusive.

“The listing will run those fees up,” said Jackson, noting that a large portion of the money collected goes to conservation. “They will double.”

The lion remains the holy grail of trophies for sport hunters who say the animal’s feline agility, elusiveness and fierce roar make for the hunt of a lifetime.

“They are the meanest, wildest creatures in the world,” said Jackson. “The greatest celebration in the empire of Rome was when Julius Caesar killed his 500th lion. It’s always been the king of the beasts.”

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