By Timothy Cama - 12/21/15 01:22 PM EST
The Obama administration is designating the African lion as endangered, making it harder than ever before to bring trophies or other parts of hunted lions into the country.
The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) made the designation months after a Minnesota dentist killed the beloved lion Cecil in Zimbabwe, sparking a flurry of interest in preserving the species that has lost more than 95 percent of its international population over the past century.
“Today, the Fish and Wildlife Service is doing everything it can with everything it has to set a new course for the conservation of the African lion,” agency Director Dan Ashe told reporters Monday.
“It is the responsibility of the hunting industry, and the American hunter in particular, to do better,” he said. “If we are going to recover lion populations and ensure that lions continue to the savannahs of Africa and the forests of India, then it’s going to be important to do better.”
The FWS had proposed last year to designate the African lion as threatened, a lesser protection under the Endangered Species Act.
But after consultations, a review of current literature and a finding that only about 20,000 of the animals remain, the agency decided that an “endangered” listing was warranted.
Ashe said human settlement and agriculture lead to a range of conflicts resulting in the killing of lions.
“The threats are largely due to expanding human populations in sub-Saharan Africa, leading to encroachment by settlements and agriculture, and grazing activities encroaching into unfenced lion habitats,” he said.
Humans are also increasingly killing elephants, one of the main sources of food for lions.
The protections will “raise the bar substantially” for importation of trophies, Ashe said.
Ashe also announced Monday that he’s using his power to deny trophy import permits to any person who has been convicted of or pleaded guilty to a wildlife crime anywhere in the world.
That would have barred Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil, from obtaining an import permit, because he had illegally killed a black bear nine years before killing Cecil.
“It’s important for us to bear in mind that the import of any species of endangered or threatened wildlife is a privilege. It is not a right,” Ashe said.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, had pushed for the lion protections after the news of Cecil’s death.
“Today’s decision will ensure that the United States stops contributing to the alarming decline of global lion populations and help prevent tragic incidents like last summer’s killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe,” Grijalva said in a statement.
The Wildlife Conservation Society also welcomed the protections.
“The U.S. government’s actions are necessary to allow the recovery of one of the most iconic top predators on the planet,” John Robinson, the group’s chief conservation officer, said in a statement.