US rules that African lions are 'endangered', must be protected

Lions nuzzle at the Entabeni Safari Conservancy in Limpopo, northeast of Johannesburg, South Africa in 2012.
Lions nuzzle at the Entabeni Safari Conservancy in Limpopo, northeast of Johannesburg, South Africa in 2012.PHOTO: AFP

MIAMI (AFP) - African lions are at risk of extinction and will be protected under US law as an endangered species, authorities declared Monday, months after a high-profile killing stoked global outrage.

Certain kinds of the iconic big cats of west Africa and India are now considered endangered because they are in "dramatic decline", the US Fish and Wildlife Service said.

The decision will pave the way for stricter regulations on import and export of lion carcasses, and follows the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe by an American dentist earlier this year.

The endangered protection extends to a subspecies of lion known as Panthera leo leo, which now numbers only about 1,400 individuals - 900 or so in western and central Africa and about 500 in India.

Another type, known as Panthera leo melanochaita, is considered "threatened", with 17,000 and 19,000 of the animals found across southern and eastern Africa, the FWS said.

"Today we are telling the lion's side of the story," said FWS director Dan Ashe.

The decision does not ban hunting them altogether, but "raises the bar significantly" for those who want to apply for a lion hunting permit, he told reporters.

Lion populations have declined 43 percent in the last two decades due to habitat loss, difficulty finding prey, and increasing conflicts with the growing human population.

"The lion is one of the planet's most beloved species and an irreplaceable part of our shared global heritage," said Ashe.

"If we want to ensure that healthy lion populations continue to roam the African savannas and forests of India, it's up to all of us - not just the people of Africa and India - to take action."