Lion hunting is booming, and Americans do most of the killing

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Cecil the lion in an undated photo. Associated Press.

Trophy lion hunting is a booming business that has taken the lives of more than 10,000 animals over the past two decades. And most of that killing has been carried out by Americans.

That’s according to a Reveal analysis of figures maintained by the United Nations.

Controversy over hunting lions has boiled over since a Minnesota dentistkilled a beloved, black-maned male named Cecil near the border of a national park in Zimbabwe. While the circumstances of the incident are in dispute – authorities contend that the animal was illegally lured outside the park with bait – the U.N. figures bring the killing into context.

They show that thousands of other African lions are being killed for trophies, at a time when the species is facing growing threats, such as poaching and habitat loss.

Here are the highlights:

  • In 2013, foreign hunters in Africa killed 794 lions for trophies. Seventy-seven percent – 613, to be precise – were shot by Americans, followed by hunters from Spain, who killed 39, or 5 percent.
  • The number of African lions killed by Americans and shipped home as trophies has jumped dramatically in recent years, from 77 in 1990 to 613 in 2013.
  • About half of the lions killed by Americans in 2013 were wild. The rest were bred in captivity and shot in “canned hunts” that have drawn outrage inside Africa and out.
  • Most lions killed by U.S. hunters were shot in South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania, where populations are not in serious danger. But some have been shot in countries where lions are more imperiled, including Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic.

The U.N. data is gathered via a global network that monitors and polices the shipment of wildlife – living and dead – around the world. Known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the monitoring network gathers mountains of data from more than 170 countries and posts it online in a searchable database.

Experts say Africa’s lion population – while healthy in some areas – has dropped from around 75,000 in 1980 to between 20,000 and 32,000 today. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the species as threatened. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature calls the African lion vulnerable.

Hunting advocates say shooting trophy lions helps protect the species by providing revenue to African game agencies for conservation. Lions are killed legally across 12 nations in Africa. Two countries – Kenya and Botswana – ban commercial trophy hunting. In a 2015 assessment, The International Union for the Conservation of Nature said trophy hunting can “be a tool for conservation but also a threat, depending on how it is regulated and managed.”

In all, the U.N. data show American hunters have killed about 8,000 lions for trophies since 1993, more than three-quarters of all lions killed. A bill has been introduced in Congress – the CECIL Animal Trophies Act – that would clamp down on such activity by making it illegal to import the head or body of species – such as African lions – that are under consideration for listing under the Endangered Species Act.