The recent killing of Zimbabwe's beloved Cecil the Lion by an American big game hunter at Hwange National Park sparked an international outrage -- but are we doing anything to protect the world's non-famous lions?
Lions are currently the only great cat that isn't protected under the US Endangered Species Act. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has spent years working to change that, so in honor of World Lion Day, MTV News caught up with Jeff Flocken, the Regional Director of IFAW North America and the organization's resident lion expert, to find out what we can do to help in the fight to protect lions like Cecil.
"There haven't been a lot of studies on lion populations," Flocken told MTV News, "so the fact that the lion population has declined 60% in the last 30 years is a fairly recent realization. Everyone just assumed that they were doing well because you can see them in large prides in Savanna fairly readily, but the truth is that they've been in serious decline for some time now."
In cases like Cecil's, a big part of the problem is that because they aren't included on the official list of endangered species in the US, it's still perfectly legal to bring a the body of a lion killed in a trophy hunt back to the US.
In fact, according to the IFAW, the US is responsible for importing over half of the hundreds of lion trophies brought home by hunters globally every year, and while issues like habitat destruction and poaching pose bigger threats than trophy hunting does, every lion counts -- there are now as few as 32,000 African lions left in the wild.
When asked why he thought lions still haven't been added to the Endangered Species list despite their dwindling population, Flocken responded, "To be honest, I think it’s partly because lions are a very sought-after trophy by trophy hunters, and that's a very powerful lobby in the US."
Flocken and the IFAW submitted a "technical petition" to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 2011 that thoroughly documented the best available scientific evidence and data to make the case that lions meet the criteria of an endangered species. Four years later, the US government is in the final stages of considering that proposal, which Flocken said makes this an ideal moment for us to help out.
"The government is now in the final stage of making their decision, so we’re hoping that people who care about this issue will help to weigh in and encourage them to make the right decision," Flocken told MTV News. "We need to give full protection to the species and stop trophies from coming back into the US."
Some people argue that sanctioned trophy hunting helps reduce poaching by giving people a legal means by which to kill animals, and that trophy hunting helps local economies. But Flocken isn't buying that.
"It's 2015. We don't have to kill an animal to save it," he said.
"Ecotourism and non-comsumptive wildlife viewing brings in billions of dollars of revenue across Africa every year, and it can be done sustainably. You can view the same animal and take its picture over and over again, as opposed to a one-time killing."
Flocken is hopeful that all the attention Cecil's been getting will mean that we'll all band together to help save not only lions, but also other animals on the verge of extinction.
"On world lion day, it’s wonderful that we’re celebrating this species in so much trouble," he said. "Now lets try to make all days about saving these animals. Because they’re in serious danger of extinction...lions, tigers, jaguars, elephants, and rhinos all need a focused effort on saving them, and on getting rid of needles threats like trophy hunting so we can look at big picture threats like habitat loss and conflict, and find ways to solve them."
You can help protect lions by supporting organizations like IFAW, and by signing the petition asking the USFWS service to immediately stop imports of lion trophies and finalize its proposal to list the African lion under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
To continue the conversation about lions and how we can save them, check out Jeff Flocken's live Twitter Q&A starting today (August 10) at 1pm EST using the hashtag #IFAWLionQandA.