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'Canned' African lion hunts might get wiped out

Importing lion trophies to the United States just became a lot tougher, and activists are saying the new rules are likely to kill the growing business of shooting captive animals.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in late December that it's adding two subspecies of lion to the endangered species list, making it far more difficult for American shooters to bring body parts back into the United States.

The decision comes months after the shooting of a wild lion in Zimbabwe by an American dentist provoked international outrage.

On the heels of the announcement, the Humane Society released a report saying the decision will be catastrophic for a new but growing industry: ranches that breed and raise lions for "canned" hunts in enclosed spaces.

'Guaranteed kill arrangement'

So-called canned or captive hunts are not really "hunts," in the sense that there is no real chance of failure. During such a shooting, animals bred or raised on the ranch are released into an area — typically enclosed — before they are shot by the customer. The shooter forgoes the challenges of locating and tracking a wild animal as well as the prospect of leaving empty-handed.

It turns out many would-be hunters like a sure thing — and many or even most of those shooters are Americans.

Such killings are especially attractive to customers looking to bag one of the Africa Big Five, which are lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and cape buffalo. There are about 200 ranches across South Africa where a customer can pay anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 to shoot one of the country's 6,000 captive lions.

"This side industry developed by these guys in South Africa is basically setting up a private land area, fencing it, and then breeding lions and then releasing them to be shot in a guaranteed kill arrangement," said Humane Society Chief Executive Wayne Pacelle.

"About 620 of the 720 lions imported into the U.S. in 2014 came out of South Africa," Pacelle told CNBC. "The preponderance of those have come from these facilities."

Supporters of such game ranches contend they take pressure off already vulnerable wild lion populations, contribute funds to conservation efforts and provide an economic benefit.

Critics call the operations, the "factory-farming of lions," pointing to substandard conditions and inbreeding, and noting that shooting an animal in an enclosed space is far different from stalking one in the wild.

Pacelle said the new rules could stamp out the industry, because a disproportionate number of captive hunt customers are American. About 85 percent of the 429 canned hunt lion trophies crossing international borders in 2014 came back to the United States, according to Humane Society information.

The Endangered Species Act has no authority beyond U.S. borders, but the government can regulate the import and export of trophies and body parts across U.S. borders. The Fish and Wildlife Service's Branch of Foreign Species has jurisdiction over species from outside the United States.

Pacelle told CNBC the majority of canned hunts will not meet the new criteria that hunts be beneficial to the species, and he thinks that the number of lions coming into the U.S. annually will drop from 2014's 720 to around 20.

The Fish and Wildlife Service provided information to CNBC saying that it is currently evaluating whether canned lion hunts will meet the criteria, and that in the meantime, all permits are issued on a case-by-case basis.

Barring canned hunt trophies from the United States will barely move the needle in wild lion numbers, if at all. Trophy hunting, whether on a ranch or in the the wild, is far from being the primary threat facing lions. Loss of habitat, loss of prey and conflict with humans — mostly from retaliatory killings — are the biggest threats to the species.

"This is important for trophy hunting, but trophy hunting is a drop in the bucket," when compared with the larger threats that lions face, said Luke Hunter, president of conservation charity Panthera.

The Fish and Wildlife Service imposed the new restrictions after learning "that not all trophy hunting programs are providing benefits to the subspecies," according to a FAQ on the agency's website.

"The service wants to ensure that U.S. trophy imports originate from countries with a scientifically sound management program and provide funds that further lion conservation."