By Helen Nyambura-Mwaura
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The thrill of hunting lion keeps luring John Jackson back to Africa for the chance to stalk the beasts in the wild and gaze through the scope of his rifle at the king of the jungle.
"You can see them, smell them. When they roar the ground shakes. It's like lightning snapping over your head," he says.
Jackson, of Metairie, Louisiana, is president of Conservation Force, a lobby group that says regulated lion hunting helps protect the animal by giving reserve owners a financial incentive to deter poachers and cultivate stock.
He and other safari hunting fans are worried by a United States proposal to list lions as a threatened species and set up a system of permits for importing trophies from lion hunts.
The move by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service follows several reports warning that the African lion population has dropped sharply. An academic study in 2012 said it had fallen by nearly 70 percent in the last 50 years.
Jackson's hunting advocates agree with animal welfare groups that lions are threatened by poaching, human encroachment on their habitat and a reduction in the number of animals they feed on.
But both sides disagree on the way forward.
Opponents of lion hunting say it only makes a bleak picture worse and argue for an ethical approach to rebuilding the species population. Some say hunting should be banned on principle.
Beth Allgood, U.S. campaigns director at International Fund for Animal Welfare, says the U.S. plan to issue permits for the export of lion trophies would effectively discourage the sport.
"People wouldn't go (lion) hunting any more. There's no point to pay so much to go and kill a lion and leave it there," she said.
Americans make up the bulk of non-African hunters: 15,000 go to the continent on hunting safaris each year, says Jackson, and the vast majority want to take trophies of their kills home.
It is a practice that "saves far more lions than it takes" he says, because the fees paid by hunters fund the upkeep of far more animals than are shot. In addition, there are strict government limits on how many lions can be killed and under what circumstances.
As a result, Jackson says that in all his years of stalking lions the conditions have only ever been right for him to kill once. The animal's head now sits on the wall of his home.
"ANIMALS PAY THEIR WAY"
Hunting advocates and opponents are lobbying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) ahead of its expected final ruling this year.
"We would look to see if each permit application is consistent with the conservation of the species," said FWS spokesman Gavin Shire.
Right now, eleven African countries issue lion hunting permits. Of them South Africa's hunting industry is the biggest, worth $675 million, according to the Professional Hunters Association (PHA).
The country's game population has grown to 24 million from around 600,000 in the late 1960s, says the PHA, a fact hunters attribute to private land owners investing in stock to capitalize on revenue generated from the sport.
In 2013, foreign hunters spent about 1.072 billion rand ($91 million) in South Africa, 32 percent more than the previous year, Department of Environmental Affairs statistics show.
Though impala were the most popular game, with 5,700 shot, lions brought in the highest revenue at 122 million rand.
An entry level two-week shooting safari targeting about five plains game costs about $10,000, according to Adri Kitshoff, chief executive of the Professional Hunters' Association.
Wildlife Ranching of South Africa estimates the sport employs 100,000 in a nation where one in four is without a job.
"The anti-hunters are often driven by emotional decisions that are sadly unrealistic," said Katharina Hecker, who owns the Nico van Rooyen taxidermy studio outside Pretoria.
"Ethical or not, it seems that if animals can pay their way, their existence will be secured."
Tanzania's hunting industry is smaller than South Africa's but it remains a popular destination that sees fierce bidding whenever authorities auction hunting concessions, according to a senior Tanzanian government official.
The government collects at least 20 billion shillings ($11 million) per year in fees and charges $15,000 for an elephant killed and $4,900 for a lion, the official said.
Tanzania allows up to 100 elephants to be shot each year and has an unofficial quota of 315 lions, he said.
Alongside the potential lion trophy restrictions, the United States is also considering limits on the importation of elephant trophies.
It has already suspended the import of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe on the grounds that the country lacks a sound conservation plan.
The U.S. restrictions are "a bad move but we don't have an option," said the Tanzanian senior official, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
"They are powerful, they are a big economy and they can do anything they want."
Kenya, which makes about $1 billion each year from photographic safaris and beach tourism, banned hunting in the 1970s to curb poaching.
Since then game has continued to decline, as a result of human encroachment on animal habitats and a growing consumer taste for bush meat.
Some owners of private wildlife reserves have asked the government for permission to perform limited stock culls of on the grounds that overpopulation can be a threat to wildlife.
But the matter is so fraught with feeling that their request is unlikely to be granted, experts say.
"Sport hunting has benefits but we haven't done it for so long in Kenya and it is such an emotional issue that we wouldn't get very far," said wildlife expert Nigel Hunter.
(Additional reporting by Matthew Mpoke Bigg in Accra and Fumbuka Ng'wanakilala in Dar es Salaam; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Sophie Walker)