By Barbara Liston and Jon Herskovitz
(Reuters) - The killing of Cecil the lion by a U.S. hunter in Zimbabwe has turned up the pressure on Washington to extend legal protection to the African lion by declaring it an endangered species, but some hunting advocates said that would lead to more regulations that could ultimately harm the big cats.
The United States has the world's most powerful animal protection law, the Endangered Species Act, which has been extended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to many non-U.S. species including the African elephant and cheetah.
Adding the African lion to the U.S. list would not prohibit trophy hunting but it would require a permit from the service to import lions or their body parts to the United States.
Such a permit would only be issued if the agency determined that importing a lion or parts of it would not be harmful to the survival of the species, said Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which advocates for species protection worldwide.
"Sport hunting has been identified as a threat to the continued existence of the species," said Sanerib, whose group has backed listing the African lion as endangered.
In 2014, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the African lion as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
The top Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources committee, Raúl Grijalva, and 49 other House Democrats sent a letter on Thursday to the service asking it to finalize listing the lion as endangered.
Apart from the Endangered Species Act, hunters are barred under America's Lacey Act from importing wildlife or parts of animals that have been illegally killed, transported or sold. That law applies to about 5,600 animal species covered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES.
The African lion is protected under CITES, which requires exporters of the animal to get a permit from its home country. The lion or its parts cannot be imported into the United States unless CITES requirements are met.
Supporters of regulated hunting have said it should not be discouraged because it generates revenue for African countries, which can be used on conservation and to discourage poaching.
Last week, the cargo division of South Africa's national carrier, SAA, lifted an embargo that had been in place since April on the transport of legally acquired hunting trophies of African lion and elephant, rhinoceros and tiger.
In acknowledging the action, South Africa's Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa said in a statement from the Department of Environmental Affairs, "It should be remembered that hundreds of legally acquired wildlife specimens, such as hunting trophies, pass through our main ports of entry and exit monthly without incident. Penalizing an entire industry for the illegal actions of the few is not in the country’s best interests.“
She added that the "sustainable utilization of species, including legal hunting, had historically played a significant role in the growth of populations of species, including lion, elephant and rhino."
The department said "legal, well-regulated hunting in South Africa was a source of much needed foreign exchange, job creation, and community development."
Eleven African countries issue lion hunting permits, according to the Professional Hunters Association.
CONSERVATION DEBATE AT A BOIL
The debate over species conservation has been brought to a boil by the killing of 13-year-old Cecil the lion, a rare black-maned lion that ruled over a pride in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, by Minneapolis dentist and trophy hunter Walter Palmer.
Palmer has admitted killing the lion, and said through a publicist earlier this week that he thought the hunt was legal.
Zimbabwe has said that killing Cecil was unlawful, and a local hunter who assisted Palmer has been charged with failing to prevent the lion's death. Cecil was a tourist attraction and one of Africa's most renowned lions.
Zimbabwe's environment minister said on Friday that Palmer was a "foreign poacher" who paid for an illegal hunt and should be extradited to Zimbabwe to face justice.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said on Friday that a representative for Palmer had contacted the agency, which is investigating the killing of Cecil.
In October 2014, the service proposed listing the African lion as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in response to a citizen petition. The service is now reviewing public comment on that proposal and expects to issue a final rule by late 2015 or early next year.
Conservation groups are asking the government to list the lion without delay.
"It is a small step but an essential one. If American big game hunters can no longer bring back their trophies to hang in the den, maybe they will find another hobby," said Anne Bellamy, president of Great Safaris, a no-kill tour company.
Some pro-hunting groups have argued that more regulations on trophy hunting may be difficult to meet, causing hunting to decrease along with animal populations.
John Jackson, president of Conservation Force, a Louisiana-based group that supports hunting, said he expects the lion to be added to the Endangered Species list as threatened with special regulations that will be "almost impossible" for hunters to satisfy.
"Most lion habitat in Africa, including Zimbabwe, is in hunting areas. If you eliminate hunting, you eliminate most lions, as well as anti-poaching revenue," he said. "We fully expect that it will lead to the loss of half the lions in Africa."
Proponents of stronger protection for lions also refer to numbers.
Born Free USA, which describes itself as a global wildlife charity, has urged the United States and European Union to ban trophy imports and lion hunting. It cites estimates suggesting there are barely more than 30,000 lions across Africa and "localized or regionalized extinctions in the next decade are a real possibility."
Adam Roberts, chief executive of Born Free Foundation and Born Free USA, said in a statement, "The figures don't stack up. The value to Africa's economy from wildlife tourism vastly outpaces any sum accrued from hunting.
"Trophy hunting is an elitist activity practiced by very wealthy people, with the income benefiting a small number of stakeholders. The future is in conserving Africa's wildlife, not destroying it."
(Writing by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Toni Reinhold)