WASHINGTON (AP) — One month before the Trump administration sparked outrage by reversing a ban on trophies from threatened African elephants, federal officials quietly loosened restrictions on the importation of heads and hides of lions shot for sport.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began issuing permits Oct. 20 for lions killed in Zimbabwe and Zambia between 2016 and 2018. The agency is also currently studying whether to add three additional countries to the list — Mozambique, Namibia and Tanzania.
Previously, only wild lions killed in South Africa were eligible to be imported.
In a pair of recent tweets, President Donald Trump said he will delay the new policy on allowing elephant trophies, but he made no mention of lions. Trump, whose adult sons are avid big-game hunters, also expressed skepticism about his own administration's claim that killing threatened animals could help save them by helping raise money for conservation programs.
"Big-game trophy decision will be announced next week but will be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of Elephants or any other animal," the president tweeted on Sunday.
Trump weighed in after a strong public backlash against reversing an Obama-era ban on elephant trophies, which became public through a written notification posted in the Federal Register. Officials said there was no such legal requirement for notifying the public about the policy change on lions.
In late 2015, the Obama administration added two subspecies of African lion to the list of animals protected under the Endangered Species Act. Due to poaching and habitat loss, the number of lions living in the wild is in sharp decline — from an estimated 200,000 a century ago to less than 20,000 today.
The additional protections were added a few months after Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer sparked international outcry by killing Cecil, a beloved 13-year-old lion who lived in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park. Palmer paid $54,000 to bow-hunt Cecil on private land just outside the park.
A photo of Donald Trump Jr. holding a knife and the bloody severed tail of an elephant he reportedly killed in Zimbabwe in 2011 has also drawn ire from animal rights activists.
Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, said he is encouraged that the president is taking a second look at the issue.
"Keeping elephants and lions alive is a key to economic progress in so many African nations," Pacelle said. "Trophy hunting robs these nations of their greatest resources, diminishing the wildlife-watching experiences of so many tourists. Any U.S. sanctioning of trophy hunting sends a particularly contradictory message at a time when the world has been rallying to save elephants and lions."
Follow Associated Press environmental reporter Michael Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck