By Chris Mfula
LUSAKA (Reuters) - Zambia has banned the hunting of lions and other endangered wild cats such as leopards because it sees more value in game viewing tourism than blood sport, the country's tourism minister said on Thursday.
Sylvia Masebo told Reuters big cat numbers were also too low to have a sustainable hunting industry.
"Tourists come to Zambia to see the lion and if we lose the lion we will be killing our tourism industry," Masebo said.
The estimated $3 million that Zambia earned from safari hunting of all its wild animals annually was too little to merit the continued depletion of Zambia's wildlife, she said.
"Why should we lose our animals for $3 million a year? The benefits we get from tourist visits are much higher," she said.
The leopard population for the sprawling southern African country is not known while lion numbers are not believed to exceed around 4,500.
Estimates for Africa's lion population vary from around 20,000 to 30,000, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and is falling in the face of numerous threats including conflict with livestock farmers and loss of prey and habitat.
Zambia's moves follow neighboring Botswana's decision to ban all sport hunting from 2014 as it also works to promote itself as a game viewing destination.
Wildlife-rich Kenya set this trend when it halted trophy and sport hunting decades ago.
Lions and leopards are the feline pair of the so-called "Big 5" group of dangerous African animals coveted by some trophy hunters. The others are elephant, rhino and Cape buffalo.
But there are growing concerns about Africa's big animals in the face of a surge in poaching of elephants for their ivory and rhino in South Africa for their horns to meet soaring demand from Asian countries.
In a separate development, Zambia last week suspended 19 hunting concessions and fired the top management at the Zambia Wildlife Authority because of corruption allegations and a lack of transparency.
(Editing by Ed Stoddard and Paul Casciato)