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It was a good day for lions. The Obama administration is placing lions under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, restricting the ability of hunters to bring lion skins and other trophies into the U.S. The action comes about six months after the killing of an African lion named Cecil by a Minnesota dentist sparked worldwide outrage, but officials say it's been in the works for some time. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The rule announced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service applies to two subspecies. One is located in India and western and Central Africa, and only about 1,400 of these lions survive. They've been designated as endangered. A second subspecies found in eastern and southern Africa numbering some 19,000 will be listed as threatened. I spoke with Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe.
DAN ASHE: The best available science tells us that lions, as a whole, are in steep decline, that as we look into the foreseeable future, we see that those declines are likely to continue and worsen.
NAYLOR: Ashe says an estimated half a million lions roamed Africa and India in the early 1900s. By the mid-'50s, the number was down to 200,000. Today, there are just 20,000. Ashe says the decline is only partly due to trophy hunting. Mostly it's because of expanding human populations.
ASHE: The lions are like wolves here in the United States. They're persecuted because they conflict with economic use of the land by humans for agriculture and other purposes.
NAYLOR: The action today does leave the door open to imports of some sport-hunted trophies but only from countries that can show they have a management program in place that is aiding lion conservation. Jeff Flocken is North American director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, one of several groups that petition the government to act.
JEFF FLOCKEN: Since Americans are responsible for over half of all lions killed in Africa for sport every year - literally hundreds of lions being killed just for fun of an imperiled species - this decision is, in fact, a good thing.
NAYLOR: Fish and Wildlife Service director Ashe says it's a legacy issue.
ASHE: For me, it's an issue of how we want to hand the planet to our children and grandchildren because we right now are at a point where there's a very real possibility that we could hand them a planet that will not have anything called a lion in the wild, and that would be a tragedy.
NAYLOR: The rule will go into effect next month. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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