Latest Lion Aid News

The extent of the killing

Saturday 2nd June 2018

Lion trophy


As part of a report, I compiled the numbers of lions shot and exported from Africa in 2014 and 2015 from the official CITES database. The numbers for 2016 are still preliminary and not presented here, as the database takes a good two years before the numbers for any year are “finalized”.



                                                                            2014                   2015


EU imports, wild lions                                32                       43

USA imports, wild lions                            103                     111

Other countries, wild*                               26                       37

EU countries, South Africa lions         154                     256

USA, South Africa lions                            963                     922

Other countries, SA lions                        96                       87

TOTAL WILD                                               161                     171

TOTAL South Africa                              1,213                  1,265                                                          


*”other countries” only include the major importers, in this case Canada, Russia, Mexico and South Africa – a great diversity of additional world nations occasionally import lion trophies. “TOTAL” numbers exclude these “occasional” importers and should therefore be seen as “minimum numbers”.


Major exporting countries, wild lion trophies


                                                                     2014                   2015

Tanzania                                                      54                       59

Zimbabwe                                                   62                       59

Mozambique                                             23                       23

Namibia                                                      16                       9

Zambia                                                       N/A                     N/A (hunting moratorium)




  1. I only considered data listed under the CITES “hunting” purpose code. This will result in an UNDERESTIMATE of the total numbers, as some hunted lions will have been exported under the “personal” and even the “trade” category, for example.
  2. The numbers only cover lion trophies EXPORTED. Lions killed by resident hunters are not included in this total.
  3. CITES record keeping is, at best, chaotic (see further below). Elucidation of import/export records requires a considerable level of expert interpretation due to often substantial differences between “exporter” and “importer” reported numbers. In cases where there were such substantial discrepancies, I mostly relied on import numbers from countries with “reliable” record keeping, such as those within the EU and the USA. Most other countries do not list imports and then I could only rely on numbers of lion trophies listed as “exported”.
  4. “Trophies” can sometimes be listed multiple times in CITES records. For example, a single lion trophy can sometimes be listed twice in the records with separate records for a “skin” and a “skull”. Whenever such records appeared side-by-side, I counted them as a single lion trophy. Whenever an import was listed as a “trophy”, I considered that to represent a single lion.
  5. Records from South Africa are particularly chaotic. It has been estimated in the past that no more than ten truly “wild” lions are hunted per annum (mainly in areas bordering the Kruger and Kalahari/Gemsbok National Parks), and that all the remainder are captive bred lions wrongly exported under the “wild” instead of the “captive” source codes. Source code abuse is against CITES regulations, yet 272 “wild” source lions were exported to the EU and USA in 2014, and 232 to those destinations in 2015. Preliminary records from 2016 show that this source code problem persists.
  6. While the numbers of trophies are listed under a particular year, this does not necessarily mean that those lions were all hunted during that year. These numbers are based on “trade” records – implying the date that the trophy entered the international trade. Lion trophies can spend a considerable time at a taxidermist, meaning that a lion trophy listed under 2015 could have been shot in 2014. However, such delays happen across any given year, meaning that this has an overall averaging effect and numbers presented are likely to be broadly representative of hunting “effort” in any given time period. 




  1. Overall, the numbers from 2014 and 2015 are generally similar (an increase of 6% in “wild” lion numbers and an increase in 4% in “captive” lions in 2015 over 2014).   
  2. Zambia during 2014 and 2015 did not export any trophy lions as there was still a moratorium imposed on lion trophy hunting during that time.
  3. The numbers of “captive” lion trophies exported from South Africa exceeds the numbers of “wild” lion trophies by 750% (but see below).
  4. The number of “captive” lion trophies reported as exported from South Africa during 2014 and 2015 (2,478) can in no way be sustained by the current estimates of 6,000 to 8,000 lions of both sexes and all ages in captivity. While both males and females are hunted, virtually all trophy hunters only seek adults. In captivity and with an optimal feeding regime, lions could reach a “huntable” size at about 4yrs (although “optimal” mane development in male lions could take longer). There are a diversity of possibilities to account for this obvious discrepancy, either alone or in combination:

a)       The unregulated lion breeding industry contains more animals than previously supposed;

b)      CITES records of exports are flawed and seem to be based on the numbers of permits issued rather than the numbers of captive bred lions actually exported as trophies. For example, South Africa reported 1,023 lion trophies exported in 2015 to a diversity of nations while those same countries importing the trophies listed only 588 (a difference of 174%). Starting in 2015 EU countries were required to issue import permits for lion trophies to facilitate better record keeping. South Africa mentions an export of 239 trophies to the EU while the EU only recorded imports of 126 trophies (a difference of 190%), showing that even with the “double checking” provided by import permits significant problems remain. The discrepancy between 2015 captive lion exports from South Africa (export = 723) to the USA (import = 447) is 162%.  

c)       Wild lions illegally hunted in neighbouring countries are being “laundered” as captive-bred lions in South Africa.


Conclusions and summary:


  1. Official CITES trade records indicate that a total of 2,810 lions were exported from Africa under the “trophy” category during 2014-2015.
  2. Eighty-seven percent of this total comprised trophies emanating from the “captive bred” population of South Africa.
  3. There was little change in the numbers of trophy lions exported in 2014 and 2105.
  4. Tanzania and Zimbabwe remain the major exporters of trophies of wild lions (234 during 2014-2015) accounting for 70% of all trophies during this period. Trophy exports at these rates remain of highly questionable sustainability even given the most optimistic lion population counts emanating from these countries. Simply put, given that adult male lions older than six yrs (“huntable males”) comprise about 10% of any lion population, and that “sustainable” rates of trophy hunting offtake are generally estimated at 10% of any population of “hunted” animals, this would require a base population of 23,400 lions WITHIN HUNTING CONCESSIONS in these two countries – already substantially exceeding the total lion population of the entire continent. 
  5. CITES trade records, while almost universally relied on as an indication of the numbers of any particular species involved in trade, are substantially flawed to the extent of hardly being fit for purpose. This is not only because of a delay of about two years before the numbers contained in the records can be assumed to have finalized to any extent, but also because of significant discrepancies between numbers of lion trophies being reported as exported and imported. In addition, in the case of South Africa, source code violations seem rampant and persistent. It is surprising that such discrepancies have not been raised as a matter of concern by the CITES Secretariat or at the triennial CITES Conferences of Parties.
  6. Only in cases where importing nations (or groups of nations like the EU) require the issuance of import permits as well as export permits can any sense be made of numbers of animals in trade. This dual requirement at present only exists for species listed on CITES Appendix I (commercial trade prohibited) and in some cases, as in the EU, for a small subsample of mammalian species in trade (elephant, rhino, polar bear, lion, etc). Given the persistent and widespread discrepancies in import and export numbers of a great variety (if not all) of species contained within CITES trade records, both CITES and importing nations should urgently consider substantial improvements in record keeping of at least those species with significant conservation concerns.  The example of EU lion imports suggests the extent of flawed data being reported to the CITES Secretariat by South African CITES authorities could amount to a discrepancy of 190%.
  7. The rationale for the formation of CITES was to monitor and regulate the trade of wildlife (flora and fauna), and where necessary, impose restrictions on such trade. It goes without saying that accurate record-keeping is the most basic of necessities to facilitate such monitoring. Publication of the CITES Trade Database by UNEP and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre is in their words to provide a portal for practitioners and decision-makers to access information, and the database is widely used not only by the Parties (members) of CITES but also by a great diversity of governmental and non-governmental organizations. This example, and there are doubtless similarities for a diversity of species other than lions, indicates that such record-keeping is not fit for purpose. Consequently, there are no means of assessing the impact of international trade on lion populations, and without the ability to make such independent assessments, few means of assessing the conservation consequences of current “sustainable utilization” programmes. Given that CITES protocols have accepted the concept of the “precautionary principle”, I would strongly recommend that, unless and until significant improvements can be made by the CITES Secretariat and CITES Parties to vastly improve record keeping, all further utilization of lions in any form of international trade (including trophy hunting) be immediately banned.


Posted by Chris Macsween at 18:06

No comments have been posted yet.

Add a new comment

Existing user

New user sign up