Big cats face big threats, here’s how the U.S. can help

Last week, a federal judge sentenced Maria Angela Plancarte and her husband, Elias Garcia Garcia, to a year and a day in prison for smuggling jaguar skins from Mexico to the U.S.  The couple, who was caught selling jaguar skins to federal undercover agents in Florida and Texas, was found guilty of violating the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), under which jaguars are protected.  While the fate of this couple was ultimately determined by the law, the fate of some big cats remains to be determined. 

According to The Fading Call of the Wild report, published in 2010 by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and three partner organizations, 80% of wild cat species are experiencing population decline.  Illegal wildlife trade is just one of the many examples of how big cats are suffering in the wild. Many species of wild cats are also confronted with trophy hunting, poaching, abduction from the wild for the exotic pet trade, habitat loss and retaliatory killings when individual cats come into conflict with humans.

Luckily, jaguars and almost all other big cats are protected under the ESA.  Unfortunately, the king of the jungle—the African lion—does not have these same protections.  Lions are the only great cat not to have any U.S. laws meaningfully protecting them from trophy hunting and commercial trade, thereby allowing Americans to over-exploit this animal.  As shown in the petition filed by IFAW and a coalition of wildlife groups one year ago to list the African lion as endangered under the ESA, lion populations are in steep decline. 

The latest surveys estimate that there are fewer than 30,000 wild lions in Africa today.  If nothing is done, the African lion could be extinct in the wild during our lifetime.  The U.S. is largely responsible for the African lion illegal wildlife trade—60% of all lion exports from Africa, go directly to the U.S.  An ESA listing would help increase lions’ chances of survival in the wild, because if listed lion imports to the U.S. would be generally banned.

The best thing the U.S. government can do to properly protect big cat species from over-exploitation by Americans both here and abroad is offer them safeguards under the ESA.  A listing for African lions would not only heighten awareness on the importance of conserving this species, but more importantly, it would help hold people like Plancarte and Garcia accountable for their actions.  Jaguars, leopards, cheetahs, tigers, snow leopards and African lions—all the world’s biggest cats—are in trouble and need protections from over-exploitation.  As the only big cat left without such protections from needless killings by Americans, it’s time to list the African lion under the ESA.    


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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Elsayed Ahmed Mohamed, Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
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Executive Vice President
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Pauline Verheij, Program Manager, Wildlife Crime
Program Manager, Wildlife Crime
Peter LaFontaine, Campaigns Manager, IFAW Washington, D.C.
Campaigns Manager, IFAW Washington, D.C.
Rikkert Reijnen, Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Country Representative, Germany
Country Representative, Germany
Staci McLennan, Director, EU Office
Director, EU Office
Tania McCrea-Steele, Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy