By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
The number of leopards in sub-Saharan Africa has plummeted by 30% in just the last 20 years, putting the future of these unique animals in jeopardy. Yet the U.S. government continues to allow Americans to import nearly 300 leopard trophies a year.
Today, the Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International, along with our coalition partner Center for Biological Diversity and a South Africa-based ecotourism safari operator involved in the conservation of big cats, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for allowing these imports. Our lawyers also sent the agency a letter urging it to act on our 2016 petition asking for full protections for African leopards under the Endangered Species Act, which could drastically cut the number of leopards recklessly killed to import as trophies into the United States and would allow the public to weigh in on these important agency decisions.
Leopards in Africa are in dire need of protection. They face multiple threats to their survival, including habitat loss, lack of prey, persecution by people, the illegal skin trade and trophy hunting. American trophy hunters have contributed heavily to this decline, importing more than half of all leopard trophies traded throughout the world.
The lawsuit we filed today focuses on leopards imported from Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique—the United States has imported more than 1,000 leopard trophies from these countries alone within a recent five-year period.
We strongly believe that the USFWS has a responsibility to ensure that this outsized contribution to leopard trophy hunting isn’t pushing these animals faster toward extinction. But instead of doing the right thing, the agency is rubber-stamping trophy imports without conducting a full analysis of the threats to the species, and without basic data such as how many leopards even exist in many of these African leopard range states. Without such reliable data, it should not be approving a single trophy import.
These actions, as our lawsuit shows, are also clearly in violation of the USFWS’s own regulations implementing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international treaty that regulates the trade of listed species.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has already designated leopards as “vulnerable.” Leopards in 18 countries spanning the lower half of the African continent are currently listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. But we need stronger protections if we are to save this species. The USFWS has a legal obligation to act on our 2016 petition to list all leopards as endangered within a year of receiving that petition. But the only thing the agency did soon after we filed our petition is to make an initial determination that an endangered listing may be warranted. It has been silent since. The letter we sent the agency today puts it on notice that we intend to bring a second lawsuit if it does not take action on our petition within 60 days.
Leopards are remarkable creatures, known for their spotted hides and stealthy mannerisms. They are also admired for being among the fastest runners in the animal kingdom. Unfortunately, the threats they face today are too immense for them to outrun. We are calling on the USFWS to stop pandering to powerful gun and trophy hunting lobbies and do the right thing to protect these animals. Otherwise, the only place we might see leopards in the future is as a head or a rug in a trophy hunter’s living room.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.