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How a new U.S. law protects lions in Africa

African lions are getting new protections from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Five months after an American hunter killed an animal named Cecil in Zimbabwe, a new classification will help prohibit imports of lion trophies from Central and West Africa. Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the change.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Next: The Obama administration today took steps in this country to protect lions in Africa under the Endangered Species Act.

    Jeffrey Brown has that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed Central and West African lions as endangered, generally prohibiting importation of lion trophies from that region into the U.S. Lions in Southern and Eastern Africa are now classified as threatened, which will allow U.S. trophy imports only under certain conditions.

    The move comes five months after an American hunter killed a lion named Cecil outside a national park in Zimbabwe, and almost five years after U.S. conservation groups petitioned for greater protections for lions.

    For more, I am joined by Daniel Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    And welcome to you.

    DANIEL ASHE, Director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Thank you, Jeff.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Why now? Is it right to see the killing of Cecil as a kind of game changer that galvanized public attention and now government action?

  • DANIEL ASHE:

    Well, we have been considering the listing of the lion for more than five years. We were petitioned under the Endangered Species Act, so that's been our responsibility.

    And we proposed listing the lion back in October of 2014, before the controversy over Cecil the lion, but Cecil and that controversy certainly have galvanized public emotions about lions and I think brings us to where we are today.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Advocacy groups have wondered what took so long.

  • DANIEL ASHE:

    Well, we are a scientific organization. And we're dealing with what many scientists call the sixth mass extinction.

    So we have many, many priorities, a lot of work under the Endangered Species Act. This is one of those things. And we have had lots of comment and lots of science to pore through.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Why would a U.S. — explain this to people. Why would a U.S. law or a designation have such a big impact on what happens in Africa and in what ways would it have an impact?

  • DANIEL ASHE:

    That's one of the great successes of the U.S. Endangered Species Act is that it projects U.S. leadership into world conservation.

    The economy of the United States oftentimes causes species' extension and decline. But, in this case, we can use the power of the U.S. economy and our position as a trade leader to influence conservation of species like the lion.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Explain the distinction that I mentioned here between them and the reasons for the distinction between putting some lions on the endangered list and some on the threatened list.

  • DANIEL ASHE:

    So, the law allows us to protect subspecies, as well as species. And so the science tells us that there are two species of lion, one, the Asiatic line.

    What used to be considered Asiatic lion closely related to lions in Northern and Western Africa, and then another distinct subspecies in Southern and Eastern Africa.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But why not go further? Why not go further with the other species?

  • DANIEL ASHE:

    Well, the one species, Panthera leo leo, is — only 900 of them remain in the wild, so severely endangered and in very small populations.

    The other subpopulation, leo melanochaita, is — there are about 17,000 to 20,000 of them in the wild. So, they're in better condition. And some of those populations have actually been increasing during the last decade.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, that raises the question, how dire is the population problem? What is the real problem here at the core?

  • DANIEL ASHE:

    Well, at the core, this problem is human conflict with lions.

    So, we're seeing human and human economies occupying the same habitat that lions need to prosper. And so, as populations increase and become more affluent in Africa, we're seeing more conflict with lion. And so the future for lion is bleak at this point in time and we could be looking at a future where there is nothing called a lion in the wild, unless we take important actions. And that's what we're doing today.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The hunting industry, of course, has argued for a long time that, A, ~hunting can be controlled, and, B, that the money that comes from these hunts provide resources for conservation in countries that often do not have enough money, enough funds.

  • DANIEL ASHE:

    And that argument in general is a good argument. And we see that here in the United States, where hunting, well-regulated and managed hunting, can ensure prosperous wildlife populations.

    But I think, in Africa — and as we think about the plight of the lion and the drastic declines that~ we have seen, I like to think of a Zimbabwean proverb that says, until the side of the lion can be told, the story of the hunt always glorifies the hunter.

    And what we need to do in the United States is, we need to do better. The United States needs to do better and can do better. The hunting industry needs to do better and can do better. And the American hunter in particular needs to do better and can do better. And our listing today, we think, is going to provide that kind of incentive.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Daniel Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, thanks so much.

  • DANIEL ASHE:

    Thank you, Jeff.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    As the drought drags on in the Western part of the country, Lake Mead in Nevada is sitting with water at its lowest point since the 1930s. But there has been one silver lining of late for that area: Lake Mead has been revealing some of its deepest secrets as the water levels drop.

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