WASHINGTON—In response to a lawsuit by animal protection and conservation groups, today the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally agreed to a June 2027 deadline to determine if leopards warrant increased protection under the Endangered Species Act. Increased safeguards would ensure closer scrutiny of African leopard trophy imports and help boost funding to counter suspected population declines.
Humane Society International, the Humane Society of the United States and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition in July 2016 requesting additional protections for leopards. The groups sued in November 2021 after the Fish and Wildlife Service missed its legal deadline for responding to the petition and failed to even set a timeline for its response. As part of the settlement, USFWS agreed to the new, binding deadline.
“The leopard is being driven to extinction by so many human-induced threats already, and U.S. hunters who kill these magnificent animals only to satiate their selfish desire for macabre trophies to display in their homes or to take selfies with their kills are only exacerbating their decline,” said Sarah Veatch, wildlife policy director for Humane Society International. “It is critical that this iconic species receives the full Endangered Species Act protections they so desperately need before it is too late.”
Wild populations of African leopards are thought to be declining because of habitat loss and fragmentation, human persecution, illegal wildlife trade, ceremonial use of skins, prey decline and poorly managed trophy hunting. The United States is the world’s biggest importer of African leopard hunting trophies. Between 2014 and 2018, U.S. hunters imported trophies of 1,640 leopards, more than half of those globally traded.
The leopard is legally protected as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, but the animals are currently exempt from the ESA’s strictest limitations on trophy imports. The lax existing provisions facilitate the outsized role the United States plays in driving trophy hunting of the species.
“The government left imperiled leopards to languish in legal limbo, but now we’re hoping for decisive action to protect these beautiful animals,” said Tanya Sanerib, international legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These iconic big cats are tanking. While we have the legal tools to help them, the government hasn’t acted. With an extinction crisis looming larger than life, we need proactive wildlife protection from the Biden administration to save life on Earth.”
The heightened protections sought in the petition would ensure closer scrutiny of African leopard trophy imports, making it more difficult to import them into the country.
- The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the leopard as “vulnerable,” meaning it is facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. According to IUCN, by 2015 the sub-Saharan African leopard population had likely declined by more than 30% over the prior 22 years, and that population is continuing to decline. Leopards are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, human persecution, illegal wildlife trade, ceremonial use of skins, prey base declines and poorly managed trophy hunting.
- Leopard populations in Asia and northern Africa are listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. However, leopards in 18 countries in sub-Saharan Africa are listed as “threatened” under the law, and those leopards are not entitled to the ESA’s full range of protections.
- While leopards receive the strictest protections under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, unscientific leopard export quotas and lax application of CITES import and export requirements have allowed for a poorly regulated and unsustainable trophy industry that is fueled in large part by U.S. hunters.