Kenya is pushing for an international ban on trade in lion trophies and skins, arguing that the number of the animals has declined sharply over the years as a result of hunting, loss of habitat and lack of prey.
"The number of lions in Africa has declined by between 30 and 50 percent in the past 30 years," Edward Indakwa, Kenya Wildlife Service's spokesman, said Tuesday.
For many years, African tribesmen hunted lions and ate their hearts, hoping this would give them strength and courage. Others kept claws of the big cats, believing this would ward off evil spells from witch doctors. Trophy hunters sought the animals to display their hunting prowess.
Experts estimated there were 200,000 lions across Africa in 1975, Indakwa said, adding that the number declined to an estimated 76,000 animals in 1980.
By 2002, the number had fallen to about 39,000, Indakwa said.
Kenya will press governments to give the African lion maximum protection under an international treaty governing trade in endangered or threatened plants and animals, Indakwa said.
However, neighboring Tanzania disagrees.
"The ban on trade in lion trophies will hurt us a lot," Tanzania's minister for tourism and natural resources, Zakia Meghji, said in a telephone interview from Tanza-nia's commercial capital, Dar es Salaam.
Lions are found only in Africa and Asia. The European, Middle Eastern and Cape lions are extinct.
Hunting of the Asiatic lion is prohibited under the voluntary treaty, known as CITES, because only a few hundred members of the subspecies are left in the wild.
The treaty permits regulated hunting of the African lion. Tanzania, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia sell lucrative hunting licenses to trophy hunters.
Kenya plans to ask CITES next week to list the African lion in its appendix of most endangered species. The group's meeting is set for Oct. 2 to Oct. 14 in Bangkok.
Kenya argues that although half the African lion population is protected inside national parks, there is concern regarding the 50 percent that is outside the parks.
There are reports that lions outside the parks are becoming increasingly rare for several reasons -- they are killed by villagers who regard them as problem animals, the lions' prey is declining and the animals must compete with livestock, Indakwa said.
Diseases in the wild and political instability are also taking their toll.
"A total ban [on hunting lions] is a solution to this problem," Indakwa said. "Then the lion should have a chance."
The lion's image as a strong and courageous animal may not work in its favor, hurting its chances of being declared an endangered species, Indakwa said.
"Very few guys would understand that the lion is under threat, it being a lion," he said. "It makes it a target of hunters and tourists."