“Tourists come to Zambia to see the lion and if we lose the lion we will be killing our tourism industry,” Sylvia Maebo told reporters.
The decision comes after an appraisal of cat numbers found species of lions and leopards in the country were being increasingly threatened by its hunting industry, which may come to a grinding halt as stocks began to disappear.
“The cats are gone, and no amount of convincing from any sector or group will convince me otherwise,” the minister said, adding that the profit made from safari hunting in Zambia was too little to merit the continued depletion of local wildlife.
“Why should we lose our animals for £2 million a year? The benefits we get from tourist visits are much higher,” Maebo argued.
The move comes after a similar decision was made to ban sport hunting from 2014, by neighbouring Botswana. Other African nations are expected to join the two countries in protecting the threatened species as population numbers continue to dwindle across the continent.
While the exact number of leopards residing in Zambia is unknown, the local lion population is not believed to exceed more than 5,000.
Animal activist and biologist Dr Pieter Kat, from British charity LionAid welcomed the news, saying that lion numbers have decreased dramatically across the African continent in recent years, and are even extinct in up to 25 nations.
“About 50 years ago we had about 200,000 lions living in Africa,” Kat said.
“I’d estimate from our own research that perhaps today we have about 15,000 left. Now 15,000 still sounds like a relatively large number but, you know, you can’t put more than 15,000 into even a small space,” he argued, adding that poaching was still the greatest threat to the species.
The plight of lions is particularly disheartening in West African countries such as Nigeria and Senegal, where less than 50 lions are believed to roam.
Kat argues much of the problem can be put down to a lack of tourism, caused by ongoing civil unrest, resulting in local national parks and wildlife services starved of much-needed funds.
“There are a lot of these national parks in these countries, but the problem is nobody goes there.”
“While there was that huge interest in maintaining lions as important in culture there hasn’t been the equal response in terms of maintaining lions alive in the wild,” Kat warned.
“Unless those tourism dollars flow, then there is absolutely no reason for people in western Africa to maintain their wildlife populations.”
Lions and leopards are among the “Big 5” group of endangered African animals sought out by sport hunters. The others include rhinos, elephants and buffalo.