Given that in Africa wild lions are in catastrophic decline–the latest International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) figures suggest that fewer than 20 000 remain – it may come as a shock to discover that as many as 10 000 of the continent’s iconic big cats were legally hunted and exported as trophies in the ten years ending in 2013.

The vast majority of these lions were bred in captivity for the purpose of hunting. The mostly American and European sports hunters took the lions to their home countries as trophies–mounted heads or skins for their collections.

The tally for hunted lions is likely even higher than 10 000, says Dereck Joubert, wildlife filmmaker and National Geographic explorer-in-residence, because not all hunters take trophies. Some hunt just for the sport.

WATCH: Conservation couple holds southern African name high on The Ellen DeGeneres Show

Six African countries where lions still range freely–South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Namibia and Tanzania–were analysed using the official CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) trade database, which lists animal and plant products exported and imported internationally.

Kenya and Botswana are two lion-range countries notably omitted from this list. Both countries have outlawed trophy hunting in an effort to boost lion populations, although Botswana only recently adopted this measure.

Even though the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists lions as Vulnerable (facing a high risk of extinction in the wild), African range lions in all six countries are listed by CITES under Appendix II, which means lion products may be exported under a permit system. Permits are granted “if the relevant authorities are satisfied that certain conditions are met, above all that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.”

South Africa Tops List

Of the six nations, South Africa ranks highest in terms of most trophies exported. The country has registered a staggering average of 748 lion trophies exported per year.

Tanzania is next with an annual average of almost 150 lion trophies, followed by Zimbabwe and Zambia (each between 60-70 a year), Mozambique (22) and Namibia less than 20 a year). Botswana, before banning trophy hunting in January 2014, tabled an average of 10 trophies each year.

The figures are not 100 percent accurate as there are a number of discrepancies that creep into the database, such as countries reporting the number of permits issued but not the actual permits used. However, the figures give a general idea of just how impactful trophy hunting is on lions.

Country Exported Trophies 2003-2013 Estimated Wild Lion Population[1] Estimated Captive Lion Population