Experts are reintroducing seven lions to Rwanda, for the first time since the country's 1994 genocide. Reuters/Peter Andrews

African lions are fast becoming an endangered species. Their numbers have been cut in half since 1980, and today experts estimate there are between 23,000 and 39,000 wild lions on the continent. For just a couple hundred dollars tourists in South Africa can play with lion cubs or take others on a walk. And for just a few thousand dollars they can shoot -- and kill -- one in a confined space.

In the controversial practice of “canned hunting,” participants pay for a trophy hunt in which an animal is kept in an enclosure. The practice virtually guarantees a kill, especially if the animal has spent its life in captivity. It’s a lucrative industry in South Africa, where nature tourism is a substantial part of the economy, and, ironically, can provide funds for animal conservation efforts.

But animal rights activists have been working to ban the practice, which they say is cruel to the big cats and, despite the hefty price tag, isn’t as much of an economic boost as it seems.

“The primary perceived benefit associated with captive-bred lion hunting is that it reduces hunting pressure on wild lion populations and contributes to the South African economy, whereas the main perceived costs are ethical concerns and the negative publicity generated for the hunting industry as a whole,” reads a paper from researchers at the University of Pretoria and the University of Cape Town.

Generally, the life cycle of a captive lion in South Africa starts in one of dozens of farms that legally breed big cats around the country, according to the Guardian. When cubs are separated from the mother, tourists are allowed to play, cuddle and take pictures with them before heading out on a safari. Once the lion becomes an adult, it’s sent away -- most likely to be hunted.

“There is no other market for adult lions other than the hunting industry,” Chris Mercer, who is running a campaign to outlaw the practice, said in a CBS report about the industry that aired Sunday. “Lions eat meat. Meat’s expensive. So every day that huntable lion remains with the breeder is money lost. They have to get rid of it. And it’s the hunting operation that takes it.”

Tourists then have the chance to hunt the lion, which, having been raised in captivity, isn’t as tough to kill as its counterparts in the wild. Success rates are about 99.2 percent, compared with between 51 and 96 percent in a wild hunt. Breeders can make up to $25,000 for every lion killed, according to CNN, though CBS reports that the price can be up to $100,000.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified the African lion as “vulnerable.” And while trophy hunting carried out in a number of sub-Saharan African countries is sometimes an important way to provide financial resources for communities and even lion conservation efforts, “there is concern that current management regimes can lead to unsustainable offtakes,” the IUCN noted in its report.

The economics are important. Travel and tourism contributed about 9.5 percent of South Africa’s struggling economy last year and supported 645,000 jobs, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. Some estimates say revenues from hunting generate $200 million annually in remote areas in Africa.

However, a recent report from Economists at Large, commissioned for the African Lion Coalition, suggests that hunting companies contribute less than 3 percent of their revenue to local communities.

“Nature-based tourism does play a significant role in national development, but trophy hunting is insignificant,” the report says. The group found that in South Africa, for example, just 1.2 percent of tourism revenue comes from trophy hunting specifically. “In the context of national economies, the industry is tiny, contributing at best a fraction of a percent of GDP,” the report says.

However, the legal practice continues, with increasing interest from foreign tourists. In 2011, 70 lion “trophies” were exported to China, Laos and Vietnam, up from just two in 2001, the Guardian reported. Americans are also a major market, but that may soon change.

“U.S. hunters -- the vast majority of who strongly support sustainable game management -- make up a disproportionately large share of foreign hunters who book trophy hunts in Africa,” reads a statement from Dan Ashe, service director at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency recently proposed that African lions be listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, which would impose stricter rules on the import of trophies from certain countries. Animal rights groups hailed news of the proposal, which will be open for comment until the end of January.

“Listing African lions as an endangered species and banning trophy imports to the U.S. would send an important message,” wrote Jeff Flocken, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, in a National Geographic op-ed in response to the news. “The African lion is disappearing, and the global community needs to act to stop the trend before it is too late or too costly to reverse.”