WASHINGTON - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week that it will consider adding African lions to the endangered species list, a move that organizations seeking the listing say would help reverse the decline of the species.

If the government decides lions warrant a threatened or endangered listing, it would be largely symbolic. But lions are a powerful worldwide symbol of Africa and adding them to the U.S. list would make it even more difficult to import hides or trophies and would give the conservation effort more credibility in the international community.

"Today's decision is an important first step as we work to protect the African lion -- a species confronted with mounting threats and a steep population decline," Jeff Flocken, the Washington director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, an advocacy group, said in a statement.

The Humane Society of the United States estimates that African lions have declined by more than 50 percent in the past three decades. Fewer than 35,000 may remain today in 27 African countries.

The lions already have some protected status, meaning that their trade is heavily regulated under separate international treaties.

The main goal of the Endangered Species Act is to protect and recover species in the wild, said Chris Tollefson, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service. So although a listing could help conservation efforts, the United States can't force foreign governments to take any particular action. However, the Fish and Wildlife Service already offers help to African nations fighting poaching, particularly of black rhino and elephant tusks.

Mostly, listing a species outside of the United States helps ensure that U.S. citizens don't contribute to the further decline of that species in its native habitat.

It also could create a stricter permitting process, which would require anyone seeking to import or trade in or transport a listed species such as lions (or lion parts) to get a permit.

Lion hunting is allowed under some circumstances in 18 African countries, the Humane Society said. Botswana recently outlawed the practice.

The government's move doesn't mean the Fish and Wildlife Service believes lions should be listed. It merely triggers a status review that will be based on the best available scientific and commercial information, the agency said.