Today marks World Lion Day, a day to celebrate one of the world’s most iconic species, but also to recognise the increasing threats faced by these magnificent animals.
Sadly, lion populations are in decline across Africa, and it is estimated there are only around 20,000 individuals left in the wild. Like many species, lions face several threats including climate change, loss of habitat and human wildlife conflict. However, there is one threat, which is permitted and facilitated by governments around the world including our own, that has come to symbolise the most egregious and selfish disregard for the future of this species: trophy hunting.
Trophy hunting of lions continues to this day with dozens killed every year by hunters, mainly from the USA and Europe.
By allowing trophy hunters to import their trophies back into the UK, the government is helping to facilitate this harmful and unethical international industry. That is why we at Humane Society International/UK were delighted to see Henry Smith MP recently introduce his Private Members Bill to prohibit the import of certain hunting trophies, including those from threatened and endangered species. As a result of a years-long campaign and a renewed public focus on this important issue following the death of Cecil the lion in 2015, the government made a historic commitment to what would be the world’s strongest hunting trophy import restriction through an election manifesto and four Queen’s Speeches—all of which has now finally culminated in a Bill which, if passed, would prohibit the import of hunting trophies of almost 7,000 species into Great Britain.
This Bill comes not a moment too soon. We are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis, with the UN estimating that one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction, citing direct human exploitation as one of the main driving factors. Many of the world’s most magnificent animals, including lions, are at growing risk of becoming extinct in the wild. Yet in 2022, some British individuals continue to travel the world killing these species, not for self-defence or their own subsistence, but purely for fun, returning home with animals’ body parts to brag to their friends.
As one of the largest and strongest terrestrial predators on earth, lions have been a favourite target for trophy hunters. The chance to dominate the ‘king of the jungle’ is something many hunters lust after. This drive led to the rise of the canned lion industry, where thousands of lions have been bred in captivity in South Africa. These captive-bred lions often first act as hand-raised photo props for tourists wanting to pet or walk with lions, and then when they grow too big, they are then killed by often inexperienced trophy hunters in enclosures.
Most lion trophies imported into the UK are from captive-bred lions; in South Africa, approximately 12,000 captive-bred lions languish in 300 facilities wanton with welfare atrocities and disease. In a acknowledgment of the deep harm this industry causes, South Africa’s Environment Minister Barbara Creecy, announced her support in 2021 of a government High-Level Panel recommendation to end the captive lion industry in South Africa, citing the captive lion breeding industry’s lack of contribution to conservation and the damage it causes to South Africa’s conservation and tourism reputation.
However, the hunting of wild lions is also a welfare and conservation disaster, leading to declines in populations, genetic erosion in populations which can reduce resiliency and adaptability, break downs in social structure and increases in infanticide, due to trophy hunters often targeting the male heads of prides which leads to the subsequent killing of cubs by rival males seeking to take over the prides. Sadly many of these social impacts also apply to other species targeted by trophy hunters including elephants and leopards.
Over the years numerous reports have catalogued the inevitable failure of entrusting the conservation of species to those who seek pleasure from killing them—the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse. It has been shown that trophy hunting can financially incentivise local governments to keep hunting quotas at unsustainably high levels.
The trophy hunting industry claims that the money hunters spend in pursuit of imperilled species supports conservation and local communities, but in reality, these so-called benefits have failed to materialise in any significant way. Studies have shown that hunting programmes can generate just 0.5% of household income for those within the programme, fail to provide an adequate incentive to stop poaching and that trophy hunting makes up as little as 0.03% of GDP in eight trophy hunting African nations.
With alternatives, and more effective options available to support conservation and local communities in range States, the UK government has a social and moral responsibility to ensure their use of public funds supports the most effective, ethical options available as well as the collective will of the citizens they serve. Polls have consistently shown that the majority of UK citizens oppose trophy hunting. And they’re not alone; there is widespread opposition to trophy hunting globally with nearly two-thirds of South Africans and over 8 out of 10 EU citizens opposed to the practice.
It is time we got serious about protecting endangered and threatened species by acknowledging that any system that seeks to commercialise the killing of animals will ultimately fail to protect them and by consigning this grotesque practice to the history books. The new Prime Minister must uphold the manifesto commitment to ban the import of hunting trophies to the UK, support Henry Smith’s Bill, and ramp up funding for non-consumptive conservation programmes to provide sustained and effective protection for at risk species in collaboration with the communities who live alongside them. As Dr Hans Bauer from WildCRU at the University of Oxford put it recently “Ultimately, international solidarity is a much more substantial, and sustainable, source of funding than trophy hunting… Now is surely the time to focus our efforts on far better alternatives for the conservation of lions and other endangered species.”
Arthur Thomas is Public Affairs Manager at Humane Society International UK
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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