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British Lion Debates Ban on Lion Trophies

The lion has long been a traditional symbol of the United Kingdom. Lions feature prominently in the royal coat of arms. The touring rugby football team representing the UK is nicknamed “the Lions.” The UK was often portrayed in political cartoons as the British Lion, similar to the Russian Bear or the American Eagle.

So it is heartening that the British Lion may be taking up the cause of the last wild lions in the world.

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Illustration of Royal Arms of England from Wikimedia Commons.

The Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight, Andrew Turner, drew the attention of the House of Commons last week to the matter of hunting the big cats for sport, and called for a British Government ban on the importation of lion trophies.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Richard Benyon, responded for the government. He undertook to look into the matter and report back the findings.

Here is an edited extract of Turner’s remarks and the reaction of Minister Benyon. It’s worth reading in full.

Excerpted from Hansard (official record of Parliamentary debate on November 17, 2010)

By Andrew Turner (MP for the Isle of Wight):

Many people are amazed that the UK still allows such trophies to be imported.

I became personally interested in the issue during a campaign organised by the charity LionAid to highlight rapidly declining lion populations. With LionAid, I visited the Isle of Wight Zoo, where a majestic white lion named Casper served as an ambassador for their message.

LionAid works to protect and conserve lions and raise awareness of their plight. One of its trustees, Chris Macsween, is present today. I thank her and Dr Pieter Kat for their help in preparing for this debate.

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A lion in the Okavango Delta area of Botswana.

NGS stock photo by Jodi Cobb

I would like to outline a few facts about the decline of this magnificent big cat.

Lions used to be widespread across Africa–indeed, they used to be found in southern Europe, across the middle east and well into India–but today, they are found only in sub-Saharan Africa, except for one small remnant population left in western India.

Everywhere else, they have been persecuted and eradicated.

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In the 1960s, it was estimated that there were 200,000 lions on the African continent. Sadly, only 20,000 are left today. In central and western Africa, only a few scattered groups remain, numbering not more than a few dozen individuals.

In all Africa, it is estimated that that only six significant populations are left–in Tanzania, northern Botswana, and the Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Recent surveys in Ghana have shown that lions have become locally extinct. Kenya and Uganda have both announced that they estimate that their lion populations will become extinct in the next ten years or so. In Nigeria, evidence of lions was discovered in only two of six locations where they were thought to exist until recently.

The causes of the decline are largely attributable to humans protecting their own lives and livestock. Lion habitat is increasingly being given over to agriculture to feed the rapidly growing human population. Where lions come into contact with humans, history has long shown that lions must make way.

Realistically, such decline is not preventable and there will never be 200,000 lions in Africa again. However, with the lion population in such rapid decline, it is surprising that sport hunting is still permitted in the wild. We must not underestimate the impact such hunting has on lion numbers. Again, I shall provide some facts on that.

Click here to read about the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative, a project to restore and conserve the last wild lions in Africa.

Mike Crockart (Edinburgh West): Does my hon. Friend agree that the most worrying aspect of trophy hunting is that it concentrates almost exclusively on the male lions? Although total populations may be around 20,000 in Africa, only some 3,000 of those are males, which means the species is even more at risk.

Mr Turner: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will come on to that point later. Between 2000 and 2008, some 4,250 wild lions were exported as trophies. I make that distinction because South Africa specifically breeds lions for captive hunting.

Sport hunting refers to animals killed for the prize of an animal trophy, usually the skin or mounted head of the animal. That can be done legally in a few places, such as game reserves. However, illegal sport hunting across Africa and poachers selling on lion trophies to the rest of the world is a real issue.

Sport hunting mostly targets adult male animals. Hunters regard them as the most impressive to kill. Out of the 20,000 lions that remain in Africa, there are lions of all ages and both sexes, from the youngest cub to the most ancient female.

“Specific removal from any population, particularly one in free-fall, is neither ethical nor sustainable. Taking out male lions that cannot be replaced is aptly called ‘mining.'”

However, it is estimated that only 15 percent at most of any lion population is composed of adult males–the primary trophy targets. Therefore, instead of the figure of 20,000, we must think of 3,000 as the trophy hunting reserve. That figure is further reduced by subtracting the male lions who live in protected areas, such as Kruger National Park. That level of specific removal from any population, particularly one in free-fall, is neither ethical nor sustainable. Taking out male lions that cannot be replaced is aptly called “mining.”

Top Five Trophy Exporting Countries

Where did all those trophies originate from? Between 2002 and 2007, the number of trophies exported was more than 1,000 from Tanzania, 935 from South Africa, 455 from Zimbabwe, 283 from Zambia, and 97 from Mozambique. Those are the top five exporting countries.

Based on lion population estimates for 2002, the percentage of the wild lion population that was exported in that year was 13 percent in Tanzania, 33 percent in South Africa, 32 percent in Zimbabwe, 14 percent in Zambia and 11 percent in Mozambique. I stress that those percentages are based on the total population, not the adult male population. I hope we can all agree that such a situation cannot continue.

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Lioness (Panthera leo) resting in crotch of tree. Zambezi River area.

NGS stock photo by Chris Johns

Lions are social animals. Their family unit is the pride. Pride territories are held long term by the females, while adult males emigrate from their original prides. They become nomadic for some time and then challenge resident males to gain their chance at reproduction.

A feature of lion biology is that victorious incoming males will kill cubs belonging to the previous pride males. That ensures that newly won females will raise the cubs with their genes instead of those belonging to their predecessor.

Females need at least 30 months to successfully raise cubs. That becomes an issue, given the length of time between the previous males, and loss due to hunting of the incoming males. In other words, a rapid turnover in males can result in no reproduction at all in a pride. Such a rapid turnover is entirely predictable; indeed, it is inevitable when male lions are trophy hunted.

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A male lion braces himself against a dust storm created by a thunderstorm. Botswana.

NGS stock photo by Chris Johns

Lions have socially complex lives. There are many reasons why they should not be the target of sport hunting, apart from the simple fact that there are dwindling numbers.

Disease is also an important consideration. In 1994, more than 1,000 lions died in the Serengeti in Tanzania alone because of an outbreak of canine distemper. Bovine tuberculosis is a severe threat to the lions in Kruger National Park in South Africa. Both diseases have domestic animal origins. Feline immunodeficiency virus–a cause of feline AIDS–is widespread among eastern and southern African lion populations and affects both reproduction and longevity. Such diseases contribute to the overall decline and instability of the few remaining lion populations.

“Stronger action should clearly have been taken before now to prevent lion trophy hunting.”

Stronger action should clearly have been taken before now to prevent lion trophy hunting. Relevant international organisations include the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. They have been entrusted with the conservation and regulation of international trade in species to conserve biodiversity. Both organisations have listed lions as vulnerable for many years. However, rather than taking effective action, sadly, those organisations have overseen their decline.

For example, the last time lions were on the CITES agenda was in 2004, when Kenya requested an upgrade on to appendix I. That is the highest list for endangered animals, and being on it would have imposed severe restrictions on all international trade. Such action was watered down by members of the convention and instead it called for regional meetings, so that individual range states with a recognised lion population could agree on lion conservation needs. Those meetings were, in fact, in part financed by the UK. The meeting for eastern and southern African range states has, to this day, failed to meet any significant deadlines or act on any important recommendations.

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A portrait of a female African lion.

NGS stock photo by Chris Johns

Lions have not even appeared on the CITES agenda in 2007 or 2010. It should be noted that CITES votes are often influenced by powerful lobbying and special interest groups. That was apparent at the most recent meeting in Doha. Efforts to protect the threatened bluefin tuna-a staple ingredient in sushi-were defeated in the face of staunch opposition from Japan. Significantly, powerful so-called pro-sport hunting lobbies have boasted about defeating moves to add lions to the agenda, and they have already announced their intention to block any such consideration at the next CITES meeting in 2013. One such lobbying group, Safari Club International, has pledged financial support to assist CITES with current budget troubles.

What Range States are Doing

What are the individual range states doing? It is a mixed picture. Only Kenya has had a long-standing, anti-trophy hunting stance. Uganda has announced that hunting in reserves will cease by 2011. Botswana announced a reversible moratorium on lion trophy hunting in 2008. Tanzania and Mozambique have implemented stricter controls on the minimum age at which male lions can be killed for trophies, but they have not stopped the practice. Other range states, such as Cameroon, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia, have not implemented specific plans to save their dwindling lion populations. They might have good intentions, but they have yet to take effective action.

I accept that the UK is a relatively minor importer of wild lion trophies overall, having imported about 50 between 2002 and 2008, compared with 317 for Spain, 274 for France, 170 for Mexico, 146 for Germany and a staggering 2,792 for the United States. Britain also imported 11 captive-bred lion trophies during the same period. Therefore, it could well be asked why we are being asked to take a stance, since we are such a minor part of the problem. Could not the issue be much more effectively discussed by the United States? I believe that to take such an attitude would be mistaken for two reasons.

“Lion symbols are found practically everywhere we turn: in our statues, our emblems and even our sports teams. We, perhaps more than any other nation, have taken lions to heart to stand for attributes that we admire, such as courage, steadfastness, loyalty, and nobility.”

First, the UK is a country, more than any other, where symbolism of lions is important to the public and central to our national identity. Lion symbols are found practically everywhere we turn: in our statues, our emblems and even our sports teams. We, perhaps more than any other nation, have taken lions to heart to stand for attributes that we admire, such as courage, steadfastness, loyalty, and nobility.

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Cartoon depicting Britain as a lion from Wikimedia Commons.

Secondly, our voice is a powerful one among nations. We are a leading member of the Commonwealth, the United Nations and even the Common Market. We are signatories to the convention on biological diversity and other international conventions. A leadership position adopted by the British Government would support range states in resisting the massive pressures they face from the trophy hunting lobbyists and help them to implement their good intentions. Our nation should set a strong precedent, rather than meekly following in the footsteps of others and thus allowing the extinction of lions in the wild.

In 2004, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) asked what action the Government were taking to save the lion. She was told that the then Labour Government would press for “collaborative action” through CITES to ensure that the lion does not become endangered. However, the fate of the lion was not even placed on the CITES agenda in 2007 or 2010. The next meeting is not until 2013. I hope the new Government will take decisive action to save these majestic animals. The first step is banning the import into the UK of lion trophies and taking a lead on the issue now, before it is too late, and before the wild African lion is lost for ever.

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Cast bronze lion head on the barrel of a cannon forged in 1537, Portsmouth, England.

NGS stock photo by Victor R. Boswell, Jr. 

Response by Richard Benyon, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) on securing the debate and speaking so passionately on a matter that is clearly of great concern to him. I also pay tribute to LionAid and the conservation work done by the Isle of Wight zoo. The work of such organisations does have an effect, but we must ensure that it does not come too late for some species, and I agree about the urgent need for action.

I share his concern and am equally passionate about the subject. I am lucky enough to have seen a considerable number of lions in the wild, and I want my children and grandchildren to have the same experience.

“Greenest Government Ever”

The Government have set out to be the greenest ever, and we carry that ethos into our international dealings. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has recently returned from the conference for the parties to the convention on biological diversity in Nagoya, where she played a pivotal role in securing a range of historic agreements that will benefit biodiversity across the globe.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight pointed out, the African lion has been in decline for many decades and has come under increasing pressure as a result of the spread of mankind across Africa. As he acknowledged, most of the animals killed by man have been killed to protect people or livestock, but several countries in sub-Saharan Africa allow people to hunt lions for sport.

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A very close portrait of the face of a male African lion.

NGS stock photo by Chris Johns

There is little we can do to control what occurs within another country’s borders, but we can and do seek to influence them when we are concerned about how they are acting. For instance, Ministers can write to their opposite numbers in a country to draw attention to our concerns or raise issues during official visits.

We can also use our membership of international conventions to bring influence or provoke reflection. I have already mentioned the recent successes achieved through the CBD, and my hon. Friend mentioned CITES, a convention that is intended specifically to regulate trade in wildlife, both fauna and flora, to ensure that the survival of species in the wild is not threatened.

The UK, along with 174 other countries, is a party to CITES. The convention looks to regulate the import and export of around 33,000 specimens of wild plants and animals through a licensing system. Trade in those specimens most at risk is effectively banned, except in exceptional circumstances, by placing them on its appendix I. The African lion is presently on appendix II, which allows for regulated and sustainable trade.

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A male lion feeds on a young elephant. Zakouma National Park, Chad.

NGS stock photo by Michael Nichols

As my hon. Friend has stated, lion numbers are clearly in decline. In 2008, the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared in its red list assessment that the wild population of African lions was “vulnerable”, and the two most recent assessments of population size declared that the population was somewhere between 16,500 and 47,000. An accurate assessment is, for obvious reasons, notoriously difficult to calculate, but we know that the population is decreasing.

The threats to the species are numerous, but in 2004 the threat of trade was not thought sufficient to uplist the species to CITES appendix I, and no range state felt that it was necessary to make such a proposal at the two subsequent conferences of the parties, where such decisions are taken, in 2007 and 2010. CITES works by range states making such proposals to ensure that there is support from the affected region.

Kenya to Take the Lead

Therefore, we would look to countries such as Kenya to take the lead, as it has the most knowledge of the situation and the tools to implement any measures required. Kenya proposed uplisting the lion to appendix I in 2004, but the parties to CITES felt that the preparation and implementation of management plans would suffice, and as a result Kenya withdrew its proposal.

I am happy to report that we work closely with Kenya’s wildlife service and are supporting it actively and financially in certain activities, particularly in support for elephant populations. I will continue to build on my relationship with Ministers there and will work with colleagues across Government to take forward the points that my hon. Friend has raised.

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Lion cubs crying after their mother was poisoned at a water hole. Chad.

NGS stock photo by Michael Nichols

I should point out that, as a consequence of the EU single market, CITES has been transposed into European law via regulations that have direct effect in all member states. Those regulations list species in annexes, roughly equivalent to the CITES appendices, and also impose a number of stricter measures, including the requirement for member states to issue import permits in addition to the export permits issued by the exporting country. However, hunting trophies are regarded in international terms as personal and household effects, as the commercial transaction occurred within another country rather than across borders, so no import permit is required for appendix II species, although they are for annex I species.

“If it is managed properly and the income is fed back into conservation schemes and the local community, trophy hunting can have, and has had, a positive effect.”

Trophy hunting is often an emotive subject, but many recognise that, if managed properly, it can actually benefit conservation. Hunters can pay large sums of money for the privilege of hunting, particularly for Africa’s “big five”, which includes the lion. If it is managed properly and the income is fed back into conservation schemes and the local community, trophy hunting can have, and has had, a positive effect.

Also, the value that hunting places on wildlife can often mean that some species are viewed differently by locals than they might previously have been, because they have a value and are more than just killers of livestock and a danger to families. Those who hunted those animals for food or their own protection in the past might now view their conservation as a sound investment. It is essential, of course, that such enterprises are managed effectively, with the conservation of the species being of paramount importance. Recent studies published earlier this year have raised some questions about lion trophy hunting.

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A large group of lions feed on a young elephant. Zakouma National Park, Chad.

NGS stock photo by Michael Nichols

Lion populations may be sparse in certain areas, but there may be concentrations of them in other areas. Our support for countries, and international operations, must be on the basis of better information about where the animals are, and the support that we can give to communities as a result.

For example, until recently, Tanzania had authorised the taking of up to 500 animals per year, although our records suggest that takes have usually been in the mid 200s. Many of those animals are taken abroad as hunting trophies after they have been killed. The recent report into the status of lions in Tanzania makes several recommendations, including reduction of the quota, but we have yet to ascertain how Tanzania has reacted or will react to the recommendations.

As I have already made clear, it is for individual countries to manage their own wildlife, and, in the case of animals that can be killed, possibly for hunting trophies, to set their own quotas for each species, dependent on the population size. However, if there are concerns that trophy hunting is unsustainable in some places, we and the EU can raise questions and support tighter controls. Where we have such concerns, we would contact the exporting country concerned and normally also pass on our concerns to the CITES secretariat for broader consideration.

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Male African lion and half-eaten zebra carcass under a tree. Kruger National Park, South Africa.

NGS stock photo by James P. Blair

As CITES is a matter of EU competence and with the EU being a significant trading block for wildlife as well as everything else, it means that if the EU has concerns about the sustainability of wildlife it can bring considerable influence to bear through wildlife trade. Until the most recent reports voiced concern about the levels of some hunting trophy activities, the international community was not considering whether trade in lion trophies or the use of lion derivatives in medicines-another important point-posed sufficient threat to merit additional protection under CITES.

However, the UK is presently a member of the CITES animals committee and its standing committee. As a result of recent reports and my hon. Friend’s debate today, I have asked my officials to look into the matter to see what opportunities are presented, and I shall report their findings to him. I hope that he is convinced from what I have said that the Government take seriously the conservation of international wildlife, including the lion, and I look forward to working with him on any further concerns that he has.

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Royal Standard of England illustration from Wikimedia Commons.

Read more about the plight of lions and other big cats and what concerned people across the world are doing to help them, on the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative website.   

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