Britain must ban trophy imports and help end the horrors of lion hunting. By allowing the import of items such as lion heads, this country supports a cruel and murky industry.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) recently launched a public consultation on the scale and impact of the import and export of hunting trophies. This matter is close to the hearts of Boris Johnson and his partner, Carrie Symonds, with good reason. What I have learned over the last 18 months about the evil taking place in South Africa’s lion industry, one of the principal areas relevant to Defra’s review, has shocked me profoundly.
Specious reasons based on bogus science and unsustainable statistics will be used to maintain the status quo. But while ministers are listening, these must be challenged.
It is a little-known fact that whereas there are now 3,000 wild lions in South Africa, there are also an estimated 12,000 captive-bred lions. The vast majority of them end up being killed for their bones or as hunting trophies.
The lion industry involves the exploitation of these predators from the moment they are born in captivity. Cubs are snatched from their mothers when days old, held in tourist facilities and petting farms until they are juveniles, and then often shot in sham “canned” hunts. These take place in a fenced enclosure from which the lions, which are relatively tame, have no chance of escape. Their heads are usually kept as trophies by whoever shot them while their bones are sold to dealers in Asia’s “traditional” medicine market.
My desire is that these grim practices end, and the import of lion trophies to the UK is banned. Nobody can stop people going to South Africa to shoot lions, but we can lower the number of lions killed by making the activity pretty much pointless. The best way of achieving this is to forbid hunters from bringing their trophies back to Britain.
Before I investigated lion farming generally, I looked into trophy hunting. I met interested parties from all sides of the argument. Although the idea of killing wild animals for fun appalls me, I have tried to keep an open mind.
Firstly, I have discovered that by allowing trophy imports to the UK, this country is undermining the efforts of other nations which have imposed a ban on trophy imports. The reason is that Britain is being used as a smuggling route. I believe this applies to all animals. Second, there are about 20,000 wild lions left in Africa. They are listed by several agencies as “vulnerable” rather than “critically endangered”. But it is time to admit that species lists are often drawn up by states which have a vested interest in exploiting these creatures. The UK has the freedom to use these lists as the lowest common denominator. We can do better by setting an example to the world.
Third, it is worth reflecting on why trophy hunters hunt. Professor Marc Bekoff, who has examined the psychology of trophy hunters since the scandalous killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe in 2015, has said: “This ‘costly signalling’ provides a way for men to accrue status. And status is universally important for men to ward off competition and attract mates.”
So, the main purpose of trophy hunting as far as hunters are concerned is probably to boost their standing. It has nothing to do with conservation, as the hunting lobby states. And I have seen scant evidence that hunting, or the profits from it, go into conservation or land management. It is largely a cash business with few staff on low wages. By comparison, photographic tourism employs many more people, including in guiding and hospitality. After all, scores of tourists with cameras can wander around a game park, but you can only have one hunter there with a gun.
Aligned to the conservation argument, the hunting lobby asserts that hunters only kill animals that need culling and do not affect the breeding stock. This is false. Lions are hunted according to their quality. Healthy adult males with large manes are the most sought after. Trophy hunting kills the very best of the species, diminishing the quality of the pride.
A further myth is that hunters are efficient in dispatching their prey. Often, lions are shot at close range from the back of a vehicle. Many canned hunters are not good shots and may require several attempts to kill the animal, meaning it dies slowly and painfully. The level of cruelty I am aware of would shock even those who are pro-hunting.
The lion farming and trophy hunting businesses are opaque. The origins and destination of the money involved is murky. They rely on illegal activity, including enticing prime specimens from protected areas, taking more kills than are licensed, and issuing more licences than legally permitted. Criminality and corruption are rife.
I support a total ban on trophy imports with the exception of a licensing regime for research purposes. I urge the Government to consider introducing penalties for breaching this ban that are of the same order as those that exist for the illegal importation of Class A drugs or weapons to Britain.