Anniversary of Cecil the Lion’s death revives call for government to take stance on animal trophy imports

On the 1st of July, 2015, Cecil the Lion was killed by trophy hunter Walter Palmer, an American dentist who paid over £30,000 to unknowingly kill one of Africa’s most famous lions. It is believed that Palmer wished to take home parts of Cecil to display as hunting trophies, to add to his gruesome collection of rhino, bear, buffalo and multiple other animal trophies that he had accumulated over the years at great expense of both life and money.

Sadly, it took the death of Cecil – who was a popular favourite for tourists and researchers at Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe – for worldwide attention to fall upon the issue of trophy hunting. Trophy hunting is a multimillion dollar industry that sees wealthy hunters pay thousands of pounds for a licence to hunt, kill and import a wide variety of animals to be used as trophies, mostly as a decorative show of power or status on display in their homes or offices. Cecil’s controversial death inspired calls for these trophy imports to be banned, so as to stifle this lucrative bloodsport.

The global response to Cecil’s death lead to an immediate resurgence of anti-trophy hunting rhetoric on the global stage, with France banning the import of lion trophies late in 2015 and the Netherlands issuing a total ban of trophy imports from a list of more than 200 specified species in 2016. Shortly after Cecil’s death, Environment Minister Rory Stewart stated in a parliamentary debate that:

… the Government will ban the importation of trophies into Britain unless we see very significant improvements in what is happening in Africa.

Mr. Stewart emphasised that this would take place over 2 years, essentially establishing a timeline for a decision to be made at the end of 2017. On the 2nd year anniversary of Cecil’s death, the League Against Cruel Sports and its supporters will be calling on the UK government to uphold this pledge. Little has been done in key African countries to protect the African lion from declining population numbers, which are buffeted by the actions of illegal conservation projects that support trophy hunting activities.

The trophy hunting industry – not cleaning up its act

The global population of wild lions has decreased dramatically over the last century. Estimates suggest that the world population of wild lions was around half a million at the start of the 20th century, declining to about 200,000 by 1950. Today, trophy hunters wishing to shoot a wild lion will be taking a life from a population that some estimates number at around 20,000.

A report published by Oxford University on behalf of Rory Stewart outlined the struggles in obtaining data regarding the impact of trophy hunting on the conservation of the lion in Africa. This is presented by the statistical irregularities that can be observed in the data obtained by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). For example, CITES recorded 80 wild lion trophies having been exported to the UK from 1991-2013, but British importation records showed just 4 trophies. CITES suspects that this is due to the inconsistencies in the ways different countries record their data. This alarming lack of statistical co-ordination means that the actual number of wild lions lost to trophy hunting each year is difficult to measure, and suggests that the trophy hunting industry remains largely unregulated. With some estimates suggesting that the wild lion population in Africa has dropped to just 20,000, it should be now more than ever that the international community puts a stop to trophy hunting by banning lion trophy imports and pushing for the end of the trade in all other animal trophies.

It is up to the international community to once and for all condemn the unsustainable and cruel industry of trophy hunting. The UK government has a duty to lead these calls, with the view of future bans on all trophy imports being established internationally to stifle the global trade of animal parts, many of which belong to significantly threatened species such as rhinos, elephants and lions. By allowing the importation of hunting trophies and other animal parts to continue while these animals become increasingly rare, prices increases and price-tags are placed upon these animals, further incentivising poachers and trophy hunters to continue the monopolisation of at-risk animal species.

As the population of wild lions in Africa has plummeted, the practice of ‘canned hunting’ – the breeding of captive lions to be shot and killed by paying hunters in an enclosed area – has rapidly developed in southern African countries not just for trophy hunting but also to meet the global demand for bones, fur and other animal parts.

Some estimates suggest that there are now between 6,000 and 8,000 lions in captivity in South Africa, possibly as a result of the exponential rise in demand of lion parts facilitated by the trophy hunting industry. There have been reports that some of these breeding farms masquerade as conservation projects that lure unsuspecting volunteers into helping raise captive lions as part of ‘release and re-introduction programs’. In a recent interview, Dr. Paul Funston of conservation group Panthera’s Lion Program stated that ‘South Africa’s lion breeding industry makes absolutely no contribution to conserving lions’. Such conservation scams not only raise ethical questions as to the farming of the lion for trophies and other parts, but also may directly expose well-meaning volunteers to a corrupt and exploitative industry that they end up unknowingly supporting.

Cecil the lion at Hwange National Park

A need for global condemnation

It is for these reasons that the League Against Cruel Sports, alongside its supporters and fellow collaborators, is calling for the UK government to follow through with its commitment to end lion trophy imports, and to extend it to all hunting trophies from animals belonging to threatened species in line with what other EU countries, such as the Netherlands, have already done. The industry has clearly failed to clean up its act, and thus it falls on the UK government to send a message that such practices are unacceptable. For the UK government to continue to allow for the import of hunting trophies is to support the unsustainable abuse of the world’s most iconic animals, which include the lion which also has a close symbolic connection to the UK itself.

In 2015, the UK government introduced the requirement of import permits for lion trophies. That year, 19 permits were issued and were used to import 8 skulls, 3 skins, 4 shoulder mounts, 2 full body mounts, a set of claws and 2 feet. This shows that the issue of lion trophy hunting is one that remains relevant to the UK. If the government upholds its commitment to ban lion trophy imports by the end of 2017, it will mark the beginning of a number of trophy import bans of threatened species that will help facilitate the UK’s global leadership in ending the trophy hunting industry once and for all.

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