The British Conservative party are breaking a pledge to end lion trophy imports

Snoozing lion in the Selous, Tanzania – photo Tim Welby

Despite a pledge by the UK government in 2013 to halt lion trophy imports there are still roughly five a year being imported into the UK. While this doesn’t sound like much, a number of things need to be held in mind.

First even if these are the only five animals killed in a year, given that hunters like to take the big males, usually this means there’s an entire pride upset with any new males taking over the pride likely to kill all cubs and potentially a number of the females who try to defend their cubs. As such the death of these five animals is likely to conservatively mean the death of around  25 lions. In other words, by the very nature of lion pride interactions, hunting of big male lions is always going to have a bigger impact than the stated quota.

The second issue with this is that this is the number of animals imported into the UK each year. Assuming of course that all killed animals are imported which is not a reasonable assumption as it is an expensive part of the hunt, there are a small number of people in virtually every country in the world who have enough money to go and pay to hunt lions. While there are only a few countries that have enough wealthy people to send significant hunters a year, there are few countries in the world that do not even have five wealthy people. Assuming only 100 countries in the world have any lion hunters you are still talking at least 500 male lions hunted each year. From a population which even the most impressive estimates do not suggest is greater than 20,000, this is significant. As a percentage it does not sound bad until you remember that as many as ten extra lions will be killed for each dominant male so this 500 could become as high as 5,000.

Now the article also suggests that, due to pressures on their population, the lion population in Africa is maybe as low as 15,000. While the lion is clearly endangered I believe that this is a significant underestimate of the number of lions that still exist in Africa. I say this for a very simple reason, the lions that still exist in Africa only exist in protected reserves. The fact that there are a small number of decent sized reserves means that the few that still exist with sensible lion populations are regularly counted. Given that the Selous National Park caters for lion hunts, they are required to keep an accurate census each year which means that it is highly likely that the estimate of 5,500 lions within the Selous is pretty accurate. Furthermore the Ruaha National Park next door is thought to host about 4,500. The Serengeti also hosts at least 2,500 lions. Other well protected reserves that hosts several thousand lines each include the Kruger National Park and the Okavango Delta. These alone get you to more than 15,000 lions and that suggests that there are no other lions in the slightly smaller parks.

I am generally against trophy hunting of animals such as lions which have relatively few cubs each year and live in groups that are close-knit and have emotional bonds to one another.  However I feel that underestimating the number of lions by that significant an amount does nothing to give your article a voice of truth. Furthermore in places like the Selous I feel that hunting is a necessary evil in the sense that nowhere near enough photographic tourists come there to support the protection of such a huge area. A number of tourists groups have taken over hunting areas for photographic safari so in the future this may not be required. In the future  if significant numbers of people are visiting the lions of the Selous then hopefully hunting will not be required to protect the land, however I would prefer that 1% of a lion population of 5,000 is killed each year, even if, as described above, this means the total lost is as much as 10%, thann that the entire area ceases to be protected and all those lions are lost.

So coming back to the initial subject, while I don’t like the idea of any lions being hunted in Africa and I applaud the conservative government for talking about the banning of importing lion carcasses provided the number is kept low at five, I feel that this is part of a necessary evil and the government must be careful not to kill off the trophy hunting that happens which does support wild populations.

Lion hunting carcasses import permit must be restricted to parts of Africa that can cope with hunting. The government, if it is to be taking its responsibilities seriously, must be sure that any lion carcass is imported into the UK come only from places in Africa where hunting is both locally legal and sustainable by a sensible judgement. Lion hunting such as that which hit the news a few years ago, where food is put out to lure lions from a protected area across a invisible border onto land where it can be shot, should not be supported by the government allowing trophies back home. This is particularly true in Central and Western Africa where the lions are a different subspecies and are highly threatened with perhaps only 1,000 left across a number of reserves. These should not be entitled to be imported as this population is highly important given that local genetic analysis has shown that it is actually far more closely related to the asiatic lion than to any other African lion population.

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