Picture credit: Paul Ticker
Artillery Row

Lions, lies and legislation

The harms of trophy hunting have been exaggerated

Are African animals the responsibility of UK politicians? It certainly seems MPs think so, according to a short film Tweeted recently by the Leader of the House of Commons, regarding Henry Smith’s Hunting Trophies (Import Prohibition) Bill. It shows Penny Mordaunt solicitously asking Smith “Are you ready?” as he prepares to ‘protect’ wildlife. 

The only wildlife shown is African, transplanted into hallowed UK settings. A cheetah calmly sits outside Parliament. An elephant stands, magnificent, in the halls of UK power. A zebra lies down in the lobby. A leopard reclines on the stairs. A lion relaxes in the centre of the House. It is beautiful — and extremely jarring for many viewers, particularly Africans, who have protested against it. 

It jars because the film is a searingly accurate insight into how wildlife is perceived in this Bill. The focus is exclusively on beautiful, docile individuals, entirely removed from the context of their habitat, populations, and those countries and communities who actually conserve them. In the real world, these animals require massive areas of land. Real lions, leopards and elephants kill and injure people, attack livestock and destroy entire harvests, imposing huge costs on often-vulnerable communities. Protected areas come with major economic and opportunity costs. People need tangible reasons to put up with this – and trophy hunting is one such reason. Just as with photo-tourism, it helps incentivise governments and communities to maintain wild habitats and biodiversity. These areas are vast — more lion range, for example, is conserved in hunting areas than in National Parks. 

But aren’t these animals part of our global heritage? The lion is, after all (and slightly oddly), the UK national animal. Aren’t rich white hunters killing the last few of these magnificent animals, driving them ever closer to extinction?

In short, no. Trophy hunting is not driving a single species to extinction. The main threats to wildlife are habitat loss and poaching. Counter-intuitively, trophy hunting has been a proven conservation tool for multiple species (including endangered species), as the revenue helps protect habitat and combat poaching. It provides jobs, meat and revenue, incentivising wildlife conservation across vast wild areas where photo-tourism alone simply would not be viable. Importantly, sustainable use – which can include trophy hunting – is the right of many local communities and should not be undermined by the UK – especially as the UK conducts extensive trophy hunting domestically.

Leading scientists and representatives of millions of rural Africans have warned repeatedly that this Bill will undermine global conservation efforts and livelihoods. Unfortunately, it has been heavily influenced by misinformation, largely driven by lobbyists with access through an APPG. In the Second Reading of the Bill, analysis being led by Oxford University scientists suggests that around three-quarters of verifiable statements made by supportive MPs were false. For more than a third of supportive MPs – including the Chair of the relevant APPG – every single verifiable statement appears false. 

If we truly value wildlife, it deserves far better than lies becoming legislation. Conservation evidence should matter. Human rights should matter. Britons seem to agree — fewer than half Britons surveyed wanted a ban if it harmed local people or wildlife. Conservation experts are arguing instead for a “smart” ban, which tackles the harm that can be caused by poorly regulated hunting, but does not undermine it where it has proven conservation benefits. The reality is that blanket bans will cause far more harm to wildlife than trophy hunting does, especially as no viable alternative is on the table to effectively conserve these immense wild areas. 

If politicians continue to fail to engage properly with this issue, they will be hastening the very thing they fear — a world where we only see these incredible animals in slickly-edited films, rather than in the complex, wild reality where they belong, alongside the people actually responsible for conserving them.      

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