Our view of WildCRU’s report on lion conservation

With populations decreasing by more than 90 percent in the last 100 years, lions need more comprehensive protections that take into account individuals’ welfare than those suggested by WildCRU in a recent report.

'Trophy hunting could help conserve lions, says Cecil the lion scientist', the newspaper heading declared. But, no matter how you cut it, or how you soundbite it, killing a living sentient being for fun to save another always seems a strange approach.

In the wake of Cecil the Lion’s killing by wealthy American dentist Walter Palmer as part of an organised trophy hunting trip, the world united in outrage and disgust against the idea of rich people flying into Africa and elsewhere to kill magnificent, and often endangered animals like elephants, lions, giraffes, zebras, baboons, antelope – you name it, if you’ve got the money you can kill it.

So back to the headline. It relates to a report commissioned by the UK Government following an increase in pressure from the public, lion experts and NGOs such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), for a ban on the import of lion trophies into the UK.

The simple reason for this increased mobilisation from the conservation community – because lions are on the brink, with some reports suggesting there are actually fewer lions in Africa now than there are rhinos. With populations disappearing by more than 90 percent in the last 100 years across their historic range, there are now only around 20,000 wild lions left. Whilst this bleak fact, coupled with the voice of the experts and the outrage of the public should have been enough to warrant at least a temporary ban on imports, the Government chose to commission further studies.

The report released last week by Prof. Macdonald of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) identified the primary threats to lions as habitat loss and degradation, loss of prey base and human/wildlife conflict and noted that with the human population in Africa set to double by 2050, things will only get worse for lions.

IFAW strongly believes that trophy hunting is a substantial additional threat, and in some cases, that threat is significant to some specific geographic populations (with which Macdonald agrees).

READ: Killing for Trophies: Report analyses trophy hunting around the world

With lion trophy hunting currently being practised at a significant level in 12 African countries, the quality and regulation of these operations is a crucial factor. Some of these lions are bred in captivity, so technically don’t affect the ‘wild’ lion populations (not that this makes it right), but Macdonald states that ‘where trophy hunting is well-regulated, transparent and devolves sufficient authority to the land managers, it has the potential to contribute to lion conservation, but in many countries, poor governance and weak regulation can lead to unsustainable trophy hunting’. It is the last part of the sentence that makes charities like IFAW and so many others so keen to push for an import ban on lion trophies here in the UK and beyond, because it is all about consistency and lack of clarity as to quite how bad the issues of poor governance and weak regulation are. All of our experience and expertise makes us suspect that these issues are very large indeed.

The report goes on to talk about revenue generated through trophy hunting and land use. It makes valid points about whether protected land (protected owing to the fact it generates income) could remain free of development or free to be changed to land that no longer benefits wildlife more holistically. It cites estimates of US$200m p.a. gross revenue from the industry, but, again, even if this did make it right, it is worth noting that so much of that money never finds its way back to the communities it allegedly helps. One report by IFAW showed in some cases as little as 3 percent went directly back to the local communities in the hunting areas.

So, in part we agree with some of the report’s recommendations. We agree that we need better vetting of trophy hunting operations, better science and more transparency.

Prof. MacDonald clearly states that whether or not he supports trophy hunting isn’t relevant. He recognises that many people find it abhorrent.

But his conclusion overall ignores the morality.

We cannot ignore the morality though. IFAW is an organisation that combines animal welfare and conservation. We care about compassionate conservation and for us every life matters.

We also believe in the precautionary principle – that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm, welfare or conservation issues in the absence of scientific consensus, the burden of proof falls on those taking the action and not the other way around. 

We can’t all keep ignoring the moral issue of trophy hunting. Hunting like this may have been acceptable in the old days when, quite frankly, people simply didn’t get it, or didn’t even know animals were sentient beings.

But now we do, and now we should be so much better than that. Governments can and should legislate on the principles of morality; we’ve seen this happen before – with hunting with hounds in the UK, the bullfighting ban in Catalonia and the EU trade ban on seal skins among many examples.

This is not new.

IFAW believes that the right system isn’t in place and we don’t believe that there is one. All too often we hear about ‘Cecil’ type tragedies, we hear from so many that trophy hunting isn’t truly sustainable and we hear little endorsement from lion experts about any system that encourages the shooting of lions or similar as a good tool for conservation.

No one can click their fingers and make a so called ‘right system’ happen, and even if they did, we’d still be asking – who really has the right to decide if a lion deserves to be cross-bowed or shot in exchange for copious amounts of money, to suffer and to die a painful death, to ‘help conservation’.


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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Beth Allgood, Country Director, United States
Country Director, United States
Cynthia Milburn, Director, Animal Welfare Outreach & Education
Senior Advisor, Policy Development
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
Jason Bell, Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Jimmiel Mandima at IFAW
Deputy Vice President of Conservation
Executive Vice President
Executive Vice President
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation
Rikkert Reijnen, Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Program Director, Wildlife Crime