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African Lion Numbers

Volume 602: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2015

[Fabian Hamilton in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the decline in African lion numbers.

It is a pleasure, Mr Hamilton, to serve under your chairmanship. It is good to have the opportunity to draw attention to the continuing and worrying decline in the number of African lions. This is by no means the first such debate in this Chamber. Almost precisely five years ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) secured one during which he identified the pressures on the species that have accumulated over several decades.

In his debate, my hon. Friend pointed out that in the 1960s it was estimated that some 200,000 lions roamed the African continent. At the time of his debate, the numbers had declined to some 20,000. However, more recent estimates indicate that the number of lions has now declined to fewer than 15,000—by any standards, that is worrying. In central and western Africa, only a few scattered groups remain. It is estimated that in all Africa only six significant populations are left: in Tanzania, northern Botswana and the Kruger national park in South Africa. Data released in June by the International Union for Conservation of Nature revealed that the African lion population has undergone a reduction of approximately 43% over the past 21 years. The IUCN has accordingly classified the species overall as vulnerable.

The more detailed picture is mixed. In South Africa, the lion is categorised as of least concern on the IUCN’s red list, although that assessment is a matter of some dispute. In west Africa, the lion meets the criteria for “critically endangered”. The IUCN reports that lions have been extirpated in 12 African countries and it is suspected that there has been recent extirpation in another four.

A recent paper in the proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences comments that the

“rapid disappearance of lions suggests a major trophic downgrading of African ecosystems with the lion no longer playing a pivotal role as apex predator.”

There are various reasons for the decline in African lion numbers. The IUCN reports that the most important is indiscriminate killing in defence of human life and livestock, habitat loss and prey-based depletion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight pointed out five years ago, lion habitat is increasingly being given over to agriculture to feed rapidly growing human populations. He said:

“Where lions come into contact with humans, history has long shown that lions must make way.”—[Official Report, 17 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 315WH.]

The change in land use means that the lion is being progressively excluded from its ancient habitats. A paper published in the proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences suggests that intensively managed locations

“in southern Africa may soon supersede the savannah landscapes in east Africa as the most successful sites for lion conservation”.

Certainly in southern Africa, lion population numbers are under less threat, but that is due in part to the reintroduction of lions not into the wild as we would know it, but into small, intensively-managed and funded reserves. I suggest that it is a matter of the utmost sadness that so important a creature as the African lion should be consigned to a future life behind fences.

The word “iconic” is one of the most over-used but it can be justly applied to the lion. It is indeed the noblest of creatures, featuring prominently in the iconography of many nations over many centuries; nowhere is that more the case than here in the Palace of Westminster, where carved stone lions are among the most prominent decorative features of this great building. Indeed, all of us in this Chamber today passed a stone lion seated at the foot of the stairs just outside the Jubilee Room.

In no country on earth is the lion more revered than here in Britain. Indeed, it is our national symbol, featuring everywhere from our royal arms to the door knocker of No. 10 Downing Street. Our national rugby side is named after it. Three lions appear on the English football shirt and, going one better, four lions appear on the standard of the Prince of Wales. The red lion is featured on the Scottish standard and perhaps best known of all are the four Landseer lions that guard the monument to our national hero, Nelson, in Trafalgar Square.

The lion is important to us in Britain and I believe that we as a nation can and should do more to safeguard its future. For example, given the declining trend in lion numbers, it is astonishing that the despicable sport of hunting lions for trophies is still allowed. No other species in such worrying decline has been allowed to suffer additional mortality for commercial purposes. A particular concern is that trophy hunting targets male lions, a very small part of the lion population.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

I was saying that a particular concern is that trophy hunting targets male lions—a very small part of the lion population. Targeting male lions has had significant consequences for lion populations, because lions are social animals. In addition, new males that take over the pride of a dead lion will resort to infanticide—killing the cubs of the former dominant male. The rapid replacement of male lions in prides, caused by excessive trophy hunting, will therefore result in negative reproductive rates among lion populations, hastening the process of decline.

Of course, the trophy hunting of lions is a practice that continues overseas, beyond the reach even of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. However, Britain is in a pivotal position internationally. It is an important member of the European Union, the Commonwealth and international conservation bodies such as the convention on international trade in endangered species—CITES. I believe that Britain should be exerting its influence to help to reduce the level of sport hunting that goes on in Africa.

Sport hunting achieved international attention, not to mention notoriety, earlier this year with the shooting in Zimbabwe of Cecil the lion. Cecil was one of the best known lions in Africa. He had been studied by Oxford University scientists as part of a project that had run since 1999. He had an ugly and distressing death: he was lured out of the reserve in which he lived, shot with a bow and arrow, stalked for a further 40 hours and then killed by a dentist from Minnesota who was armed with a rifle. Cecil was then skinned and his head was removed as a trophy. The dentist in question has been on the receiving end of much international opprobrium since that incident. I mention it now not to add to his already considerable discomfiture, but to draw attention to what can only be described as a sordid industry that is affecting the viability of the species, while causing huge individual distress to these beautiful creatures.

The Cecil episode illuminated the dark side of trophy hunting. It also gave the lie to the often repeated suggestion that trophy hunting somehow contributes to sustaining the species. If trophy hunting is indeed sustainable, why do the operators of trophy hunts resort to illegal activities such as luring a lion out of a game reserve? If their activities are indeed sustainable, the organisers’ concessions should be brimming with lions, but the fact is that they are not.

The truth is that trophy hunting is a nasty, despicable business that contributes to the depletion of lion numbers. I believe that ideally it should be stopped and that our Government could do much more to help to stop it. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to call on the British representative on CITES to help to end the promotion of the concept of “sustainable” trophy hunting. That concept has been promoted for more than two decades, but there is nothing to show for it in terms of lion conservation.

I also urge the Government to engage more actively in preventing the further decline of African lions and to help to put in place strictly scientifically based conservation programmes. An early step should be the funding of an independent and impartial census that will for the first time establish precisely what lion populations remain, so that we can assess more accurately the true scale of the problem.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. The World Wide Fund for Nature predicts that between 30% and 50% of all species will be heading towards extinction by 2050. Does my right hon Friend agree with me and the other members of the all-party group on endangered species that the international community urgently needs to take steps to safeguard wildlife and push for greater co-operation to secure habitats, stop poachers and end the illegal wildlife trade?

I agree entirely. This is an international issue and it requires international co-ordination. While I am referring to my hon. Friend, I should congratulate him on being the chair of the newly formed all-party group on endangered species. That group was long overdue for establishment, and I am glad to see him as its chair.

Wildlife tourism accounts for more than 10% of GDP in some African lion range states that still allow trophy hunting. The Government should be explaining that a lion can be shot only once with a rifle, but many thousands of times with a camera. In the long term, photographic tourism is much more beneficial both to the economies of those African states and to lion numbers.

We should also bear down on the import of lion trophies by banning it. Australia recently imposed such a ban, the first in the world, and I am delighted to say that last week France followed suit. We in Britain should not lag behind.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for drawing our attention to a very serious issue. He has painted a necessarily bleak picture. I agree with him that conservation is very important, and trophy hunting should be banned. Does he agree that organisations such as AfriCat, which has worked for 25 years in Namibia with the local population to sustain and grow the lion population, show us the way we should be going? Does he agree that we need to see more such organisations and fewer attempts to reduce the lion population through hunting?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. There are a number of effective charities, many of them British-based, and I shall refer to another one later.

I would like to mention the loathsome practice of the so-called canned hunting of lions, which is practised mainly in South Africa. Lions are reared from tiny cubs by paying volunteers who are recruited by agencies, some of which are based here in the United Kingdom. The volunteers believe that they are contributing to the conservation of the species.

As the cubs grow, they are made available to be petted by visitors and even rented out as accessories at wedding ceremonies. As they grow further, they are used for lion-walking safaris, which are priced at about $200 per participant. When they become too large and dangerous, they are placed in enclosures to be visited by the paying public as though in a properly managed zoo. When they attain the right size, they are offered to trophy hunters to be shot in enclosures at a price of up to $50,000. Finally in this chain of profitable exploitation, their bones are exported to the far east where they are used in traditional Chinese medicine. That is the most disgraceful and revolting abuse of an important and beautiful creature, and it was extensively revealed in a recent film, “Blood Lions”. British trophy hunters participate in that disgusting practice, and I believe that the Government should at least ensure that they are prevented from returning to this country with the spoils of their activities.

Finally, may I commend the activities of the British charity LionAid, which has done much to help focus international attention on the crisis that threatens to wipe out this important species? Christine MacSween and Dr Pieter Kat of LionAid are both here today, and I thank them both for the help that they have given me in preparing for this debate. I am also pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) has been able to attend the debate, and I again wish him well in his new role as chair of the all-party group on endangered species.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister about what the British Government propose to do to help to conserve this important species, which is so dear to the hearts of the British people.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hamilton. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) for raising this incredibly important issue. Lions matter to us, both in themselves and as a symbol of natural and ecological challenges throughout Africa. They matter in themselves because they are probably the most dramatic, charismatic, impressive and splendid animals that we have inherited in the world. They matter in terms of conservation more generally because the issues that affect them are very similar to those that affect elephants, rhinos and other wildlife across Africa. I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising the issue as a way of getting us to think about it, and because, to some extent, lions have been underrated in comparison with other animals in recent studies on conservation and extinction.

The central question regarding lions recently has been about the decline in their numbers. Conducting scientific analyses of lion numbers is challenging and there has been a lot of controversy about how many lions we have, but there is absolutely no doubt among members of the scientific community that the number of lions has declined. Whether we have 37,000 or 23,000 lions, and whether or not the decline has been exactly 43%, there is absolutely no doubt that we had far more lions 20 years ago and 50 years ago than we have today.

The primary reason for the decline in lion numbers, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, is the loss of habitat. Lions’ habitat, above all, has to accommodate the large range that these predators require and the prey on which they feed. The expansion of human activities has had a major impact on lions’ habitat. Since humans emerged in the very centre of lion territory, they have found ways to live alongside lions. Central to Maasai culture is the way in which people think about living alongside lions. Over the past 50 to 60 years, however, communities that plant crops and try to keep stock in those areas have found it increasingly challenging to live alongside lions.

As a result, lions live predominantly in protected areas, where there are severe restrictions on what humans can do. Such areas fall into two categories. The first category is national parks, which are the ideal place to locate lions. The Serengeti contains incredible examples of the combination of an ideal habitat for lions with one of the great migratory spectacles of the world—with, of course, a serious income from eco-tourism and photography. The second category is protected hunting areas, which account for about 650,000 sq km of territory. In other words, an area about three times the size of England is devoted to hunting areas for lions.

My right hon. Friend is pushing, quite rightly, for what seems to be the ideal solution, which is to convert those hunting areas into national parks. If that happened, the income in those areas would come from tourism and they would not experience the significant problems of conservation and animal welfare that have been associated with hunting. That would seem to be the ideal situation.

I speak as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Tanzania. I pay tribute to the Tanzanian Government for categorising and gazetting so many additional thousands of square kilometres as national parks over many years.

I will pick up on that issue, because it relates exactly to our current position. The Tanzanian Government are a good example. Just under half the lions in the world live in Tanzania, in areas that are many times the size of Wales. The Tanzanian Government face a series of serious challenges. Approximately 15% of the population have access to any form of electricity, fewer than that have access to sewerage, and many are living on incomes of $1.50 a day. During my lifetime, the population of Tanzania is likely to increase from 10 million when I was born to 160 million by the time I am 70, if I am lucky enough to live that long. Such an increase imposes huge pressures on the protected areas that we depend on for lion habitats.

To return to my argument, the main challenge is not what will happen to the national parks, although there are challenges facing the national parks, such as fragmentation, incursion, poaching and disease—particularly canine-born disease, which has been mapped by Craig Packer in the Serengeti. The question we need to ask is what should be done with the hunting areas. The ideal solution would be to convert them into national parks, and there have been experiments in that direction—a famous ecologist recently took over a hunting licence, established a lodge and tried to run it as an eco-tourism area. The question is whether that is what African Governments would be likely to do with those areas if hunting were removed.

We have two case studies to look at. The first, which has been much discussed, is Kenya, where hunting was banned in the 1970s. It is very difficult to get a good scientific base on Kenya, because the Kenyan population and the pressure on land are so high that is difficult to get reliable indications. The big case study that we need to look at is Botswana. Botswana has now banned lion hunting and will be the litmus test of whether the previous hunting areas will now be protected—indeed, the President and the Minister for Environment, Wildlife and Tourism are heavily committed to protecting those areas—or whether, with a change in Government, the pressure, particularly from the cattle industry, will mean that in three, five, seven or ten years’ time, that land is given over to farmland instead of being protected as national parks. That is relevant because it is predominantly because of farming practices and human population pressure that lions are now largely constrained to areas such as Tanzania and southern Kenya, and have been lost across a great deal of west Africa. That has been the major reason for the decline in African lion populations across the continent. Botswana will be a key litmus test.

The Minister mentions the obvious conflict between farming and lion habitats. The AfriCat project, to which I referred, is about indigenous populations accommodating lions—learning to live alongside them and learning which livestock can be protected—so that the two can live together in one world. The project, which I recommend, is called “Conservation Through Education”. I also say, as a plug, that AfriCat is being sponsored as part of “Giving Tuesday”, which the Government support very much.

That is an important point. This is not a black and white issue, nor an either/or. There are very good projects of exactly that sort. In addition to the project to which the hon. Gentlemanrefers, DEFRA has worked with the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit—WildCRU. It has recently done an extraordinary project, which has seen a decline of nearly 50% in predation of lions by communities using some of the measures that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Such measures include radio collaring of lions so that communities can be alerted to the proximity of lions; the use of donkeys and dogs to alert people; better stock management techniques; and compensation for the loss of stock to lions. All those need to be part of the panoply of measures taken to ensure that human populations and lion populations continue to live happily together. They must absolutely be taken on board, and that will be one of the challenges. It is one of the things that people have been looking closely at in Kenya, and on which we can make more improvements across the board.

In the end, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) implied, and indeed as my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West stated, these are issues predominantly for African countries. The challenge for the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States is, above all, to conserve lion populations. What we should be doing—the end for all of us to bear in mind—is trying to ensure that we end up with a stable, serious, resilient lion population in 25, 50, 100 and 500 years’ time. The question of the means to that end is a massive scientific controversy. George Schaller and Craig Packer have weighed in, and Andrew Loveridge and David Macdonald from Oxford University have contributed a great deal on the subject.

For DEFRA, trophy hunting is a serious issue. We have to ensure that when hunting takes place, at the very least it does not involve the kind of activities that my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West mentioned. Therefore, I use this opportunity to state that the Government will ban the importation of trophies into Britain unless we see very significant improvements in what is happening in Africa. We will look closely at key indicators, including the age of the lions involved—the latest scientific research pushes for that to be over six. As an interim measure, we will look closely at quotas and at international verification.

The Government have already moved to take Benin and Ethiopia off the list of countries from which we are prepared to import lion trophies, and we will be moving against Zambia and Mozambique. We are working with our European Union and American partners to make it very clear that, unless there is a significant improvement in the performance of the hunting industry and of those countries, this Government will move to ban lion trophies.

I am pleased to hear that announcement. Will the Minister go a little further and give some indication as to over how long a period this assessment will take place?

As the Minister, I would like this to happen in a short timeframe. I am looking at something in the order of two years, but we need to pin that down. I want to ensure that we work closely with the academic experts and the African countries. The only way in which conservation will work is by bringing African countries with us. It will not work by me pontificating, or by alienating populations including a Tanzanian population that has many problems. However, I am talking about something of that level. We need to set a deadline, have clear indicators and to say, “If we haven’t achieved our objectives by that date, we will ban the importation of trophies.” The key is not only the United Kingdom and Europe but the United States. We have to bring the United States with us. The number of licensed trophies that came into Britain last year was two. The difference will happen at an international level, and we have to work with Europe and the United States.

In the meantime, I am proud that DEFRA continues to fund serious projects through the Darwin initiative and the illegal wildlife trade challenge fund in order to provide for the protection of lions. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West for securing the debate, and I thank LionAid for its work in raising the issue in our consciousness. I look forward to continuing this serious, scientific discussion to achieve what we all want—the preservation of lions.

Question put and agreed to.