Virginia McKenna, the iconic star of Born Free, and Professor Stephen Hawking have joined forces to call on Britain’s Prime Minister to set an example to the world by banning imports of lion “trophies” — in an effort to save the big cats from extinction by hunters.
The actress and campaigner said: “I refuse to believe our Government will not act,” as she joined a mass rally to Downing Street.
McKenna, who with her husband Bill Travers founded the charity Born Free, handed in a letter to David Cameron, also signed by a host of other celebrities, politicians and charity leaders.
Conservationists say lions are at serious risk of extinction, populations having fallen from at least a million in the 19th century to only 15,000 now, as they are wiped out by habitat loss and trophy hunting. In half a century, 175,000 have been slaughtered for their skins, bones and skulls.
An estimated 1,000 people took the time to demand an end to trophy-hunting, which is annihilating lion populations
McKenna told the rally of about 1,000 supporters: “When I made Born Free all those years ago, I had no doubt lions were truly free. Now, across Africa, their habitat is being divided and destroyed.
“Few people knew 12 months ago that lions are still being killed.” But that changed with the slaughter last summer of the famous lion Cecil in Zimbabwe, she said.
“And we are all disgusted.”
The illegal killing of Cecil prompted worldwide fury at Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who shot him.
The London protest came a day after the Netherlands announced it was introducing a ban on lion trophy imports. France already has a ban in place, and UK-based charity Lion Aid has been lobbying the EU for a Europe-wide ban. The US has suspended imports pending a long-term decision.
Campaigners say a UK ban would “send a powerful message across the Commonwealth and the world” that the trade in body parts — which can include trinkets, pelts and jewellery — is unacceptable. They hope that a Europe-wide moratorium will put pressure on the USA to make its move permanent, leading to a worldwide ban.
Wild lions are believed to have disappeared completely from up to 16 African countries, leaving only a handful of viable populations, according to Lion Aid.
McKenna, 84, was joined by representatives of five other conservation charities to hand in the letter to David Cameron.
As well as Professor Hawking, other signatories included primatologist Dr Jane Goodall, Absolutely Fabulous TV series star Joanna Lumley, actress Diane Keen, James Cosmo, star of the film Braveheart and TV series The Durrells and comedian Paul O’Grady.
McKenna lamented the “diminishing pockets of wildlife surrounded by a growing sea of humanity” in Africa, as lions’ prey was also dwindling, all too often poached as bushmeat.
“The misplaced views and bloody desires of a tiny minority must not hold sway over the clearly expressed views of a great majority,” she said. “It is my firm belief that trophy hunting — or blood killing — must stop. We must protect what is left of life on Earth.”
She added: “The world has at last woken up to the tragedy facing Africa’s elephants and rhinos, but has been far too slow to realise the desperate plight of Africa’s lions. In my lifetime, the number of African lions has fallen from more than half a million to less than 20,000, and yet this iconic species continues to be hunted for trophies to put on walls or floors.
“Fifty years on from the release of the film Born Free — which did so much to inspire people around the world to celebrate the beauty and wonder of lions — time is running out for the species and they could become extinct in many parts of Africa within decades. If we are to protect their future, there can be no justification for the continued hunting of wild lions.
The letter to the Prime Minister, drawn up by Lion Aid, IFAW, Four Paws, Save Me and One Protest, as well as the Born Free Foundation, said: “Lions are an iconic symbol in many cultures across the world. Lion statues and images abound across London and Great Britain, and the door knocker at Number 10 is in the shape of a lion.
“Africa without lions is unimaginable, yet this appalling scenario is fast becoming a reality. From probably well over a million in the 1800s, and around half a million as recently as the 1940s, there may now be less than 20,000 wild lions left in Africa. The situation is most desperate in West Africa where only some 400 individuals remain and where the species is considered to be critically endangered.”
Television personality and wildlife campaigner Anneka Svenska, who was at the forefront of the march, said she was “embarrassed and ashamed” of Britain for not having acted to protect the majestic big cats. “It’s now or never,” she told the crowd.
Christine Macsween of Lion Aid said: “Britain really is falling behind in not implementing a ban. Imports into the UK are actually very low but we have influence in the world and must need to send a message out there to the world. The Government said it would look it it in two years’ time but lions haven’t got that long. This is urgent.”
By Jane C Dalton
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