Superstars of screen and science battle to save endangered lions

Virginia McKenna and Stephen Hawking call on David Cameron to ban importation of body parts

Virginia McKenna led the march on Downing Street

VIRGINIA McKENNA OBE, the iconic Born Free star, Braveheart actor James Cosmo and Professor Stephen Hawking have joined forces to call on Britain’s Prime Minister to ban the importation of lion “trophies” — in an effort to save the world’s last big cats from being wiped out by hunters.

McKenna said: “I refuse to believe our Government will not act,” as she led a rally of up to 1,000 people at Downing Street.

The veteran actress and campaigner, who with her husband Bill Travers founded the charity Born Free, handed in a letter to David Cameron, also signed by Professor Hawking, Cosmo and a host of other celebrities, politicians and charity leaders.

Conservationists say wild African lions are at serious risk of extinction, populations having fallen from at least a million last century to only 15,000 now, as they are wiped out by habitat loss and trophy hunters, who slaughter them for their skins, bones and skulls.

McKenna, 84, told the crowd: “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.”

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.

The protesters marched across central London through Leicester Square

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.

As well as Professor Hawking, other signatories to the letter included primatologist Dr Jane Goodall, Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley, actress Diane Keen and comedian Paul O’Grady.

“Few people knew 12 months ago that lions are still being killed,” McKenna said, but that changed with the slaughter last summer of the famous lion Cecil in Zimbabwe. “And we are all disgusted.”

The illegal killing of Cecil prompted worldwide fury at Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who shot him, and shone a global spotlight on trophy hunting by those who can afford the high prices charged.

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.”

How can a man who has a great deal of money and severe mental problems kill something that is part of our heritage?
He has no right.

– Actor James Cosmo

James Cosmo, who plays the drunken sailor in TV series The Durrells, won cheers for saying: “I consider trophy-hunting a crime against humanity.

“How can a man who has a great deal of money and severe mental problems kill something that is part of our heritage? He has no right.

“We have raped Africa for 300 years – do we have to continue to rape Africa until there’s nothing left? So, Mr Cameron, I would advise that you get off your backside and do something, because if you don’t, we will.”

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 No 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.

Dominic Dyer, policy adviser to Born Free, won applause, saying: “This is not just about hunting, this is about the worst type of corruption. In places like Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, wildlife is for sale – it’s a commodity to be traded. He’s selling elephants, flying them out of the country at about $25,000 apiece.

“The trade in those countries is death, destruction and exploitation for the insatiable greed of corrupt politicians. It’s absolutely horrific.”

After Cecil’s killing, airlines and shipping companies acted swiftly to ban trophy movements, he said. “But there’s still work to be done because the Prime Minister still hasn’t quite got the message.

“There are certain individuals who still believe there’s an economic argument for trophy hunting. There is not. There’s a billion dollars a year going into Kenya’s economy from tourism. If you put all the money from all this bloodsport together it doesn’t go anywhere near conservation or the people who need it – most goes to safari companies and corrupt politicians’ pockets to wipe out species hanging on by their fingertips.”

Mr Dyer also took a swipe at Prince William, the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. “We must tell people, even if they are doing good work: ‘You are wrong to support trophy hunting’.

“We must stop this madness, and you can tell your children it was you who took a stand and said, ‘No more killing’.”

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.”



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