Last year, Lord Ashcroft published a devastating exposé of South Africa’s abhorrent lion farms. He has now released a new book detailing his gruesome findings. The book is significant not only for uncovering a trophy hunting industry that profits from the suffering of one of our planet’s greatest creatures, but also for highlighting how the trade in lion parts for traditional medicine risks causing outbreaks of other animal-borne disease like Covid-19.
Diseases originating from animals have become more common in recent decades, and are now emerging at an alarming rate - with around 3 to 4 new animal-borne diseases appearing every year. While we have been battling Covid-19, a new type of flu transmitted by pigs has been found by scientists in China. These diseases pose a serious risk to us all, but their spread is not inevitable.
We can halt the emergence of these diseases by stopping the dangerous practices which bring people into closer contact with wildlife and enable deadly viruses to jump from animals to humans. This means not only actively tackling on the illegal trade in wildlife, but also protecting natural habitats that are being decimated by intensive farming, the unsustainable production of commodities like soy, and urban sprawl.
Humans have already altered 75% of the Earth's land surface, and some one million species worldwide are threatened with extinction. In the UK, 41% of species have experienced a decline since 1970, in part due to the loss of key habitats - including 97% of our meadows since the Second World War. Recognising the threat which this trend poses to the health of humanity and the planet, the UK Government has worked hard in recent years to protect and restore nature both at home and abroad.
At the UN General Assembly last year, the Prime Minister announced a £220 million International Biodiversity Fund to protect endangered species from threats such as poaching and restore key habitats. And the UK is at the forefront of efforts to ensure communities develop in harmony with nature, with our Partnerships for Forests programme helping to create sustainable jobs and livelihoods in Africa and Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, at home, we are committed to delivering a green Brexit, which leaves the environment in a better state for future generations. The landmark Agriculture Bill has the potential to restore Britain’s degraded natural landscapes after years of damage under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. This new post-Brexit farm subsidy scheme will reward farmers for their important role as stewards of the environment.
But there is still more to do. We need far tougher restrictions on the wildlife trade. The appalling conditions in which some of the animals are kept, such as the captive lions in Lord Ashcroft’s book, causes them immense distress and weakens their immune systems, making them more susceptible to catching and transmitting diseases to people who trade or consume them. Temporary restrictions on the consumption of wild animals in China do not cover traditional medicine - leaving many animals, such as the approximate 12,000 captive lions in South Africa, without any further protection.
China has the opportunity to demonstrate conservation leadership before it hosts the next UN biodiversity summit in 2021 by strengthening its restrictions on the wildlife trade. The international community must also use the summit to agree ambitious new targets for protecting and restoring the natural world post-2020.
As host of the parallel UN climate negotiations and president of the G7 next year, the UK can also play a leading role in pushing for ambitious international commitments - such as protecting 30% of lands and seas for nature by 2030 and restoring natural carbon sinks like forests.
What’s more, by putting nature at the heart of our recovery from coronavirus, we can create jobs, improve our health, and combat climate change at home. The Prime Minister wants to “build back a greener and more beautiful Britain”, starting with the £40 million Green Recovery Challenge Fund to support conservation projects and create up to 3,000 new jobs. But there is room to go further: the umbrella group Wildlife and Countryside Link has proposed more than 300 ‘shovel-ready’ projects which could create 10,000 jobs and protect or restore at least 200,000 hectares of habitat.
Finally, we must urgently get on with passing the Environment Bill - the first major piece of environmental legislation for twenty years which contains a suite of measures to put the environment at the heart of government policymaking and our economy. We should also look at including measures to lighten the UK’s environmental footprint beyond our shores, such as requiring large companies to tackle deforestation in their supply chains.
Taken together, these measures could make a significant contribution to protecting the world’s natural habitats, and ensure a healthy ‘social distance’ between human populations and wildlife. Let’s take this opportunity to build a healthier and more resilient future.
Henry Smith MP