Born Free star Virginia McKenna warns of lions extinction after populations drop 90%

·2-min read

Born Free star Virginia McKenna has warned that lions could become extinct in the wild within a lifetime.

The actor and wildlife campaigner spoke out as 25 life-size sculptures of the big cats were unveiled for a UK-wide tour.

The Born Free Foundation, named after the iconic 1966 film, says wild lion numbers are declining so drastically that the big cats could be extinct across much of their wild range within 30 years.

The principal threats to lions include habitat destruction as humans take ever more land for farming and development, as well as human-wildlife conflict – where the animals may be killed in retaliation if they prey on cattle.

The illegal wildlife trade – in which they are poached for their skins and body parts – also plays a role, as does the climate crisis and dwindling numbers of lions’ prey.

Wild lions have vanished from over 95 percent of their historic African range, and WWF has estimated numbers remaining at 20,000, down from 10 times that many when the film Born Free was made - a “terrifying decline of 90 per cent in just 55 years”, the charity called it.

UK-based LionAid, which in 2020 analysed a range of data, fears numbers could be as low as 9,610.

McKenna said: “There are 7.8 billion people on Earth, and we now have to decide: are we prepared to share our planet with the shockingly few wild lions that remain?”

The exhibition of bronze sculptures, planned to mark what would have been the 100th birthday of her husband and film co-star Bill Travers, will finish its nationwide tour in Edinburgh in the autumn.

The exhibition’s centrepiece is a sculpture of Elsa, the lion star of the film based on a true story, who was retrained to live in the wild.

McKenna in the 1966 film with Elsa (Born Free)
McKenna in the 1966 film with Elsa (Born Free)

It also features Cecil, whose killing by a trophy-hunter prompted worldwide outrage.

The charity has declared 2022 “the year of the lion”, and a fund has been set up in memory of Bill Travers to use money from the exhibition to protect wild lions, and end lion hunting.

Will Travers, the couple’s son and cofounder of Born Free, said: “Lions face many challenges, in the wild and in captivity. We simply cannot ignore the declining numbers for a moment longer.”

The government last month set out plans for a ban on imports of hunting trophies but no date has yet been assigned for its second reading.

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