This weekend the Mail on Sunday newspaper did a great public service: it devoted no less than 11 news pages, including its front page, to the findings of an undercover wildlife investigation that I have been secretly running for the past year.
The target of my inquiries was the captive-lion industry in South Africa, an activity that discredits the vast and beautiful country where I have so many friends and where I have spent so many memorable days observing and photographing wild animals.
In recent years I became aware that, in South Africa, lions – the so-called “king of the jungle” – were being treated in an appalling way. The things that I was told distressed me greatly.
I learned about the practice of captive-lion breeding (what I call “lion farming”): an activity that, in theory, is legal and one that is growing in size. Yet most of these captive-bred lions have only two “end games”: they are slaughtered for their bones or the animals, particularly males with large manes, are killed by trophy hunters willing to pay more than £40,000 to shoot a mature beast.
I am reasonably well connected in the military and security worlds and so last year I commissioned an undercover operation using former Special Forces and security operatives.
I wanted the operation – codenamed “Operation Simba” – to expose the full horrors and the illegal practices associated with the “industry”, whereby perhaps 80 to 100 people make a great deal of money from a cruel and abusive activity that they falsely claim has conservation benefits.
The market for lion bones comes largely from the Far East and China, where cakes, wine and other produce made from ground lion bones are (wrongly) thought to have medicinal benefits and to boost virility.
However, I wanted to be “hands on” with my investigation too: so I twice flew to South Africa to make my own inquiries, to conduct my own interviews and to fly in a helicopter over some of the breeding farms in order to get a sense of the scale of this huge and vile “industry”.
As my investigations deepened, I decided on three ways of getting my information into the public domain: a series of major newspaper articles (as stated, these appeared in the Mail on Sunday), a new website, and to present a 15-minute film that I have put on YouTube.
South Africa is the only country in the world that permits large-scale, captive-bred lion farming – and it takes place at more than 200 farms and compounds around the nation. South Africa also permits the legal export each year of 800 lion skeletons – however, the whole industry is poorly regulated and the bones from hundreds more lions a year are illegally smuggled from the country.
My undercover team established that there are now an estimated 12,000 captive-bred lions in South Africa, far more than originally thought and nearly four times the number of wild lions in the country.
Investigators infiltrated breeding farms, penetrated a slaughter house (where more than 50 lions had been killed in two days) and took part in captive-bred lion “hunts” (a pathetic charade and known as “canned” hunts) just up to the point before the kill. As a result, my newspaper articles yesterday identified illegal activities and named names (for full details visit www.LordAshcroftWildlife.com).
Amidst the revelations of cruelty and misery, there was, however, a happy ending for one 11-year-old captive-bred male lion who was used in an illegal “green hunt”, in which a British hunter paid US $4,000 to shoot him with tranquiliser darts. This lion was destined later to be killed in a “canned” hunt whereby the animal would be chased in a 4×4 in a restricted area before being shot at close range.
However, last Thursday my investigative team managed to extricate the lion, which we have called Simba, from the hunting farm and take him, drugged and sedated, for an 11-and-a-half hour journey to a sanctuary, where he will be looked after for the rest of his days.
Since Sunday morning when the Mail on Sunday went on sale, I have had an interesting 48 hours: I have conducted numerous media interviews (including Sky News and the BBC’s Today programme).
Of course, I am not the only person to have looked into the wider area of trophy hunting. Last year, 165 MPs tabled an Early Day Motion that “calls on the Government to commit to halting imports of hunting trophies as a matter of urgency.”
I have received much public and private praise for my investigation (from all over the world, on social media and in emails) and the inevitable bit of criticism ,too (one of my Twitter followers stated: “South Africa is not a British colony – it is a sovereign independent State – respect its sovereignty.”).
I do, of course, respect the sovereignty of all other foreign countries but I felt I had a moral duty to bring the repugnant practice of lion farming and “canned” hunts to the wider world – and to encourage South Africans to bring such practices to an end.
I wrote yesterday to the South African High Commissioner in London and sent her part of the dossier of evidence that I have amassed over the past year. Lion farming damages South Africa’s international reputation and many within the country acknowledge that it has to be halted.
I have also written to Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, calling on the UK Government to follow the lead of other nations, notably the US, in banning the importation of captive-lion and other endangered species “trophies” and body parts. I am hoping to meet Gove to discuss my findings: I will tell him that the UK must do its bit to try to stamp out lion farming and show that we are not in any way complicit with it.
There are only some 20,000 wild lions left in the world, and leading conservationists predict this majestic animal could be extinct in the wild within 30 years.
To conclude, no major species has been, and is being, abused as much as the lion, Africa’s most iconic wild animal. I would urge everyone to help me in stamping out this disgusting and abusive practice of “lion farming” now – it not only shames South Africa but it shames us all.