Posing for the camera, City worker who paid £3,000 to shoot Simba with a dart

...but, for once, the story has a happy ending as undercover team rescue him.

WITH his majestic mane and a scar running beneath one of his piercing yellow eyes, Simba looks the epitome of the King of the African savannah. But despite his magnificence, this 11-year-old is no wild beast.

Instead he is one of South Africa’s 12,000 ‘captive-bred lions’: hand-reared as a cub by humans on a so-called lion farm before entering a breeding programme to produce more cubs.

After reaching his physical prime, Simba’s imposing size and glorious mane sealed his fate: he was to be offered up to be slaughtered by wealthy hunters bent on killing him as a trophy to adorn their lavish homes.

I first learnt of Simba after one of my undercover investigators posed as the representative of a wealthy American client, hoping to pay thousands of pounds to hunt and kill a lion.

The investigator approached Mugaba Safaris, a firm owned and managed by professional hunter Patrick de Beer.

De Beer is described on his company’s website as having grown up ‘in a safari fraternity’ and ‘boasts unmatchable African bow and rifle hunting experience’. Photographs show him holding up a huge dead leopard and straddling a dead male lion.

My investigator was emailed a brochure with photographs of 16 male lions each with its own price tag ranging from $13,000 (£10,000) to $26,000 (£20,000), depending on the quality of its mane.

He settled on Simba, an older male which De Beer, who is known as ‘The Lion Man’, described in a WhatsApp message as a ‘very good cat with a dense mane’. He added: ‘I am sure the client will be very pleased with his cat.’

The pair agreed a price tag of $23,000 (£17,700) for the hunter to shoot Simba, with half to be paid in advance as a deposit and the balance in cash on arrival in South Africa.

The undercover investigator repeatedly requested to see Simba before the hunt, in a bid to witness the conditions that the lion was being kept in. But he was rebuffed by De Beer, who wrote of his reluctance to show visitors captive lions in their enclosures.

‘You have to understand that due to the sensitive nature of lion hunting all over the world we are hesitant to take people around showing then [sic] lions behind fences,’ he said in another WhatsApp message. ‘It just takes the authenticity out of the hunt.’

Instead he offered to send my investigator ‘as many pictures and videos as he wants of the lion’.

He added: ‘We will photograph specific scars identifiable on the cat from various parts of the body to eliminate doubt. We guarantee the cat that he’ll shoot is the cat as per the pictures sent to you.’

He sent a series of pictures of Simba, including close-ups of his face, to illustrate the creature’s identifiable scars and markings. ‘There are many distinctive features of which the spots on the nose is [sic] the lion’s fingerprints… it works the same as a human’s fingerprints,’ he wrote.

‘Each lion is unique. Other features are the scars on the face (note 2x black spots next to the left eye) and the tufts of belly hair. Also a scar next to [the] nose under right eye which goes horizontal.’

With the haggling over, the hunt was booked for October last year at Kalahari Lion Hunting Safaris, an exclusive hunting ranch on the edge of the vast Kalahari desert and near South Africa’s border with Botswana. The ranch is run by experienced hunter Freddie Scheepers and his wife Zerna.

This was to be what campaigners call a ‘canned’ hunt, in which a captive-bred lion is killed within an enclosed hunting area surrounded by electric fences.

My team learnt that Simba was to be supplied by a lion breeder in the Bloemfontein area, although they were unable to identify the exact farm.

Plans were put in place for Simba to be shot between October 22 and 25 – but my investigators had no intention on killing the magnificent animal, so found an excuse to pull out, hoping to find a way to res¬cue Simba.

A day before the hunt, a member of my team posing as the American hunter met De Beer and claimed that his wife and family had been in a serious car crash in the US and that he needed to fly home immediately. In fact, this was a made-up excuse to withdraw from the hunt.

But De Beer and Scheepers now had a problem: they had released a captive lion into a hunting area and had no one to kill it, so they hatched another plan to make even more money out of the lion before it died. They decided to offer Simba up for a so-called ‘green hunt’, whereby a wealthy client would pay thousands of pounds to shoot the big cat with a tranquiliser dart.

Luckily for the safari bosses, a British hunting enthusiast called Miles Wakefield, 48, was also enjoying a six-night stay at the ranch, where he was hunting impala and other game.

Wakefield, who works as an insurance loss adjuster in London, was offered the cut price opportunity to shoot the lion with tranquiliser darts for $4,000 (£3,076).

That morning, Wakefield went antelope hunting before joining Scheepers and De Beer in the after¬noon to search for Simba in what my investigator was told was an 1,100-acre hunting area.

They found the lion close to a perimeter fence where a ‘bait’ of offal had been left out and began their cruel pursuit of him in an open 4×4 vehicle. Wakefield took a shot from the vehicle from a distance of about 12 yards but missed. A terrified Simba bounded off and, with darkness approaching, the men returned to the comfort of the lodge, which has its own swimming pool and bar.

The pursuit resumed the next day, with the party again finding Simba near a perimeter fence. He was again chased in the pick-up truck until he was so exhausted that he slumped to the ground.

After the previous day’s failure, Wakefield took careful aim under the direction of Mr Scheepers, who advised him to hit Simba in the muscle of his right hind leg.

My investigators have obtained footage of the appalling spectacle, which can be seen on Mail Online, with some still pictures from the ‘hunt’ on the following two pages.

The heartbreaking film shows the distressed animal leaping up in shock after being shot and attempting to flee.

But, increasingly weakened by the drug, his rear legs begin to fail as Wakefield and Scheepers stalk him on foot. A pitiful and disorientated Simba is shown staggering into a tree and wheeling away from his pursuers, apparently confused about which way to turn.

He finally collapses in the shade of a tree at which point Wakefield – after turning back to grin at the rest of the party fires a second dart into his right leg.

Minutes later, once the drugs have finally brought down the proud beast, Wakefield is filmed posing for his ‘trophy shot’ next to the semi-conscious Simba, whose tongue was lolling from his mouth.

The Briton appeared barely able to contain his delight as the dazed lion attempted to move his huge head. Wakefield exclaimed: ‘He is turning his head and there’s no fighting it!’

A group picture showed Wakefield lined up behind Simba with Scheep¬ers, De Beer and another professional hunter. Under South African law, it is illegal to fire a tranquiliser dart at a lion for purposes ‘other than veterinary, scientific, conser¬vation or management purposes’. The dart has to be fired by a vet or a vet has to be present. Hunters are also banned from hunting a lion in a vehicle, unless they are tracking it over long distance or the hunter is physically disabled or elderly.

Wakefield this weekend said he was misled by Scheepers and De Beer and that he believed he was taking part in a ‘legal operation to relocate a lion in the interests of the health of the animal’.

He said he was only told that there should have been a vet present after the event, and that if he had known beforehand, ‘I would have immediately withdrawn from the operation’. He added: ‘I was led to believe, by the two South Africans, Freddie Scheepers and Patrick de Beer, who are both professional hunters, that it was for conservation. By relocating the lion to another more con-trolled location the animal’s life would be preserved.’

DE BEER insisted last night it was not a hunt, claiming Wakefield paid for the upkeep of the lion in return for the chance to shoot it with a dart. Speaking to this newspaper, Scheepers con¬firmed there was no vet present but denied it was a hunt, insisting they were simply ‘darting’ the lion to move it to another enclosed area after the original hunter had pulled out. ‘That wasn’t a hunt. We just darted it,’ he said.

‘What happened was the guy that was supposed to hunt the lion, when he landed in South Africa his wife and his daughters were in a terrible accident so he had to go back. We decided to take the lion back to the enclosed area.’ He denied conduct¬ing ‘green hunts’ and said Simba would not have survived where he was. Scheepers claimed this was the ‘first and only time’ a client had paid to dart a lion and he insisted it was too dangerous to fire a tran¬quiliser dart at a lion while on foot.

After posing for pictures, the men helped load Simba into the back of a trailer, carefully monitoring the time that had elapsed to ensure that the drug would not wear off and that the huge beast was not about to come around and turn on them.

This was not, however, the kind of relocation operation that conserva¬tionists undertake across Africa. Simba was simply being moved to a holding area where he would await the American hunter who had claimed the right to kill him. My undercover investigator, posing again as the American hunter, arrived at Scheeper’s hunting site on February 20. But, after locating Simba, he then shocked his hosts by saying he was unhappy to continue with the hunt. To Scheepers’ baffle-ment, my mole told him he now wanted to rescue the ‘magnificent beast’ and relocate it to a sanctuary.

After two months of nerve-rack¬ing uncertainty, I can reveal that my team finally managed to rescue Simba last week and he was taken to a sanctuary at a secret location.

We were later told how perilously Simba’s life had hung in the balance: sources told us that another hunter was on his way to the ranch on Thurs¬day to kill him. ‘The lion is now out,’ said Reinet Meyer, a senior inspector at the Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Animals. ‘One lion has been saved from a terrible death. We are very happy and relieved.’

Sadly, the uplifting ending to this story is highly unusual. Thousands more lions are languishing in breeding centres and farms across South Africa waiting to be picked out for slaughter by foreign hunters.

Andrew Muir, widely considered to be South Africa’s leading conservationist and wildlife expert, this weekend branded canned lion hunting ‘deplorable’.

‘I believe canned hunting should be outlawed throughout the world because it is inhumane and there is no conservation value or justification to it,’ he said.