Why do South African police condone the slaughter of their nation’s most famous symbol?

Mail on Sunday serialisation of Lord Ashcroft’s new book, Unfair Game, published on 16 June 2020.

THERE was no time to lose. The batteries were running low on the trackers fitted in the contraband caches of bones destined for a big player in the trade and whom we knew only as Michael.

A meeting was arranged on December 12 last year between my team and the South African police chief responsible for the wildlife unit at Pretoria.

On arrival, Gibby, who’d run Operation Chastise on a day-to-day basis, and a colleague were introduced to a hard-looking man with a dark beard and a big frame, along with a fellow officer.

Both policemen, the team felt, had a faintly menacing presence about them. Gibby recounted the story of Operation Chastise, and handed over a folder of A4 photographs of lion and tiger bone contraband collected by Lister, the Boer farmer we had paid as part of our undercover investigation to expose the captive-bred lion industry. He also offered to give the police the dossier of evidence, the locations of two separate caches of illegal lion and tiger bones (and possibly rhinohorn), plus the address in Johannesburg used by the bone-dealer Michael.

The main officer’s response was frosty from the word go. He wanted to know under whose authority Gibby had run the investigation. Gibby explained why he had conducted it alone and that the intention had always been to hand the evidence to the police. But the officer told Gibby that he and his colleague were lucky not to be spending Christmas in a Pretoria jail wearing orange overalls.

Having said that he was prepared to take all responsibility for the operation, Gibby, calmly and patiently, suggested it was surely reasonable for everybody to focus on bringing these wildlife criminals to justice.

The police chief ended the meeting and passed the photos back to Gibby. He said he was not going to get the Christmas present he wanted: the bone caches would not be seized and, owing to a lack of proper evidence, Michael would not be receiving a visit from the police.

He added that tracking people and property was illegal and jeopardised any evidence the team might have secured. Wishing them a merry Christmas at home in the UK, both my men were dismissed.

This 90-minute meeting had been a total waste of time. The two police officers had been aggressive instead of actively engaging with the information my team had tried to give them.

For reasons which will never be entirely clear, they showed complete disregard for the obvious illegality they were told about. Was it simply that they had no desire to involve themselves in what might have led to a complicated and potentially exhausting case?

Only they can know the answer to this question. Others must draw their own conclusions.

WHY would South African police condone the serial cruelty and slaughter of arguably their country’s most recognisable symbol – unless a serious allegation made to me some months earlier by former wildlife inspector Karen Trendler was accurate?

She said there are ‘definite incidents’ of collusion between law enforcement and breeders, adding: ‘The lion-breeding industry is one of the most powerful. They have a huge amount of money. When we say corruption, it’s not just a theory. It’s there.’

Operation Chastise was over, and our approach to South Africa’s police had yielded nothing.

But alongside the covert operations, I have been working tirelessly to raise the profile of the scandal of the abuse of lions in South Africa with those in authority and public figures.

In April 2019, after the findings of Operation Simba had been published in The Mail on Sunday, I wrote to South Africa’s High Commissioner in London, drawing attention to the 11-page exposé, and offering to furnish their office with further evidence of illegality.

This was met with silence and, to the best of my knowledge, none of those identified in Operation Simba has been so much as questioned about their actions, let alone arrested.

I had hoped that my reasonable approach to the High Commissioner would prompt some kind of acknowledgment and, perhaps, a meeting. I am sorry to report, however, that, to date, I have received no response.

Under the circumstances, I find this lack of interest on the part of South Africa’s authorities utterly perplexing. It is sad that my approach has, for now, been ignored. The offer still stands, of course.

I also wrote to the then Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, seeking a meeting to discuss banning the import of captive-bred lion trophies into the UK. This meeting went ahead just a few days later. Afterwards, on May 9, I wrote a follow-up letter to Mr Gove emphasising my horror of lion farming, sham trophy-hunting and the bone trade.

I also underlined the fact that the South African state not only allows mass lion breeding but also overlooks those who breach its quotas.

As the law stands, 800 lion skeletons are allowed to leave the country every year. In 2018, South Africa’s then environment minister, Edna Molewa, raised this number to 1,500 skeletons, claiming it was sustainable and supposedly supported by solid scientific evidence.

After a public outcry, however, Molewa’s highly questionable decision was reversed and the limit of 800 skeletons was restored.

Yet those who oppose the trade believe that substantially more than 800 lion skeletons leave South Africa each year. Often this is achieved through fraud, simply by under-declaring the number or weight of bones which are shipped.

One study by two charities suggests this deception, possibly carried out in conjunction with corrupt officials, is widespread.

I pointed out to Mr Gove that Britain could be more determined to end this through our influence and diplomacy, and argued that everything possible should be done to discourage this industry.

I suggested that banning the import of lion body parts to the UK would have a significant impact and raised the possibility of tackling the bone trade by implementing something similar to the very effective UK Bribery Act.

The idea was to make it illegal for UK firms to be involved in the shipping, trading or the movement of money associated with bones and that their directors would be liable unless they had taken steps to ensure their firms were not involved. I believe this would encourage companies to take measures to protect themselves.

It is no exaggeration to say that the abuse of lions in South Africa has become an industry. Thousands are bred on farms every year; they are torn away from their mothers when they are just days old, used as pawns in the tourist sector and then either killed in a ‘hunt’ or simply slaughtered for their bones and other body parts, which are very valuable in Asia’s so-called medicine market.

In between, they are poorly fed, kept in cramped and unhygienic conditions, beaten if they do not perform for paying customers, and drugged. This sinister system has sprouted up in plain sight in South Africa, inflicting misery on this most noble of beasts on an unimaginable scale. My research suggests it is highly likely that there are now at least 12,000 captive-bred
lions in the country, against a wild population of just 3,000. Yet, strikingly, just a small number of people – a few hundred – profit from this abusive set-up. Thanks to South Africa’s constitution and laws, they seem able to operate as they wish.

Arguably, the authorities have become the enablers of all of this, overseeing lion-hunting regulations and awarding licences for the export of lion bones with what appear to be the lightest of touches, and wilfully ignoring wrongdoing when they learn of it.

So what can be done?

FIRST, the South African government must ban captive-bred lion farming, which has no conservation value. The case for a uniform nationwide hunting law, as opposed to individual laws that currently exist in each province, should also be made.

Wildlife and conservation groups need to co-ordinate their campaigns. Airlines, shipping firms and freight companies must be lobbied until they realise it is morally unacceptable for them to transport the trophies and bones of captive-bred lions.

The world’s tourist industry has to do more to educate everybody who visits South Africa that cub-petting and ‘walking with lions’ experiences are key parts of this cruel business. It should become socially unacceptable for any tourist to indulge in any of these activities.

Furthermore, I call on the British Government – and every other government that has not already done so – to follow the example of Australia, France and the US and introduce new laws that discourage the practice of importing captive-bred trophies.

There are many difficult decisions ahead, but it is imperative that everybody, especially tourists, does their bit to ensure that the barbaric and brutal abuse of lions is consigned firmly and permanently to the dustbin of history.

  • In his book, Lord Ashcroft identifies the individuals and lodges/ranches that he says were responsible for breaking the law and/or animal cruelty, but The Mail on Sunday has removed these for legal reasons.

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