Cricket legend, Kevin Pietersen, on wildlife conservation
SIX words at the top of Kevin Pietersen’s Twitter page say it all: “Cricketer to conservationist. My greatest journey.”
And what a remarkable journey it has been too.
For two decades Kevin was one of the world’s best cricketers, playing in 104 Test matches and 136 one-day internationals for England, and also captaining his adopted country.
Yet seven years ago, shortly after he stopped playing for England, Kevin had what amounts to a “light-bulb moment” while back in South Africa, the country of his birth, when he suddenly realised he could use his worldwide fame to help endangered wildlife.
Like me, Kevin became angry and ashamed at the way some South Africans abuse big game purely for profit.
While we share a passion for wildlife, Kevin decided to concentrate his efforts on protecting endangered rhinos.
My focus, however, has been on exposing those who raise captive-bred lions, either for their bones or as so-called “trophies” in “canned” hunts, where the lion — sometimes semi-tame and drugged — is shot in an enclosed area with no chance of escape.
In an exclusive interview to mark the publication of my new book Unfair Game: An Exposé Of South Africa’s Captive-Bred Lion Industry, which is out tomorrow, Kevin, 39, spoke about his determination to make a difference.
He said he is now prouder of his off-the-pitch exploits relating to wildlife than of his cricketing achievements.
“I am pleased that I found something that I am keen to do but also I think it is so much greater than any achievement I had on the cricket field,” he said.
Sitting in a private room at the Wentworth Club in Surrey, close to his family home, Kevin told me that his love of wild animals stems from his childhood.
He was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, in 1980 to an Afrikaner father and an English mother (hence his entitlement to play for England).
He said: “A lot of people talk about ‘you are not born in Africa, Africa is born in you’, and that’s so true.
“As an African kid, as a boy of the soil, I appreciated what was in the country. And wildlife was right up there.”
As a youngster, Kevin and his three brothers were taken on safari by his parents to the Kruger National Park in South Africa.
“We saw some pretty amazing sights,” he said.
His passion for wildlife continued during his cricket career, when he often went on safari with family and friends to enjoy watching the “big five” — lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and African buffalo.
However, his attitude to wildlife underwent a major change when he travelled with two friends to South Africa in 2013.
Kevin said: “I had just finished with England. After playing a charity game, we went to a couple of safari lodges and went on a rhino micro-chipping experience, where you chip the horn for tracking purposes and if the rhino is poached.
“Only then did I appreciate what was happening to this beautiful, iconic species.
“So from 2013 my focus and drive shifted away from the international sporting buzz to a much-needed and much more necessary conservation plan.
“I realised quite what an issue rhino-poaching was, and I realised that I could make a difference by raising awareness, by raising money and by being a voice for an animal that has no voice.
“So since 2013 I have been banging the drum about what’s happening in Africa.
“I can’t tell you how many people now approach me to talk about conservation and not about cricket. The change has been fabulous.
“To shift from being identified as a familiar face through sport to going into a different world where people love animals is something I am incredibly proud of.”
As well as establishing a luxury lodge on the edge of the Kruger National Park, Kevin has founded campaign group Save Our Rhino Africa India (SORAI).
It works to help prevent poaching for rhino horn, care for injured and orphaned rhino and to educate people about the fact that the five species of rhino face extinction, with fewer than 30,000 left in Africa and Asia.
‘DESPERATE TO SAVE’
In Africa alone, there are fewer than 18,000 white rhinos and for black rhinos the number is below 6,000.
Father-of-two Kevin, who is married to former Liberty X singer Jessica Taylor, spoke emotionally about his love for rhinos: “What is Africa without one of the ‘big five’? What is the world without one of the ‘big five’?
“That is why the rhino, which is crucially endangered, means so much to me. I just have this love affair with this animal that we are desperate to save.”
Kevin is realistic when it comes to the occasional need to kill wild animals.
While he strongly opposes trophy-hunting and the hunting of endangered species, he considers that hunting for food and culling wildlife can both be legitimate in certain circumstances.
“I am just a vocal campaigner on things I don’t think are right, whether it be bullying or plastics in the ocean or protecting wildlife,” he said.
Many of his strong views, including his anger towards trophy hunters, are aired on his Twitter feed, where he has 3.7million followers.
On Twitter, Kevin has highlighted my own wildlife work.
Last year, I revealed the full horrors of “lion farming” in South Africa, where some 12,000 captive lions are bred either for their bones — largely to serve an Asian market — or as “trophies”, most killed in the pretence of a “hunt”.
In Africa, captive-bred lions now outnumber wild lions by around four to one.
I asked Kevin whether he is ashamed of how some people in the country of his birth abuse lions, the so-called “King Of The Jungle.”
He replied: “Absolutely right. I do not understand the end game, the end user, the person that pulls the trigger.
“I do not understand how you would want to take money out of your pocket to shoot an animal that has been born and raised to be shot.
“I don’t understand the brain inside the head that says ‘Look at me in this photo’ [next to a dead wild animal — known as the ‘kill shot’].
“It’s just not a space that I live in. It’s just not a world that I live in.
“It’s pretty disgusting really to do such a thing. In this trophy photo, you see they [the so-called hunters] are smiling or laughing next to this majestic animal. For me it’s an absolute no-go.”
Kevin said that he has long been aware that lion farming and canned hunting exist in South Africa. “It is something that can be stopped and should be stopped.
“The human race doesn’t surprise me any more and that’s such a sad thing to say. There are some filthy people out there that don’t have any feeling for animals.”
Like me, Kevin wants the UK Government to change the law so that body parts of endangered species can no longer be imported into the country.
“I am 100 per cent against this importation,” he said.
Kevin is disappointed the South African government and police have so far refused to act on information I supplied from two undercover investigations which I commissioned.
These resulted in my team secretly filming, and eventually identifying, many of those guilty of criminal offences.
Yet Kevin is not that surprised by the inaction.
“In all honestly, South Africa has such big issues — lack of electricity, blood-shedding, corruption within the government who have been looting the country for so many years, that I don’t think this wildlife issue is high on their agenda if I can be brutally honest,” he said, speaking shortly before the coronavirus pandemic.
My respect for Kevin and his work is immense.
Unlike many talented sportsman whose careers end because of age or injury, he has a real purpose to his life since retiring as a professional cricketer two years ago.
“I did almost everything in the game of cricket, but being able to be a huge voice and a campaigner to try to keep a species alive is . . . something that I love,” he said.
Kevin believes his work as a conservationist will be ongoing.
“I don’t think it will ever be complete. Unfortunately these horrible people are seeing so much financial gain from killing these animals that it is going to take a lot of amazing people to constantly keep banging the drum to save our animals.”