First published in the Mail on Sunday on 09 May 2021.
For years, I have been deeply concerned about the plight of lions in South Africa.
Specifically, I have lobbied for an end to the barbaric captive-bred lion industry.
Last summer I published Unfair Game, in which I exposed the horrifying truth about what it really involves.
Captive-lion breeding operates under the umbrella of the respectable tourist trade, but in reality it has meant thousands of lions have been farmed and then exploited in the most cruel ways imaginable simply for profit – all the while risking human health as well.
Now, thanks in part to my campaign, this scandal looks as though it will, finally, come to an end.
Lions are supposed to be wild creatures, free to roam the earth as they have always done. Yet in South Africa over the past 30 or 40 years, thousands have been purpose-bred for a life that is disgusting and depressing.
Days after being born, these poor creatures are torn half-blind from their mothers and placed in tourist facilities and lodges. There, well-meaning but naive foreigners pay large sums of money to pet them.
When the animals are no longer cute and cuddly, they are caged, beaten and drugged until big enough to be slaughtered.
Often, this happens for ‘sport’ or pleasure in a so-called canned hunt, in which wealthy tourists pay tens of thousands to ‘hunt’ a lion when, in fact, all they do is pursue a tame creature in an enclosed space and then shoot it.
Finally, their body parts and bones are stripped and shipped by crime syndicates to China, where they have a high value as a traditional ‘medicine’.
Nobody should be in any doubt about how large this problem has become: there are about 12,000 captive-bred lions in South Africa today, compared with a wild population of just 3,000.
As the world reels from the Covid-19 crisis, what should alarm everybody is that lions carry various zoonotic diseases which threaten humans as well. This is something more than just an animal welfare crisis.
One wildlife veterinary surgeon quoted in my book, Dr Peter Caldwell, believes a major public health incident will occur in Asia as a result of its people’s rampant consumption of lion bones.
Another expert who contributed to my book, Professor Paul van Helden, of the University of Stellenbosch, is an authority on animal TB.
He told me about the risk of lions passing TB to humans during their lifetime and via their bones post-death.
The good news is that a few days ago, a major dent was put in this disturbing industry.
Barbara Creecy, South Africa’s environment minister, announced that she wanted to implement the recommendations of an independent committee which spent months examining the management, breeding, hunting, trade and handling of lions as well as elephant, leopard and rhinoceros.
The upshot is that captive-lion breeding and hunting is now in line to be banned, as are all tourist interactions with captive lions and the sale of products – bones, for example – produced by this trade. This is a triumphant step forward in the march to stamp out this offence to nature.
Last year I wrote to Ms Creecy and sent her a copy of my book. Along with dozens of others, I also gave evidence to the independent committee which she appointed, and sent each of its 25 members a copy of my book.
Although I’m an outsider, I’ve invested substantial resources into revealing the horrors of lion-farming and financed a £700,000 undercover investigation of this disgraceful trade.
I understand that my input went a long way to convincing all parties that lion-farming has tarnished South Africa’s brand globally, quite apart from the suffering of the animals themselves. Ms Creecy deserves praise for tackling this issue.
I know from personal experience that the small group of people in South Africa who control the lion business are powerful, well organised and ruthless.
Only their bullying has allowed big-cat exploitation to flourish. Anybody who gets in their way potentially risks their life, yet Ms Creecy has been open-minded and brave enough to look at the facts and take action in a way that her predecessors were unwilling or unable to do.
The Mail on Sunday must also be acknowledged for the role it has played in shining a light on this outrage by devoting extensive coverage to my various lion investigations, starting with my decision in 2018 to save a captive-bred lion, whom I called Simba, from certain death.
I know that every word the MoS has published on this matter has given a boost to activist groups in South Africa such as Blood Lions. This is a tribute to the power of newspaper journalism.
Now that South Africa’s Cabinet has approved the recommendations which Ms Creecy has endorsed, it is up to its parliament to vote on the matter and for the law to be upheld. I am sure that further battles lie ahead. I will do what I can to help fight those battles.
I understand, too, that recent developments do not automatically spell the end of this squalid situation. That is why I will be watching carefully to make sure that no quarter is given to the sick individuals who preside over it.
One question I am often asked is what should happen to those lions currently living in captivity. There are no easy answers.
It must be remembered that these animals were bred only in order to be killed, as described above. Many are genetically weakened by inbreeding. None has the ability to survive in the wild.
First, however, an independent audit must take place to establish the exact number of captive lions in existence.
Next, all the diseased and injured animals must be put down.
After that, scientists and veterinarians will have to work out how many can be saved – if homes for them can be found.
I know from my own experience of rescuing Simba that there is a shortage of decent venues and trustworthy custodians. Inevitably, some hard-nosed decisions will be required but these will be taken to achieve the wider goal of ending the phenomenon of captive lion breeding.
This brings me to the British Government. Previously, I have called in this newspaper for the United Kingdom to join Australia, France, America and the Netherlands in introducing new laws to prohibit the practice of importing lion trophies into this country.
Despite a lot of talk, there has been little action so far. While I am the first to recognise that the Government has been preoccupied by the Covid-19 crisis over the past 12 months, I know that Boris Johnson and his fiancee, Carrie Symonds, are passionate supporters of animal welfare.
I further know they are well aware of this issue, having been sent my book last summer.
Lord Goldsmith, the Environment Minister, is also very hot on this topic.
These three influential people need to use the tools available to them to act in support of South Africa, a member of the Commonwealth, by implementing a British ban as soon as possible. Not to do so would be nothing short of a dereliction of duty.
For more information, visit:LordAshcroftWildlife.com