First published in The Daily Mail on 06 December 2021.
Animal cruelty is something which I simply cannot abide and I have spent a significant amount of time in recent years raising awareness of crimes against nature.
Last year I published a book, Unfair Game, which tells the story of two undercover missions I funded in South Africa in 2018 and 2019. These operations exposed the grim truth about the shocking abuse of lions there. Over the last 30 years, they have been commoditised to such a degree that a new, captive-bred species has in effect been created.
The typical lifecycle of the captive-bred lion is heart-breaking. It is born to die. Cubs are taken from their mothers when just days old and used to lure naïve tourists into paying to cuddle and pet them.
When deemed too dangerous to interact with humans, they are killed in a ‘canned hunt’ — a charade in which people pay thousands to gun down an animal in an enclosed space from which it cannot escape — or slaughtered at an abattoir.
Whichever type of death these creatures endure, their carcass has great value. Canned hunters often like to take a trophy such as a head or a hide home with them to show off to their friends. They usually pay extra for this.
Once these gruesome mementoes have been taken, all lions are stripped for their bones and other body parts and sold to dealers who work in Asian markets. They command high prices, especially when used in ‘traditional’ Chinese medicine. International criminal syndicates and wildlife smugglers control the industry.
My investigations into this murky world, carried out with the help of ex-British Army and security services personnel, exposed the grim truth about the abuse of lions there and generated crucial new evidence.
I established that there are some 333 farms in South Africa breeding lions to feed this disgusting industry.
There are probably 12,000 captive-bred lions in the country, a total that far outnumbers South Africa’s wild lion population, which is reckoned to be only 3,000 strong.
To the great credit of South Africa’s government, the campaigning work that I and activist groups such as Blood Lions have done has not gone unnoticed.
In May, Barbara Creecy, South Africa’s environment minister, announced her intention to act on the recommendations of an independent committee which spent months examining the management, breeding, hunting, trade and handling of lions as well as other species including elephants, leopards and rhinoceroses.
Captive-lion breeding and hunting is now in line to be banned in South Africa, as are all tourist interactions with captive lions. The sale of products such as bones is also on course to be outlawed.
The wheels of legislation can turn slowly and South Africa is no exception. But my contacts there tell me things are inching forward and expectations are high that firm action will be taken in 2022.
This brings me to the situation in Britain. On Friday, December 10, Labour MP John Spellar is scheduled to introduce the Hunting Trophy (Prohibition) Bill in Parliament.
If enacted, this Private Members’ bill would make importing the trophies of threatened or vulnerable species into the UK an offence, with culprits liable to up to seven years in jail. All owners of existing hunting trophies — such as lion skins, tusks, antlers, heads and other macabre souvenirs — would have to register them.
‘I do not like gratuitous cruelty,’ Mr Spellar says, explaining his motivation. ‘I’m not against properly regulated shooting, nor am I against angling. But this is just a disgusting, vile trade. Wildlife smuggling is a big business.’
His view is clearly widely shared. The campaign to ban all trophy imports has attracted the attention of celebrities including Dame Judi Dench, Ricky Gervais and Peter Egan.
As a non-party political issue, it also enjoys support across the House of Commons. I back it as well, with the exception of a licensing regime for research.
But I am very surprised that it has been necessary for Mr Spellar’s bill to be introduced at all.
The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto made the following pledge: ‘We will bring the ivory ban into force and extend it to cover other ivory-bearing species, and ban imports from trophy
hunting of endangered animals.’
Two years on, however, little progress has been made apart from the launch of a public consultation.
Frankly, it is becoming hard to believe anybody in government takes the topic terribly seriously.
When Mr Spellar has raised his bill in the House of Commons in recent weeks, he has been brushed off with perfunctory words about the government’s desire to ban the importing of hunting trophies at some point. I find that complacent attitude rather troubling.
I am well aware that the Covid-19 pandemic has derailed many causes and plans in Westminster and elsewhere but, as Mr Spellar himself says, honouring this manifesto commitment would take up very little parliamentary time.
If the Conservatives’ own manifesto isn’t a sufficient reminder to Boris Johnson that action must be taken, his wife, Carrie, is a doughty campaigner in this field who must surely have discussed it with him. So, too, is his father, Stanley. The same can be said of his friend Lord Goldsmith, the Environment Minister.
So what is going on?
John Spellar, whose Commons career stretches back to 1982, tells me he is perplexed. He says he is carrying on with his effort as a means of applying pressure and ‘in hope rather than expectation’ but he wishes the government would introduce its own legislation because it would make the process far more straightforward.
I agree. Britain must join Australia, France, America and the Netherlands in prohibiting the practice of importing lion trophies. It must also back the measures being taken in South Africa. This would send a powerful message around the world.
With environmental matters of all kinds now sitting at the top of the government’s agenda, the time has come for it to address animal cruelty and confront the terrible menace of international crime syndicates. These are urgent matters which demand a meaningful response.
For more information, visit:LordAshcroftWildlife.com