Book Review: Unfair Game: An Exposé of South Africa’s Captive-Bred Lion Industry

CFL’s North American Editor reviews Lord Ashcroft’s attempt to drag the business of breeding, ‘hunting’ and slaughtering pen-raised lions in South Africa into the light. 

Michael Ashcroft. 2020. Biteback Publishing Ltd, London, UK. Paperbound, 284 pages; with foreword by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, 16 pages of photos, index. ISBN 978-1-78590-611-4. $18.95, £15.99. Royalties from book sales go to charities.

It’s been one of hunting’s worst, and worst-kept, “secrets” for about 30 years: Nimrods who wish to bag a lion without risking their own hides or putting in weeks in the bush (Tsetse flies! Snakes! Warm tonic!) can arrange to do so for reasonable money in South Africa. Particularly in the country’s North-West and Free State provinces—writes the Right Honourable Michael Ashcroft, KCMG, PC—there are farms and safari companies that will plant a non-wild lion in an enclosure, lead the “sportsman” to it and invite him or her to open fire. The enclosure may be as small as a good-size dog run. The lion may be malnourished, ill or sedated. If the “hunter” isn’t up to the job, there’s backup on hand. Usually a video camera, too.

Think of this as one more way in which hunters can be their own worst enemies: What’s more repellent, on social media, than photos of (as one of our authors wrote in the October issue) “overweight, inanely grinning hunters posing proudly next to butchered animals”? How about the same image with a wire fence in the background? This is the polar opposite of fair chase, and it’s only the first item on the list of ethical or legal concerns with the business of breeding and abusing lions in captivity in South Africa.

Ashcroft begins by noting that South Africa is “the only country in the world to classify lions under three categories: wild, managed wild and captive-bred.” SA may have 3,000 wild lions, virtually all up north, in and around Kruger National Park and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. There may be another thousand or so managed lions in the country—also wild, but restricted to large fenced reserves, private or government-run. And in 2019, SA’s Dept. of Environmental Affairs announced that there were “more than 6,000 lions in captive breeding facilities across the country”; in his book, Ashcroft reckons there are actually some 12,000 such lions. Furthermore:

“Not only . . . [are these] the most populous variety of lion to be found in South Africa but, from the point of view of nature, they are also the most tragic. Ecologists believe they have no conservation merit whatsoever because they are highly likely to be genetically tarnished through in-breeding. Furthermore, scientists consider that, having been reared by or around humans, they have in effect been corrupted and for all practical purposes could never survive in the wild.”

Biologically useless they may be, but these cats have real value otherwise. Reportedly, thousands of “canned” lions were sold to be shot every year in South Africa, at least until 2016, when a US ban on the import of trophies from captive-bred lions put a huge crimp in the business. South Africa’s lion entrepreneurs carried on, though, raising and butchering lions for the less-lucrative but still valuable traditional-medicine market, mostly in China. Chapter 5, “The Bone Trade,” digs into this in detail—lion-bone powder, wine, tea and cake. Claws, whiskers and teeth are valuable too, as jewelry.

However, Asia’s traditional-medicine market prefers tigers to lions and will pay more for tiger. So, writes Ashcroft, some South African entrepreneurs not only raise tigers (non-native, of course) to be killed as trophies or processed for their parts, they also cross-breed tigers with lions. The “liger” offspring are genetic freaks that are bigger than both parents and produce more weight of valuable bone. Vendors have been known to “salt” shipments of lion bones with a few tiger bones, too.

China has banned commerce in tiger parts, which (as with rhino horns, elephant ivory, pangolin scales, etc.) has only driven up their value and gotten criminals involved. South Africa is in the midst of a national wrangle about wildlife in general and raising and selling lions in particular. The welfare of farmed lions, and the harm that the business does to the country’s reputation, is of special interest. Unfair Game is the author’s input to the discussion; he is unequivocally and emphatically on the side of the lions. His readers will be too.

Possibly the saddest element of South Africa’s commerce in captive-bred lions is that the breeders have figured out how to “monetize” even the cubs, by selling access to them to unwitting tourists. What are essentially petting zoos are promoted as lion rehab facilities, where the animals are allegedly prepared to be “re-wilded.” This is nonsense. When these domesticated cats, which could not survive in the wild, have reached sufficient size, they enter the final phase of their existence.

Readers may wonder, however: Leaving aside the charisma and cuddliness of lions, why is this industry different from those which utilize cattle, chickens, pigs, sheep, goats and so on? The reader also may wonder what separates the “hunting” of such lions from shooting pen-raised pheasants, partridges and ducks in Europe, whitetail deer in Texas, red stag in New Zealand and so on and so forth? Millions of jobs, thousands of pieces of property and billions of dollars around the world depend on these industries—the ethics of which run the gamut (for most people) from deplorable to acceptable.

Leaving aside any environmental impact, the main difference appears to be oversight. In most of the world, commercial animal production (for meat, hides, medications, “sport,” etc.) is regulated. South Africa, however, seems to allow the business of farming lions to proceed with remarkable cruelty and no regard for law or ethics.

Part I of Unfair Game lays out the nuts and bolts of the business—the what and why, with a good bit of who, where and when for good measure. Names are named; broken laws are enumerated. Part II details, in 130 pages, the author’s self-funded undercover operations against the lion industry in South Africa.

In one sting, Ashcroft ordered—from a brochure offering 16 male lions priced from $13,000 to $26,000—a 9-year-old named, what else, Simba: “a very good cat with a dense mane.” (The mane is important to hunters; to traditional-medicine buyers, not so much.) After considerable back-and-forth on WhatsApp, Ashcroft’s agent delivered the alleged client—“in reality a former US Special Forces veteran called Billy”—to the farm where Simba was waiting. As the point wasn’t to bag a trophy but to expose the transaction, this occupied months of evasion and misdirection. In the meantime, the lion farmer made $4,000 in side money with a “green” hunt—he sold the opportunity to dart Simba with a tranquilizer to a British “hunting enthusiast.” To be legal in South Africa, this must be for “veterinary, scientific, conservation or management purposes” and be done by or in the presence of a veterinarian.

Without giving away the entire story, Simba is now reported to be in retirement, well looked after in a large enclosure at a “secret location” somewhere in Southern Africa.

Operation Simba, with its names and photos, drew plenty of media attention in the UK. Ashcroft followed it up, in the spring of 2019, with another secret crusade of much wider scope dubbed Operation Chastise. (The name was borrowed from a famous RAF raid in WWII and reflects another of Ashcroft’s interests—military history.) The goal was to “blow apart the corrupt captive-bred lion industry and to break up the illegal lion bone trade.”

The long and expensive campaign was plotted in a London club and then carried out in South Africa by ex-soldiers based in a rented safe house and using all the trappings of espionage—aliases and legends, vehicles rigged with hidden cameras, voice recorders and tracking devices, drones, body armor, helicopters, coded messages and more. So far, it has come to nothing, at least in South Africa.

In December 2019, after a double-cross by a reluctant local participant, it became time to wind down Operation Chastise and pull out the team. The risks were becoming too serious. There was one last thing to do: Two of Ashcroft’s agents met with a Col. Johan Jooste, commander of the South African Police Service’s wildlife unit in Pretoria, to offer their dossier of evidence—names, dates, locations and the full narrative. Jooste rejected any evidence of criminal activity and instead threatened the agents with jail for carrying out such an operation without his knowledge or permission.

And there it stands. In November 2020, 11 months after this sit-down with the police, Ashcroft’s office told me that “there has [still] been no feedback from the South African authorities in relation to the book.” However, the author was invited to testify before a controversial panel convened by Barbara Creecy, South Africa’s Environment Minister, to examine (among other wildlife matters) “the breeding of lion in captivity, the hunting of lion, and the trade in lion bones and skins.” The panel’s findings are expected shortly.

(All of this is tied up in South Africa’s recent reclassifications of certain species of wildlife, lion among them, as farm animals in order to commodify them. This in turn spills over into matters involving CITES, the Commission on Trade in Endangered Species; SAPA, the South African Predator Association; PHASA, the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa, and other trade groups and NGOs; and now zoonotic diseases—COVID-19, for example—that spread from wildlife to humans.)

Michael Ashcroft, the author of Unfair Game, is a British billionaire born in 1946 who got his start (per Wikipedia) with a cleaning company and a small bank loan and then branched out into manufacturing, car sales, security, wine, opinion polling and more. In the late ‘90s he became active in the UK’s Conservative Party and then was appointed to the House of Lords as Baron Ashcroft in 2000.

According to his communications director, Lord Ashcroft “does not have a background in field sports. He likes seeing animals in the wild and has been on several safaris. As outlined in the book, his opposition to captive-bred lions and canned hunting stems from the trip he made to South Africa in 2018, when he was told more about these things by conservationists. He has also funded projects in relation to the conservation of whales.”

Lord Ashcroft is not a hunter, but neither is his book anti-hunting. (Across Southern Africa and the world, managed, ethical, fee-paid hunting is a proven conservation practice.) in his conclusion, he writes:

“I love [South Africa’s] landscape, its wildlife, its food and wine . . . and in particular its people. Everybody I have met there is pleasant and proud of their nation. This means that lion farming, and the cruelty and criminality that go with it, comes as a huge shock. How can it go on in the same country of which I am so fond?”

Silvio Calabi is North American Editor of Conservation Frontlines.