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Killers who murder endangered species must be turned into pariahs, writes wildlife conservationist DAMIAN ASPINALL


The slaughter of Cecil the lion by an American tourist has sickened the world. But it is part of a much bigger crisis: the mass murder of endangered species, which I believe is akin to animal ethnic cleansing.

In their barbaric treatment of Africa’s lions, rhinos, elephants and other wonderful animals, some people are no better than terrorists.

Take, for example, the pathetic American dentist, Walter Palmer, who paid £32,000 for the twisted privilege of torturing and killing a magnificent lion in Zimbabwe. Now he is an international hate figure, and rightly so.

But despite the worldwide revulsion, I fear this shocking outrage will blow over in a few days and be forgotten. Before long, some other rich dentist, doctor, businessman or lawyer will go to Africa and kill another lion. Doubtless he will be careful to attract less attention.

To this country’s deep shame, British travel firms offer killer safaris with the chance to shoot hippos, crocodiles, leopards and buffalo — all endangered species. The callousness of these slaughter package holidays beggars belief.

For example, Adrian Sailor, a UK agent for Settlers Safaris, reportedly offers something called a ‘Lion Combo Special’ — a seven-day trip to South Africa with the goal of shooting a male lion and a lioness — for £14,000.

His website shows him posing beside the bloody corpses of baboons and zebras, as well as a picture of three men brandishing a rifle over the body of a lion.

Another British firm, Shavesgreen Safaris in Hampshire, touts for tourists with the slogan: ‘There’s only one priority — a grand, old, maned lion.’ It also runs the ‘full bag safari’, offering the chance to kill a lion, hippo, buffalo, leopard, elephant and crocodile. The price for this mass murder is £29,000.

Apologists for such horrific activity claim that hunting has something to do with conservation. That is patently untrue: hunters and poachers have virtually wiped out lions across Africa in the past 30 years. Hunting and destroying habitats has nothing at all to do with conservation and everything to do with arrogance, savagery and greed.

In the Eighties, the world population of lions was estimated to be 100,000. Today, there are perhaps 20,000. That’s an 80 per cent decrease in three decades.

At that rate of destruction, lions will be extinct in the wild within ten years.

Study the figures in more depth, and the picture is even bleaker. In the Forties, there were half-a-million lions; in the 19th century, more than a million.

We have now reached the stage where the precious population is so dangerously low that individual lions in the wild, such as Cecil, have names.

Some lion-killers cynically claim they are emulating a great African tradition of hunting — part of a larger picture where Man happily co-exists with wild animals. Admittedly, in a bygone era, the young men of Zulu and Masai tribes prided themselves on their ability to face the most magnificent creatures on the plains armed with nothing but a spear. But when the lion population numbered more than a million, culling an animal that was probably threatening their cattle did not harm the natural balance.

“Every country that aspires to call itself civilised should be compelled to protect endangered animals against poaching and slaughter by a certain breed of tourist — often European”

The killing of Cecil, on the other hand, is an ecological disaster in such a small population. It is not just that this lion had been living in a reserve, was collared and was being tracked by scientists as part of an important study to learn the habits of lions.

Cecil had recently fathered between four and six cubs. Tragically, as is the way with nature, they will inevitably be killed by whichever male takes over Cecil’s pride. The lionesses will try to protect the cubs, and they, too, could be injured.

The killing of this one animal, the alpha male, will have such serious repercussions that as many as a dozen more animals might die. All the while, there will be scant apologies from hunters. Some in the American gun lobby will arrogantly claim it is their right to travel the world shooting rare animals if they want to.

I am afraid that is the logic of the bully: I want to do it, I can afford to do it, and no one is going to stop me.

There’s only one thing to be done with a bully — stand up to him. We need an international agreement that outlaws big-game hunting. Every country that aspires to call itself civilised should be bound by such a law, and compelled to protect endangered animals against poaching and slaughter by a certain breed of tourist — often European.

Former King of Spain Juan Carlos provoked disgust when he was photographed beside the body of an elephant that he had shot in Botswana in 2012. And four years ago, a former BBC governor and director of the Bank of England, Sir David Scholey, admitted that he had taken part in big-game safaris. He was photographed beside the blood-soaked corpse of a lion, and posing with the tusks of an elephant.

Scholey, a Tory donor who made his fortune in merchant banking, attempted to defend his actions by suggesting it was fair sport: ‘All the animals I hunt are wild beasts. And I have felt threatened by them at times.’

 Such an argument is beneath contempt. So is his claim that the killing is justified because it is not illegal: ‘I have always hunted within the legal arrangements of the country concerned.’

No wonder more than 350,000 people have signed a petition urging David Cameron to strip Scholey of his knighthood.

Making lion-killing illegal everywhere in Africa is a huge challenge, and I fear that such a law will never be implemented. Hunting brings colossal profits for corrupt government officials who circumvent conservation policies and secretly aid foreign hunters.

According to Voice of America, the official broadcaster of the U.S. government, 9,000 trophy hunters visit South Africa every year. Every one of them is prepared to spend tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of dollars on game licences — not to mention backhanders and bribes.

“I don’t imagine that Cecil’s murderer will ever be forgotten. His dental practice is surely finished, and his reputation as a lion-killer will follow him for ever. In the eyes of millions, his actions are barely better than those of a paedophile”

The annual income in South Africa from big-game hunting is put at £477 million. Between 3 and 5 per cent is ploughed into conservation work. The rest disappears into pockets and secret bank accounts.

To me, nothing could justify lion-killing, and I don’t want any conservation funded by tainted money that derives from the slaughter of rare animals.

If the South African government is serious about stopping poaching, it could take that £477 million and spend it on an anti-poacher army. Such an investment could protect every elephant in the country.

The only sure way to protect animals is to use strength. The Aspinall Foundation, a conservation operation set up by my late father, successfully protects a million acres in Africa, with armed guards prepared to use their guns to secure the land.

Poachers realise they risk being shot and killed and look for easier pickings elsewhere. In the foundation’s parks, poaching has been cut by 95 per cent.

As a result, chimps have moved into a remote region of Gabon, which was effectively devoid of big wildlife, for the first time in 100 years. Even more spectacular was the discovery of lions there — the Gabonese thought there had been no lions in the country for nearly 40 years.

Thanks to tough protection measures and the support of government allies, 80 gorillas and five rhinos have been released into the wild and none have been lost to poachers.

The foundation is breeding Moroccan lions (a sub-species extinct in the wild) and would love to reintroduce them. But nowhere is remote enough as long as there are people willing to fly across the world, intent on murder.

The hunters’ mindsets betray an unforgivably arrogant belief that Man has a greater right than other species to inhabit Earth. This is grotesque and wrong.

National leaders are quick to tackle terrorism by sending in special forces, drones and other military tools. They could easily employ similar techniques to help species of animal that are hunted to, or close to, the point of extinction.

For what it’s worth, I don’t imagine that Cecil’s murderer will ever be forgotten. His dental practice is surely finished, and his reputation as a lion-killer will follow him for ever.

In the eyes of millions, his actions are barely better than those of a paedophile.

I’m glad that he will have a miserable life. And yes, there is a part of me that wishes he could suffer the same death he inflicted on Cecil: to be tricked out of hiding, just as the much-loved lion was lured from the protected zone with bait.

But another part of me hopes that Palmer will suffer a more enduring fate: that his name will become a pariah and his face will become an emblem of everything that is worst about humanity, a sickening image of the barbarism and arrogance of mankind in its crimes against nature.

  • Damian Aspinall is director of the Aspinall Foundation, which breeds endangered species and works to return animals safely into the wild.

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