• Lord Ashcroft is a businessman, author, philanthropist and politician from the U.K., and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. His new book is Unfair Game: An Exposé of South Africa’s Captive-Bred Lion Industry. (Photo courtesy Lord Ashcroft)

Scouted, shot, then sold: almost all captive-bred lions in South Africa face a similar fate. Born to entertain tourists, the lions are eventually killed in canned hunts or skinned for their bones.

The realities of South Africa’s captive-bred lion industry were recently exposed thanks to a year-long investigation led by Michael Ashcroft, a British peer and Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. In 2019, he began a covert operation to uncover the extreme cruelty to lions that for decades has gone virtually unnoticed by the public.

The operation involved former British Army and security services personnel, with the team recruiting an undercover agent to infiltrate the lion bone trade. Among other stomach-churning evidence, the agent captured video footage of lions, many suffering from skin diseases, held in cramped and dirty pens at a tourist farm. When the undercover team handed a dossier of the cruelty to South African police, it was rejected and they were threatened with jail time unless they left the country. 

The investigation is detailed in Lord Aschroft’s new book Unfair Game: An Exposé of South Africa’s Captive-Bred Lion Industry. In it, he reveals how lions are drugged, mistreated and hunted for sport on an alarming scale. There are estimated to be about 3,000 wild lions remaining in South Africa; by contrast, lion farms hold about 12,000 of the animals, which are classified as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Canadian Geographic spoke to Ashcroft about this exposé and the message he wants to share with the world. 

On what spurred him to write his exposé 

When I first heard about the industry, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing—I felt like it couldn’t be true or they were unsubstantiated rumours. I needed to see it for myself. In my first investigation, I personally chartered a helicopter, placed a camera at the front, and flew over six farms to see the pens and slaughterhouses. That was the first time I saw the vast numbers of small pens full of lions, tigers and ligers in poor conditions. Their caretakers clearly had no interest in animal welfare. 

On the investigation that followed and his emotional response

The whole experience was harrowing. Having to look at the undercover film of people being deliberately cruel to the animals was deeply disturbing. In the investigation, I hired someone from special forces to buy a lion off the Internet for $25,000, then go through the whole experience of going out on the hunt — to the point where he would have had to shoot the lion, but would make an excuse not to do so. 

The footage was highly emotional. I just couldn’t believe that a small group of people in South Africa would be so cruel to these lions. I decided I would do a further undercover operation to see if I could eventually produce a book and hopefully get to a position where this industry could be banned.

On the challenges of mounting the undercover operation

I couldn’t have done this operation in a normal sense of investigative journalism. The people involved in the captive-bred lion industry are aggressive, paranoid and hostile to outsiders. After all, they know they are criminals. Their farms are completely fenced off, patrolled by staff to ensure there is no intrusion and are located many kilometres from the main roads—you simply cannot call them up and ask for an interview. So that’s why I put together a team of special forces who played various roles to get right under the skin of this industry. 

On tourists unwittingly being used to support the abuse of lions

At these breeding farms, cubs are taken away from their mothers at birth. Very young cubs are meant to sleep for 18 hours a day, but instead they are played with and handled by tourists and are then kept in poor conditions when they are out of sight. Their destiny is to be badly treated until they are old enough to be shot in a canned lion hunt or killed for their bones. This is ethically, totally unacceptable and of course we should care. I even feel emotional discussing it. We have a responsibility as the dominant animal species on this planet to look after all our fellow animals. 

Watch: The shocking truth about lion farming in South Africa (warning: contains graphic images of animal cruelty)

On the public health risks associated with the lion bone trade 

When lions are slaughtered and skinned, their bones enter the global wildlife trade. Often they are made into lion cake or lion wine as an aphrodisiac even though medical science says this doesn’t work. Somebody once said to me these bones, as an aphrodisiac, are no more effective than chewing your fingernails. In fact, I spoke to a number of doctors through this investigation who made it clear that lions carry diseases, with plenty of evidence showing the lion bone trade could start another pandemic. I hope the World Health Organization will start to have a look at the dangers of these lion skeletons going out of South Africa with no bona fide purpose other than to make money for these profiteers. 

On corruption and the lion bone trade

It’s important to note that South African law allows 800 skeletons to be exported every year, though the actual number is substantially more. The fact is that South Africa is prepared to export these skeletons without proper regulation of how they are gathered. It is important to understand that corruption in South Africa within this lion bone trade is woven through the politicians, down through the police forces, then right down into the farms. Therefore, the question is whether the government has the will, the wish or the time to address this particular issue. 

On informing international governments

Calling on governments around the world to ban the import of captive-bred lion trophies is important. Even though that doesn’t stop the trade, it sends a message that the government will not be compliant in canned lion hunting by allowing these so-called hunters to bring their trophies back to their country of origin. International governments also need to start putting pressure on to stop the despicable bone trade. It is a smear on South Africa, which is a beautiful country. Once you stop the bone trade, you start to take a lot of the profitability out of the sector. The next stage is to get the South Africans to change the law and make this type of captive-bred lion farming illegal. 

On what needs to be done next

We must highlight this industry further. There has to be a momentum all around the world until the South African government realizes that it is negatively affecting their country. Many South Africans I’ve spoken to didn’t even know this trade existed. It’s been difficult to get into these farms and gather the evidence needed to make the South African public aware of what’s going on in their own country. The book is being released in South Africa at the beginning of next month and I will be sending a copy of it to the president, every one of his cabinet ministers and the media. Then, we will judge from there how the momentum unfolds. But I certainly won’t be giving up in terms of highlighting this despicable trade. 

Related: The illegal wildlife trade is a biodiversity apocalypse