/ 23 October 1998

How the lid was lifted on canned lions

In his new book, Gareth Patterson describes for the first time the sting operation that blew the lid off the ‘canned’ lion hunting industry in South Africa

In order to expose the illegal trophy hunting of endangered species and canned lion hunting, the Cook Report team had established a bogus trophy hunting outfitting company called Jackson & Company in Mabeya, Spain. They chose Spain in which to do this as it is a country well known for its trophy hunting culture, as well as its dubious reputation of having hunters lacking in ethics and morals.

Jackson & Company was set up to arrange phoney trophy hunting trips for wealthy clients. In Spain the Cook Report team soon realised that, given enough money, middlemen could arrange for the hunting of literally any endangered species anywhere in the world. Spanish middlemen, they discovered, were offering client hunters opportunities to kill gorilla, tiger and jaguar. In Spain it was also confirmed that South Africa was a favoured destination for canned hunting.

Jackson & Company was also the Cook Report team’s cover in South Africa, with Peter (Salkeld) and Howard (Foster) using a story that they specialised in arranging hunts for clients who were either elderly, unfit or both, and therefore required “easy” hunts.

Based at Crispian (Barlow’s) camp (in Mpumalanga), they infiltrated the Lowveld hunting industry, making it known that they required a canned lion hunt for their extremely wealthy, but unwell, client. Their “client”, in fact, was to be Roger Cook himself, the programme’s veteran investigative journalist and anchorman. They planned to enter and film the sordid and secret world of the canned lion industry, right up to the point when the “client” (Roger) was supposed to pull the trigger and shoot a lion.

They first approached the larger lion breeders in the Hoedspruit area: (Albert) Mostert’s Mokwalo Game Farm, Tshukudu Safaris, run by the Sussens family, and Kapama Safaris, a subsidiary hunting company of Kapama Game Reserve owned by Pretoria businessman Johan Roode.

At Tshukudu they filmed a meeting held with professional hunter Chris Sussens, using the Cook Report team’s miniature spy camera.

Chris Sussens went on record saying: “The only time I can actually guarantee an animal is when it’s going to be like a canned animal, which I don’t like doing. That’s normally not done in this area.” To do a canned hunt, he said, “we have to go towards the Free State where you’ll get the odd operator that has got lions in big camps and you go into them to shoot a lion there. Basically, this camp [enclosure] where the chap has got the lions is about a 20ha camp.”

At Kapama, the Cook Report team were told by the resident professional hunter, Kerth Boehme, their lions allocated to be hunted that year had already been “spoken for”, meaning that their lion hunts were fully booked. He informed the Cook Report team, however, that a lion for a future hunt could be arranged to accommodate their “client”. Boehme was captured on film saying: “He [the client] just has to do a little bit, get the lion to the bait, make a half-hearted attempt to track the damn thing, or just shoot it from a blind [hide],” and that “even the weakest of clients can still be satisfied and still at least have done it, you know, semi- ethically”.

At Mostert’s farm they were told that they were fully booked until September for lion hunting and that a “one-off” lion hunt for the client could not be arranged. Within the hunting industry, a “one-off” lion hunt, which does not involve the hunting of other species as well, is uncommon. Permitting such a hunt means the hunting operator does not earn the substantial daily tariffs and other fees charged for the usual 10- to 14-day hunts. It is a question of profit.

However, to undertake their expos, the Cook Report team did not have the time, inclination nor budget to prolong the facade for the more usual 10- to 14-day hunt and thus were seeking a “one-off”.

After visiting various hunting operations, they were about to return to Tshukudu with their requirements for a canned hunt when Crispian had a chance meeting with a woman who recommended he contact the husband and wife team, Sandy and Tracy McDonald of McDonald Pro Hunting. The woman told Barlow that the McDonalds had recently set up a hunt for a physically disabled Spanish hunter who was confined to a wheelchair.

After hearing this, Peter Salkeld and Crispian went to the Northern Province town of Pietersburg, where the McDonalds were based, to speak to Tracy about a canned lion hunt. Tracy McDonald confirmed that they could guarantee any hunt, regardless of the physical condition of a client, and boasted that their company’s clients had killed over 1 000 wild animals in the past year.

Peter and Crispian asked how lions could be lured and then hunted. Tracy described how: “You just dig a little bit under the fence and leave a little piece of rotten meat on that side and then you drag it with the blood running through and the lion picks up the scent so easily and just comes through [the fence].”

Peter later handed over half of the agreed fee, which was $18 000, as a down payment, with the remaining $9 000 payable on completion of the hunt. This amount, however, would never be given to the McDonalds as no lion would actually be shot by the “client”, Cook.

It was arranged that Simon Trickey, Bruce and Chantal Hamilton and I should meet up with the team at Ibhubezi Lodge on March 21. There we were filmed giving our experiences of the canned lion industry. Simon was forthright and to the point, saying on camera: “Canned lion hunting is like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s unethical, it’s bloody easy and it’s earning a lot of people a lot of money.”

Bruce told of the horror of the hunt he had witnessed at Marlothi when the Dark Lioness was shot in front of her cubs. He said he felt that the South African canned lion industry was totally disgusting and described how already wealthy people were making even more money through canned hunts.

The afternoon spent filming symbolised to me the start of the time when, because we were speaking out and acting against lion hunting, each of our lives would change and never be quite the same again. Bruce, Simon, Crispian, Chantal and I knew that we were exposing a powerful industry, that there could be reprisals once the Cook Report programme had been screened – and possibly before.

Two days after our meeting at Ibhubhezi, the stage was set for the Cook Report team to film and expose canned lion hunting. Roger Cook, the “client”, and the rest of the team were to be collected from the Kings Camp Game Lodge and taken to the area where the hunt would take place. This, it transpired, was to be at Mostert’s farm.

Mostert and McDonald had earlier agreed they would split the $18 000 fee. At the farm, Roger was given instructions by McDonald on how to shoot a lion. This was filmed. The presence of the team’s cameraman did not create suspicion as it is fairly common for clients to bring a camera person with them on hunting safaris to film and produce what can really only be described as a “vanity film” of the client’s exploits.

Using a stuffed lion to illustrate where on the body Roger had to aim when shooting the lion, McDonald said: “Being a [Kruger] Park lion he is not that wary of humans and that sort of stuff which means he is pretty relaxed …” Pointing to the stuffed lion’s shoulder, he told Roger: “We want to break a limb, smoke him there and he will bounce around and go off to die probably.”

As a kind of hunting sales pitch, McDonald was indicating to Roger that the lion about to be hunted was from the Kruger National Park and not a lion which had been kept in captivity for the purpose of hunting.

Seeing Peter and Howard as compatriots, in a common ruse McDonald had earlier been secretly filmed saying: “It’s a canned lion, make no mistake, but it’s a very nice size, but it’s at a bait and going to be fairly easy for him [Roger] to have the first shot at it. What we do is we’ll go to the camp and let your guy have a few shots at a target … from our side it’s all fixed. I’ll keep him happy. I know what to say at the right time and all the rest of it …”

After the “bullet placement” lesson, Roger was taken into the bush where he fired three bullets at a paper target.

At about this time, trouble was beginning to brew just outside the farm. It had been agreed that, once Roger and the others had been collected from Kings Camp, Crispian would return to load up the crew’s luggage for a quick get-away after the hunt.

Prior to this he had also arranged for his friend Hosea (Mokgahla) and two other nature conservation officials to meet him near the Mostert farm once the Cook crew were inside. They were to act as “back-up” should things go wrong. Crispian’s main role after the hunt was to get the videotapes safely away from the farm.

While Roger and the others were inside being prepared for the hunt, Crispian, Hosea and the other men were suddenly confronted by one of Mostert’s sons. He drove up to where they were parked and stopped his vehicle at an angle, which effectively blocked Crispian’s vehicle.

He then went to the other vehicle and took the keys out of the ignition before calling a policeman in Hoedspruit on a cellular phone. This was all happening on a public road – a road open for anyone’s use. To this day, the reason for Mostert’s son’s behaviour remains inexplicable. All I can surmise is that he possibly suspected that Crispian and the others were poachers.

Meanwhile, inside the farm, Roger was in a safari vehicle and being taken on a “pantomime” search for the lion. Knowing that McDonald and the others knew where the lion was, Roger must have thought that their “stop-start” search for the lion’s spoor was ludicrous.

Prior to the hunt, McDonald had confided to Howard and Peter: “I’ve tranquillised it [the lion]. It’s a hell of a nice lion. Nobody will suspect a thing – we do a lot of them.”

The “pantomime” search continued for about half an hour until the lion was sighted. Roger was then told by a whispering McDonald to shoot the lion “where the mane ends”. It was at this point that Roger gave McDonald the greatest surprise of his life by saying: “Let me tell you why I am not going to shoot this lion. It doesn’t stand a chance.”

He proceeded to tell McDonald who he was and what he and his team were actually doing.

McDonald did not at first seem to comprehend what Roger was telling him. He looked utterly confused. He even continued gesturing in the direction of the lion, seemingly still trying to get Roger to shoot the lion. Roger instructed them to turn the vehicle back.

Back at the camp, sparks were about to fly. Crispian, Hosea and the other officials were, at this stage, still being detained by Mostert’s son. After a cellphone conversation with someone inside the farm, Mostert’s son instructed the men not to attempt to escape and to follow him to another gate on the farm, where a rumpus between the Cook Report team and the hunters had erupted. Crispian was happy to do this as it gave him a chance to get close to the team and hopefully retrieve the videotapes and get them safely away.

When they reached the gate he saw many people and some policemen. Almost everyone had firearms. The hunters were demanding the videotapes and had padlocked the farm gate, preventing the team from driving away.

Crispian got out of his vehicle and walked towards the gate to try and talk to Howard and Peter. Crispian recently told me that when Mostert saw him he instructed a man in a kombi to run him down. Gesturing towards Crispian, he told the man, “Ry hom dood,” which, translated, literally means “drive him dead”. The driver attempted to do just that, but Crispian was aware of what was happening and leapt away from the approaching vehicle.

By now Crispian was furious. He confronted one of the policemen and asked why he was not taking action against the driver. Incredibly, the policeman’s response was to ask Crispian why he was there.

Thinking quickly of an excuse to get hold of tapes and get them away, he said: “They [the Cook Report team] owe me money. They have been staying at my camp and I am not leaving here until they pay me for accommodation.”

Hearing this, Peter joined in, saying the banks at the nearest town closed at 3pm and it was imperative he and Crispian be allowed to leave immediately to get to the bank on time. After more negotiating, Mostert reluctantly agreed to unlock the gates and let the Cook Report team out of the farm. With the videotapes in his pockets, Peter got into Crispian’s vehicle and they drove away. Initially they were followed and had to double back and take a side road to shake off the trailing vehicle.

As Roger, Howard and the cameraman left the farm, they were told by the hunters that their canned lion would survive only until the next wealthy foreigner arrived and paid to take his life. The police also warned them not to return to the farm, clearly not understanding that this was stating the obvious.

Peter and Crispian needed to film further evidence for the expos, and the next few days would be their last opportunity. The hunting fraternity is very much a closed society and, before long, the incident on Mostert’s farm would be known to everyone involved in lion breeding and canned lion hunting right across the country.

The following day they had a meeting with Roy Plath, the owner of Marlothi and the person who had sanctioned the German client’s shooting of the Dark Lioness. Fortunately he had not yet learned of the Mostert incident. Peter had informed Plath that they were investigating the opportunities of a lion hunt for an overseas client.

At Marlothi, he obliged Peter’s request to cut a small portion out of a fence so that he could film a young male lion whom Plath was prepared to allow the “client” (whom they had named Mr James Rogers) to shoot for R110 000. He also agreed to make a video invitation to “Mr Rogers” to come and shoot the lion. Facing the camera, he said: “It looks like we have just the lion for you and I look forward to you coming out to shoot this lion and to have a trophy for your home or offices, whatever pleases you.”

With Plath “in the can”, Peter and Crispian headed to Johannesburg where another wealthy businessman was interested in literally “making a killing” from Peter’s “client”. This man was Fanie Roberts, owner of a 2 000ha game farm in KwaZulu-Natal, where he “farmed” exotic animals as his speciality. He was offering exotic and indigenous species to be hunted, including jaguar for $100 000.

When discussing hunting exotics on his farm, he was caught on the spy camera saying: “I have got an enclosure, which is like 100m by 100m, something like that, where you and your client and the tiger can’t come out.”

A few months earlier, Fanie Roberts had been featured on the South African environmental television programme 50/50. The commentary had described the farm in glowing terms: “This game farm with a difference is testimony to the single- minded vision of Fanie himself … boasting of the big five as well as every conceivable large cat imaginable.”

The commentary told of “the vast enclosures” in which he “houses the cats” with “easily the most impressive fencing in the country”. It went on to say that “cats are his pride and joy” and “the affection on both sides is obvious”, as Roberts was shown trying to touch a lioness through the fence with a piece of grass.

The insert told of how, in the past, the reserve had been Roberts’s private getaway but he was now encouraging visitors and had built luxury chalets to accommodate them. “Money,” the commentary said, “is not an important factor for Fanie, who came close to death in February this year when two muggers shot him in the throat in Johannesburg as he was paying his staff.”

Not once during the insert was the viewer informed that, for the right price, Roberts might allow you to shoot one of his tigers, jaguars or other animals in the enclosures. The insert ended with various shots of animals on his farm, including a close-up of a jaguar. After recently watching a video copy of this programme, I wondered if it was the same jaguar that Roberts put on offer for Peter’s bogus client to shoot.

Crispian and Peter drove to KwaZulu-Natal to meet Fanie Roberts at his game farm. Both were nervous about being at his game farm. I think they had visions of being found out and something happening to them, or of even being forced, unarmed, into one of the enclosures holding the big cats. Crispian told me later that they had to endure a long, nail-biting period of time just chatting with Roberts before they could film him with his exotic cats.

During that conversation Roberts revealed to Crispian and Peter that he hoped, with his breeding programme, eventually to have 50 male lions a year available for trophy hunters. According to Crispian, he also revealed that he had Bengal tigers, black leopard and even a white tiger which could be made available to trophy hunters.

Eventually they were taken to the jaguar enclosure and, with the camera focused on the animal, Peter asked him whether this was the jaguar being offered. Roberts responded in the affirmative. Roberts then knelt in front of the cage and, in front of Crispian and Peter, said that the jaguar was now 10 years old and was no longer of any use to him. Paradoxically, while saying this, he attempted to stroke the jaguar through the fence.

It was then that the full horror of the hours and days of delving into the sordid world of canned hunts hit Crispian. Seeing Roberts apparently attempting to show affection for the jaguar immediately after he had said it could be shot dead for money, coupled with the clear view on Roberts’s neck of the scar left by the muggers’ bullet, hit Crispian with what he described as “a blinding white light of irrationality”.