The Lion – King of the Jungle, the Big Beast, Simba, star of the Lion King, one of the world’s best known and best loved animals – or perhaps more accurately a wild cat of the open plains whose population, according to a 2015 statement by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, has undergone a reduction of approximately 42% over the past 21 years, the unwitting star of 1997’s the Cook Report’s ‘Making a Killing‘ and the chilling and powerful 2015 documentary ‘Blood Lions‘, which uncovered the realities of the multi-million dollar predator breeding and canned lion hunting industries in South Africa.
From magnificent predators we have turned Lions into inbred animals farmed in miserable conditions across southern africa, animals rented out to be cuddled by so-called voluntourists then sold on to be shot in their enclosures by trophy hunters in canned hunts, and animals whose bones are boiled down to service the demands of traditional Chinese medicine now that Tigers have been exploited to the point of extinction.
I met conservationist, activist, author and film maker Richard Peirce at a wildlife event in Bristol where he was talking about ‘Blood Lions’ and his own excellent book ‘Cuddle Me, Kill Me‘, a scathing and in-depth investigation of South Africa’s large-scale captive lion breeding industry, from, as the book puts it, bottle to bullet. Research for ‘Cuddle Me, Kill Me‘, started in late 2016 and the book was published in mid-2018 – Rather than say, ‘I’ve done my bit’ though, Richard is now deep into the making of an investigative documentary, ‘Lions, Bones, and Bullets‘, and is planning visits to Asia, where many lion products end up
Richard Peirce really knows his stuff. He divides his time between Cape Town and Cornwall, fundraising, campaigning, and tirelessly – and bluntly – talking about the problems that Lions face. He is well placed to discuss the impact of canned hunting and the lion bone industry on what travel chiefs like to call ‘Brand South Africa’, the lies told by farm operators to overseas volunteers who come to Africa to look after ‘orphaned’ lion cubs, the huge sums of money being made by lion farmers, and the more then twenty years of effort to halt an industry which to jaundiced eyed might seem almost unstoppably buoyant.
Richard has some fascinating perspectives on lions, Africa, and activism, but I began by asking him – given that there seems to be an almost endless queue of wealthy gun owners looking to get their jollies by shooting a lion in a cage whilst at the same time East Asia is hoovering up wild animal parts at a rate never witnessed in the planet’s history – has anything actually changed for the better since Blood Lions?
Last month I interviewed feisty sixteen year old (though I think she may have had a birthday since then, as her blog is now saying seventeen year old?) Mya-Rose Craig.
Mya-Rose is a world lister, and a Rock Bunting in Spain this spring was her 5000th species! (At sixteen!) Yes, big lists are built around opportunity, money, travel, and time, but she will have seen and experienced a lot more than most young people her age – and her parents, Chris and Helena, will have required her to think while she was off travelling with them – and there’s no better education in my mind than being made to think about the things you see.
Anyway, while the conversation could easily have been about birds, birds, and even more birds, I wanted to get Mya-Rose’s perspective on the other passions in her life: equality, access to the countryside, online bullying, and the climate emergency we’re all facing.
If that seems a bit ‘heavy going’ for a teenager, it’s worth pointing out that Mya-Rose has form here: she is a very interesting young woman, with a drive and commitment that I felt was worth almost ‘archiving’. Will she still feel this way in, say, a decade? Will she emerge as a generational leader, or quietly drop out of the limelight and back into birding and world listing?
Either would be understandable, and I certainly won’t be stepping forward to judge whatever decision she makes – but in the meantime here’s the link to the conversation on The Sound Approach website: Birdgirl | Mya-Rose Craig
I’m interviewing author and conservationist Richard Peirce tomorrow, We met at a TeamEarth event in Bristol a few weeks ago, where he hosted a showing of the unforgettable (and rather bleak) 2015 film ‘Blood Lions‘.
Richard, who divides his time between South Africa and Cornwall (here in the UK he is perhaps mostly known for his work conserving sharks with the Shark Trust), recently wrote a sort-of follow up book which absolutely blasts the canned lion industry and is well worth buying: Cuddle Me, Kill Me (which apart from anything else has one heck of title…).
Putting bullets into lions seems a very difficult industry to defeat. Exposes of the canned lion industry, with it’s related ‘petting tourism’ and ‘walking with lions’ offshoots, have been around since Roger Cook’s famous ‘Making a Killing’ report was shown on ITV back in 1997. Even the global release of ‘Blood Lions’ doesn’t seem to have slowed the industry down. There appears to be a long queue of empathy-deficient ‘hunters’ (or more properly ‘gun owners who like to kill animals’) willing to prove their manhood by shooting a lion in a cage. Cynical owners/operators have dug in and greenwash their sordid activities by burying opponents under claims of ‘conservation’ (technically, yes, there are more lions in South Africa now than in previous decades, but only in the sense that opening an intensive chicken factory in a town means there are now more chickens in that town than previously).
It’ll be interesting to find out from Richard what solutions might exist, and what he considers the next moves should be. And what about the intervention in April of Tory peer Michael Ashcroft, a man who appears to be ruthless in business on the one hand but against canned lion hunting on the other (that link, incidentally, leads to Ashcroft’s own website where he writes about himself in the third person – not something I’ve ever felt comfortable about but then again I’m not worth 1.3billion dollars, so maybe there’s something in it)?
Richard was gratifyingly blunt in Bristol, I’m hoping for much more of the same!
I’ve been working on a rather tricky edit of a conversation I had two weeks ago with campaigner Don Kent (a spokesperson for the Campiagn to Protect Pont Valley) and ecologist Tom Langton (who I visited in Suffolk recently and am increasingly working with).
We were talking about a huge opencast coal mine in the Pont Valley, Co Durham, and the reason the edit was ‘tricky’ is because part of what we were discussing is currently in front of the courts – and no-one wants to be accused of prejudicing or influencing an ongoing court case. So concerned were we all, that the edit went through a fact-check by a lawyer before uploading – and I’m grateful for his clear and important clarifications.
Anyway, on legal advice we kept certain details of the case relatively vague. It’s not difficult to find all the relevant details you could possibly need via whatever search engine you prefer to use (try ‘Pont+Valley+Opencast+Mine’), but I wrote a long (even for me!) introduction to this podcast explaining the current situation, which I’ve copied below.
But in case you are interested, here’s that intro:
Protest, climate change, fossil fuels vs renewables, development vs biodiversity loss, resources vs a fragile natural world, opencast coal mining, a County Wildlife Site, and the Great Crested Newt – all, remarkably, encapsulated in the story of the campaign to protect the Pont Valley.
How so? County Durham’s Pont Valley lies some twenty miles to the west of Sunderland, close to the edge of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s a region of epic landscapes, of valleys and hills, wild places and small villages – but this part of the northeast was once the heart of lead mining, coal mining, and steel production. Times change of course, and by the 1850s the best lead ore had been removed, the nearby Consett Steelworks closed for the last time in 1980, and the last colliery in the Durham coalfield closed in 1994.
But there is of course still coal in the ground, much of it lying close to the surface, and local developers want to get it out – not just in the Pont valley but at other sites in the northeast including the magnificent Druridge Bay.
There is a long history of mining applications here. The first attempt to mine Pont valley was rejected by the county council in 1974, a further one was thrown out in 1986 and then again in 2011. But after a series of appeals a planning inspector granted UK Coal permission to mine in June 2015. When UK Coal went bust, the licence was taken over and in January 2018 it was announced that mining would go ahead.
The mining company intends to remove 500,000 tonnes of coal from the Pont Valley but many in the local communities, activists from for example the Campaign to Protect Pont Valley and Coal Action Network, and even former miners – don’t want them to. The Pont Valley is an ecologically rich area, coal use is being phased out anyway and the climate crisis demands that we look at cleaner energy, and – at a more local level – the development includes a well-known county wildlife site, Brooms Pond, which has held a well-known population of the Great Crested Newt for many years.
And it’s those newts that have – perhaps unexpectedly – caused the mining company the most trouble. Great Crested Newts are a European Protected Species: destroying their breeding and resting places is a criminal offence under The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations.
Ecological surveys for the newts were undertaken before mining began – they suggested that the newts were no longer present at Brooms Pond, but in April 2018 a Great Crested Newt was found in a pitfall trap by campaigners. Despite that, Brooms Pond was still drained.
Activists attempting to stop the company, destroying the pond and the habitat of a protected species, were arrested and charged with aggravated trespass, but the case was thrown out of court last August – the judge ruling that they were trying to stop a wildlife crime taking place. Campaigners are now looking to sue the mining company – and that action is still making its way through the courts.
My name is Charlie Moores and in this conversation about the mine and its environmental impact I’m talking with Don Kent and Tom Langton.
Don, a veteran activist and spokesperson for the Campaign to Protect the Pont Valley, lives just a few miles from the opencast site. Having played an active role in protests about CFC’s, nuclear power and Lead in Petrol, he sees permission to mine Pont Valley as a major failure in the slow progress towards environmental protection that he has seen over his life.
Tom is a scientist and nature conservationist. A highly-experienced ecologist his work in recent decades has turned more and more to legaldefence of wildlife. Associated more recently with badger and bat conservation, his main and life-long specialisation are reptiles and amphibians – and in Britain he – literally – wrote the book on conserving the Great Crested Newt. He has given half of his time for 40 years helping wildlife charities, working without charge for local groups such as those from friends of the earth and other unfunded wildlife protest groups and individuals. His involvement in the Pont Valley campaign began when lawyers asked him to look at the surveys that were done at Brooms Pond and to appear as an expert witness in Middlesbrough Magistrates Court.
Discussing such a delicately balanced situation while it is in the process of going through the courts means being very careful about what is said of course – hence, for example, the rather vague references to ‘mining company’ when a quick Google of the case makes it very clear just who is involved. So, in some respects, this is a more generic conversation about mining in the northeast and wildlife survey methods than such an extraordinary campaign perhaps deserves, but none of us want to do anything that might cause claims of prejudicing or influencing the case.
Nevertheless there is no doubt that what is happening in the Pont Valley is hugely important – not just at the local level but in the way it fits into larger, big picture conversations and actions that right now are taking place all over the planet…
I only recorded this conversation at Plantlife HQ in Salisbury yesterday – and I have a rather daunting backlog of edits to be getting on with – but during my conversation with the excellent Dr Trevor Dines on the importance to biodiversity of road verges we also referenced another Plantlife campaign, NoMowMay, a campaign focussing on our gardens that is running over this Bank Holiday weekend, so I thought I’d best get on with it.
From the spoken intro to the podcast:
“…verges are actually fascinating habitats…because they are these fragments of the surrounding countryside that are preserved along ancient routes…”
Most of us are aware now that biodiversity is in decline. Plant biodiversity here in the UK has especially suffered: wild flowers have been lost from huge areas of Britain, and so have the pollinators and other invertebrates that depend on them. Conservationists are having to look to protect what’s left of our wildlife in areas that may not be optimal, but that nevertheless hold a surprisingly important range of flora and fauna. Along with our gardens, one of those areas is our rural road verges, those largely county council-owned strips of land next to our roads which, according to the UK charity Plantlife, make up a network that is equal to half of the country’s remaining flower-rich grasslands and meadows.
I spoke with Dr Trevor Dines, Plantlife’s exuberant Botanical Specialist, about the charity’s excellent Road Verges Campaign, which has been running for a couple of years now and is having positive and hugely encouraging results.
Road verges may have the potential to literally re-seed our denuded countryside and looking after them sounds like such a simple solution to plant biodiversity loss, but do we actually have the data to quantify just how important our road verges really are?