Lion Hunt: Digging for the truth about Skye
The hunting of a lion in Umbabat Reserve alongside the Kruger National Park has been cloaked in secrecy ever since it was discovered. With the worldwide outcry at the killing of Cecil several years back, that’s hardly surprising. Here’s what we know so far.
The message arrived as a WhatsApp. It said: “I can give you the hunter’s name and phone number. Can you assure I remain anonymous? I do not want to be exposed.” It popped up the day after I’d published a story in June 2018 about the trophy hunt of a lion in the Umbabat Reserve adjacent to the Kruger National Park. There are no fences between the park and the reserve, so it was very possible it could have been a Kruger lion. I’d been alerted to the hunt by a concession holder in the reserve who also wanted to remain anonymous, plus a letter from the chair of one of the reserve’s concessions to board members trying to head it off (he failed). The story had evoked damage control from the hunting fraternity, as any stories I write about hunting generally do. (It’s a rather self-protective industry) When I followed up with the reserve and the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) – which licensed the hunt – they did not take my calls. I messaged the Umbabat warden, Bryan Haverman, asking him which lion had been hunted and why – when Kruger Park had expressly forbidden a lion hunt in their quota – one had been shot. I got no reply. But he confirmed to Simon Espley of Africa Geographic that the animal had been baited. So of course the WhatsApp message was intriguing.
Who was the hunter?I messaged back: “Okay, anonymity assured.” The reply was more detailed than I had anticipated: “The outfitter and professional hunter was Graham Sales, the US hunter was Jared Whitworth from Hardingsburg, Kentucky. Riaan de Lange was the MTPA official who issued the permit. The hunt was marketed to the client as a hunt where baiting was allowed. “There never was a ‘skinny old lion’ in the area they claimed they were hunting. Had there been, he would have been run off by the dominant male. “Unfortunately I cannot prove this to you, but the client was told they would be baiting a big Kruger Park lion. This was in communications sent (to) the client prior to the hunt. They are now all trying to cover this up, including Umbabat, hence the refusal to let anyone see the skin.” Whoever my source was, they knew a lot about that hunt. It seemed legal, according to several journalists’ follow-up inquiries. So the problem wasn’t about a wrongdoing but about receiving information from a single source. You can’t name people without fact-checking and verifying information. But nobody except the “Deep Throat” was talking. A bit of research turned up a Graham Sales who owns a safari hunting outfit of the same name in Mbombela and offers hunting trips in Klaserie and Timbavati private reserves which border Umbabat. Lions aren’t on its website’s inventory, but buffalo, elephants, leopards, rhinos and crocodiles are. It offers ethical hunts and “selective use of renewable resources”. Research also turned up Whitworth Tools in Hardingsburg, Kentucky, and the Kentuckiana Chapter of Safari Club International which has a Jared Whitworth as sponsor and donor. Both he and family members were listed as members of the local hunt club. The source included phone numbers for Sales and Whitworth. I called repeatedly but they all went to voicemail. A colleague in the US tried, but got the same result. He then had a friend in Kentucky try (in case the cell was not taking foreign calls) but still no answer. The next step was to message the named people to see whether they could throw some light on the lion hunt and offer them right of reply. I sent them both a similar message: “Hi Graham, my name’s Don Pinnock, an environmental writer. There has been a lot of interest in the hunt of a lion in Umbabat. I have details, including that it was legal. However I’m sure you are aware that there’s quite a bit of public heat around hunting, so before publishing the details, I’d like to afford you the space to give your side of the story. So I await your comments. However if you have not got back to me before the end of this weekend, I will assume that to be a ‘no comment’, which of course is also perfectly acceptable.” And I waited. The weekend came and went.
Was the lion Skye?It’s not definite it was the pride male until the carcass has been checked by an independent viewer, but evidence is stacking in that direction. Following the hunt, the Umbabat Private Nature Reserve (UPNR) put out a statement that “the hunted lion was well past his prime – as per the hunting protocol – and was not a pride lion. The hunted lion had worn down and broken teeth, a protruding spine (all signs of advanced age).” But a WhatsApp I received from a different anonymous source arrived the same day saying the lion wasn’t an “old skinny male with broken teeth” but the well-loved Umbabat pride male named Skye. If that was so, he was younger than the permitted hunt age of six years so it would constitute a permit violation. If he was baited (as Umbabat warden Haverman confirmed to The London Times) that’s a violation in terms of the 2007 Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) legislation. Riaan de Lange of the MTPA denied access to the carcass, which is alleged to be at Life Form taxidermist in White River. He said it was owned by the hunter who needed to give permission. But he wouldn’t provide the hunter’s name and refused to produce the hunting permit. But an email from a hunting “insider” included the claim that he had seen the skin. Oops. Insiders only. For journalist Adam Cruise, who went to see him, De Lange produced a photocopied image of the face of a dead lion that was clearly not Skye. But he would not hand it over for further verification and admitted that he “could show a picture of any dead lion”. He said the hunting permit included permission to bait the lion, which is not normally allowed. But it was done, he said, to allow the hunter to make sure he and the accompanying professional hunter could identify the correct lion to shoot. Then he told Cruise: “It’s a pity we didn’t have more pictures. If the hunter had other pictures, then there would be no excuse, but he only had this one, so one can’t blame him if he did shoot Skye.” It sounded as though he was hedging his bets in case it turned out to be the pride male. And he would naturally be aware that the Greater Kruger Hunting Protocol requires that “reasonable steps should be taken to gain knowledge of the males with pride affiliations and their ages, thereby ensuring that pride males under the age of 6 years are not selected”. He would also be aware of the TOPS non-baiting regulation. In the US, meanwhile, a legal team for the Center for Biological Diversity and the Humane Society for the United States fired off a letter to the head of the US Fish and Wildlife Service asking the agency to block the import of the trophy pending an independent identification of the lion carcass. According to Ingwelala concession holder Kevin Alborough, Skye has not been seen or heard since the hunt. One of his cubs has been found dead, a sign he is not around to protect them. “In my personal opinion,” he wrote to the Ingwelala board of directors, “until conclusively proved otherwise, it appears that on a balance of probability the lion shot was the dominant male of the Western Pride. I find this morally despicable.” If Skye was not the hunted lion, why the secrecy? Showing a journalist the hunting permit and the carcass of a skinny old lion would make the story go away. Deep Throat’s information was looking increasingly solid, but I really hoped he or she could find a way to get it further corroborated. “Not in the country. Give me a few more days,” was the answer. So I waited some more. Meanwhile an old hand in the wildlife game outlined how a “redirected” hunt could take place (no relation to this hunt intended, of course): “The PH gets a permit to shoot a non-pride lion of the ‘right’ age. Around the fire before the hunt he mentions to his client that there’s a big pride male around, but he’s not permitted to shoot it. For the hunter, bragging rights and an honours listing with Safari Club International is very important and he wants in. “The PH allows himself to be ‘persuaded’ to go for the pride male for a considerable, no-contract, extra fee. The PH then uses some of that to pay off any wardens or officials and they hunt the pride male at the end of the hunt so it can be whisked out the country fast. It’s an old trick.” Maybe that happened at Umbabat, but there’s no proof of it. Just lots of secrecy.
What was the fallout from the hunt?Kruger Park, meanwhile, seems to becoming concerned about issues surrounding the hunt. Its managing executive, Glenn Phillips, told an Umbabat concession holder that “if Umbabat does not sort out their governance issues, KNP will re-erect the fence”. And Alborough, the chairman of non-hunting Ingwelala (a concession within Umbabat) and another member resigned from the board as the issue developed. Alborough had tried to stop the hunt taking place and was probably disgusted when it did. John Varty, one of the key developers of the Greater Kruger concept, waded into the debate. On his website he wrote:
“This lion is a national asset. It does not belong to Umbabat. To attract the tourist, the ecotourist lodges are dependent on the ability to find iconic animals for their guests. Therefore, by allowing a hunter – who has no skin in the game – to shoot Skye or a 100lb [tusk] elephant, you have removed one of your prime tourist attractions.
“I suggest that Timbavati and Umbabat, who have fine reputations, should not engage in the murky world of money, professional hunting and the killing of iconic animals by wealthy people for fun. It will catch up with you and taint your reputation. Rather build your lodges, create jobs, uplift communities and travel the high road.”Neither Sales nor Whitworth answered my WhatsApp message, but the double tick in the message frame indicated they had received them. If they were not involved, why no objection or attempt to rectify the claim before publication? After all, I'm not accusing them of doing anything illegal, though there may have been some permit violations that have yet to be tested. If they were involved in the hunt, though, I can understand their reticence. The international storm over the baiting and killing of Cecil the Lion in Hwange, Zimbabwe, by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer was a startling indication of the growing unpopularity of lion trophy hunting among the general public. Greater Kruger is an internationally famous sanctuary for wild animals and Kruger Park is a Unesco International Man and Biosphere Reserve visited by millions of people each year. Unlike Hwange, there are a lot more people who would be concerned about its iconic lions and make their objections heard. Personally, I couldn’t pull the trigger on a beautiful wild animal. But if ethical hunting is to continue, this is not the way to go about it. Secretive hit-and-run hunting by foreigners searching for iconic trophies is the best way to give the business a very bad name. DM