Wildlife presenter Michaela Strachan has discussed how her partner, Nick Chevalier, faced terrifying death threats while investigating the cruel trophy hunting of lions in Africa.
Nick Chevalier found himself in a dangerous confrontation when hunting operators turned on his undercover film crew in South Africa earlier this year.
“I’ll f***ing kill you. I’ll kill you. I tell you. I’ll kill you,” screams the hunter in a scene caught on camera.
Michaela told how Nick, her partner of 12 years, played down the deadly stand-off. Only when she first watched the resulting documentary film, Blood Lions, did she realise the danger he had been in.
She said: “It was far more dramatic watching it than when Nick told me about it. I knew he was going into quite a dangerous situation. And South Africa can be violent. But when I first saw the film, my reaction was: ‘Oh my God, you didn’t tell me about that bit.’”
Nick and the team were trying to expose “canned” lion hunting – the farm breeding of Africa’s greatest cats to be sold on for slaughter.
Their shocking film, which premieres in Britain this week, claims an astonishing 6,000 lions are currently caged in South Africa, bred to be shot by trophy hunters. Up to 800 are thought to be killed annually, mostly by US hunters who want to put a lion’s head on a wall at home and boast about how they bravely shot it in the wild.
But the film shows cubs are bred on farms, in some instances removed from their mothers at two or three days old, then hand-reared by humans before being sold – some to the hunting industry.
The business is growing so fast that experts predict a staggering 20,000 so-called “canned lions” could be in existence by 2020.
The phenomenon was first exposed by TV investigator Roger Cook in 1998. “That’s when I came across canned hunting,” said Springwatch presenter Michaela, “and, like everyone, I thought it had gone underground. I was not aware it had grown and is widespread in South Africa. And a lot of people do not know that it is legal.”
Campaigners hope the film will capitalise on the world outcry after the killing of Cecil the Lion by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer this year.
The documentary follows US hunter-turned-investigator Rick from home in Hawaii to Benkoe, a hunting lodge near Vryburg in north-west South Africa.
The lodge claims: “At Benkoe Safaris, lion hunting is a challenge. It is a fair playing field for both lion and hunter where the lion is out on the loose.”
Benkoe’s website shows a series of gory pictures of gun-toting hunters, thumbs-up, parading dead carcasses of lions, zebras and buffalos. It states: “With more than 500 successful lion hunts we have the experience and expertise to partner with you on the ultimate hunting challenge. A wide range of lions is available.”
Benkoe owner Ben Duminy denies accusations of so-called “canned hunting” on his land. He does admit lions are bred in captivity and the fact that he operates trophy hunts not in the wild but in “semi-open” territory.
Shocking scenes show how, with a few online clicks, Rick is offered the chance to shoot a lioness he has singled out from pictures for US$5,400, which is about £3,500. Lionesses cost a tenth of males, which are revered for their dark manes.
Rick then travels to Benkoe where alongside undercover “friend” Nick Chevalier – who is videoing the trip – they are taken on a safari drive. After Rick demonstrates his shooting ability on a target board, they return to the lodge for a final briefing.
The investigators are working on a strategy to leave without killing a lion when Duminy comes storming to the lodge, threatening to kill the duo unless they leave immediately.
Although it is common for hunters to have their kill filmed, it is believed Duminy was suspicious of the professional nature of the camera crew.
The confrontation is caught on camera in dramatic footage.
Rick says: “How would you feel if someone twice your size threatened to kill you? I trusted Mr Duminy about as far as I could throw him. I think he had every intention of causing us serious harm if we had not left when we did.”
The undercover crew sped off Benkoe’s land, but with enough footage for the documentary to work.
Some canned hunting operations similar to Benkoe’s are linked to cub petting – another way in which farm-reared lions are exploited, say animal welfare campaigners. This involves people paying to have their photograph taken with cute baby lions.
Visitors are assured they will be cared for and released into the wild once they grow too big to be cuddled. But the harsh reality, according to the Campaign Against Canned Hunting, is that these lions are reared just so they can later be shot by rich tourists.
In most cases, animals are taken from their mothers at birth, causing extreme stress to both mother and cub. Kept in captivity just to produce offspring, the mothers are forced to give birth to two or three litters a year. Volunteers, including UK gap-year students, are duped into helping at lion breeding centres, believing these are genuine conservation projects.
The cubs become withdrawn and often suffer health complications.
A spokesman for Campaign Against Canned Hunting said: “No true lion sanctuary allows breeding in captivity for captivity. So there will never be cubs to pose with at a genuine lion sanctuary.”
Michaela, 49, who will attend the UK premiere of Blood Lions this Friday, lives in Cape Town, South Africa, with Nick and their 10-year-old son Ollie.
“It is a shame they did not get the gun in front of the lion and then say that they are not going to do it,” she says. “But I don’t think the film has lost impact. It is a dramatic scene and shows the aggression of the people. The overwhelming public opinion is that it’s time for this to finish. Why do people still want a lion on their wall? It’s absurd. Pigs and cows are farmed for meat. To do it for sport is so unnecessary.”
Will Travers, President of The Born Free Foundation , said: “This powerful film exposes the hideous, barbaric practice of breeding lions for hunters to slaughter in fenced enclosures – so-called ‘canned hunting’. It’s an industry that, until now, few knew about and it’s endorsed by the South African government. Blood Lions will change all that. Canned hunting relies on people with more money than sense killing lions for ‘fun’ – lions that have no chance of escape. It must be stopped – now!”
Benkoe declined to comment.