Mystery of the tiger's kitty

Animal-lovers have donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to save big cats. Now there are questions about where the money has gone, reports Graham Ball
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The Independent Online
Questions are being raised about the administration and funding of one of Britain's highest-profile "green" charities, the Tiger Trust, which works to save tigers across Asia.

The trust collects hundreds of thousands of pounds from the public annually.

Other leading environmental organisations are expressing concern about the fate of funds they have donated to the trust, run by the self-styled "maverick" environmentalist Michael Day and his wife, Sophy.

The Charities Commissioners are inquiring into the number of active trustees in the organisation, founded by Mr Day, and the "staff costs" item shown in the trust's accounts.

The current disquiet has been fuelled in part by the larger-than-life character of Mr Day, who described himself as something of a James Bond figure in Fight for the Tiger, a paperback account of his dangerous undercover investigations into the illegal trade in tiger products.

His life has often been threatened as he fights to stop the rapidly diminishing population of great cats being used in traditional Eastern medicinal recipes, and he was the subject of a Channel 4 documentary three years ago.

Earlier he risked his life going undercover in China to photograph the illegal poaching and breeding of tigers , whose skins, bones and even penises are eagerly sought after in Taiwan.

But just like the tigers he fights for, Mr Day has a fierce side himself.

Last month, in a widely publicised attack, he criticised the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Indian government for allegedly squandering money and resources in an ineffectual battle against trappers and poachers in the sub-continent.

An Independent on Sunday investigation has revealed, however, that there are question-marks over the money and resources of the Tiger Trust itself.

In its latest published accounts, for the period ended 31 March 1995, the item "staff costs" is shown as totalling pounds 18,113. Mr Day, specified as a trustee, is seen to have received pounds 14,488 of this.

The Charities Commissioners are inquiring into this item. "The charity's governing document says that no trustee should be paid for his or her work, and this is a reflection of trust law," said a spokesman for the commissioners. "We think it would be in the interests of the charity to clarify the present position for the record."

Mr Day said: "This is a grey area. We run an extremely tight ship and someone has to do the work. We have just two full-time plus two part-time to do everything. I take what amounts to little more than a pittance at pounds 18,000 a year." (This is a reference to his salary, declared separately, of pounds 18,140.)

He said he thought the commissioners were more interested in the trust's expenses. According to the last published accounts, Mr Day claimed pounds 38,392 in reimbursed personal expenses and Mrs Day claimed pounds 5,339.

"I have already explained to them that we don't have the luxury of credit cards and incur costs in travelling the world in defence of tigers," he said. However, "travel, conference and investigations" are given as a separate item of pounds 21,061.

The Tiger Trust is a popular organisation, with about 3,000 members, and its patron is TV sports commentator Desmond Lynam. Last year it had an income of pounds 225,193. But its popularity is waning with some of Britain's other principal wildlife organisations, which have actively supported it in the past. The WWF is a case in point.

"We decided not to continue to support the Tiger Trust because we got zero feedback from them on how our money was being deployed," said Dr Robin Pellew, director of WWF UK. "This created problems for us in accounting to our members for the allocation of their subscriptions and benefits accruing."

Chris Jordan, director of Care for the Wild, is another former supporter who no longer helps fund the Tiger Trust. "We have nothing to do with Mr Day now," he said. "I believe that it was in 1994 that we contributed pounds 25,498 and 50p towards his organisation's tiger-welfare project in Thailand. However, we received no satisfactory account of how the money was spent."

Typical dissatisfaction is with the special appeal, launched by the Tiger Trust last Christmas, in support of Operation Amba, a project designed to protect the rare Siberian tiger from poachers by putting trained teams of game wardens into the Russian wilderness.

Mr Day says he was instrumental in setting up the scheme in co-operation with Russian government agencies and other fundraising groups in 1993. But last week the man who supervises the coalition of charities and animal- welfare organisations now funding the project claimed that the Tiger Trust had not contributed a penny to it since 1994.

American environmentalist Steve Galster said: "I was hired as a consultant to the Tiger Trust in 1993 but we parted company and I now work closely with the Russian anti-poaching units. I can confirm that Mr Day's group is not included in this work. As far as I recall, his donations were suspended in late 1994."

At his farmhouse home in the Suffolk village of Chevington, near Bury St Edmunds, Mr Day said the money raised by his supporters was still lodged in a Russian bank. "I am very angry at what appears to have happened," he said. "Politics has intervened and the people who set up Operation Amba are being squeezed out."

Mr Day says he sent the money to Russia in two bank transfers. He produced National Westminster Bank remittance documents that show pounds 15,000 was dispatched from a Tiger Trust account on 8 February this year and a further pounds 10,000 was sent to Moscow on 25 March.

However, the tigers of Siberia are yet to benefit from the gen-erosity of the British donation, as the cash has been held, he says, in the coffers of the Vladivostock region's state ecology committee.

"I have not been told by the Russian government that they do not want our money," said Mr Day. "I have written to them suggesting that if they cannot make up their mind about it, they should send it back.

"I am still trying to sort this out. The next issue of our newsletter is due next month and I intend to tell our members about this situation. It's going to be very difficult to find the words, but it is something I have to do."

The Charities Commissioners are also concerned that the trust has only two listed trustees - Mr Day and his wife - instead of the minimum of three specified in the charity's governing document.

Mr Day says this is purely an administrative slip and that there is a third trustee, the veteran environmental campaigner, Ian MacPhail.

Michael Day says other environmental and wildlife welfare groups have conspired to discredit his work so they can take a greater share of the fundraising potential of tigers.

"I have become the victim of a smear campaign. I have no idea who is behind it, but I would be surprised if the WWF were not involved as we have become something of a thorn in their flesh just lately," he said.

Mr Day claims that rivalries among the various animal-support groups and funding bodies have led to his current difficulties. He says that he has adequate answers to the questions posed by the Charities Commissioners.