British tourists are fuelling a booming industry reliant on the slaughter of thousands of lions and other exotic animals by travelling to Africa to hunt semi-tame big game.
Rich huntsmen are willing to pay up to £625,000 a time to shoot and stuff animals bred commercially for their sport as part of the so-called "canned hunting" trade.
British and other European governments are coming under mounting pressure from international animal welfare groups to ban imports of hunting trophies in an attempt to cut off the demand for the trade.
Figures reveal that 164 trophy licences have been granted to British hunters since 1999 allowing them to bring big game mementoes home. However, it is estimated that as many as a thousand UK citizens a year travel abroad in search of quarry after having booked a canned hunting safari over the internet.
The Independent was offered the opportunity to shoot and kill all of the big five game animals - elephants, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion - within minutes of contacting ranch owners. One even indicated he could arrange a hunt using fox hounds to chase down lynx.
Campaigners say the most sought-after trophies are the heads and feet cut from dead lions, leopards, wild dogs and elephants. But as competition grows, commercial hunts are offering increasingly exotic prey, introducing tiger, jaguar, puma and grey wolves, according to new evidence from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
Animals with a recessive gene, such as white lions, black leopards and king cheetahs, are particularly sought after, while breeders can also charge a premium by crossing sub-species of leopard and tiger, IFAW says.
The demand is so great that animals are being hand-reared from birth in cages and sold on to stock the growing number of game ranches where they end their lives in fenced-off killing enclosures. They may be drugged into docility and habituated to human contact, it is claimed.
Welfare groups say such breeding practices render the animals sitting targets to the hunters who dispatch them with a choice of weapons, ranging from high-powered rifles to bows and arrows.
Video footage obtained by anti-canned hunting campaigners has revealed wounded animals writhing in agony as they die after being shot, often against fences.
Such is the scale of the trade that IFAW claims it is critically undermining big cat populations and threatening their long-term survival. Christina Pretorius, a spokesperson for IFAW, says there are up to 3,000 lions in captivity in South Africa waiting to be shot by overseas hunters who come mainly from the United States, France, Germany, Spain and Britain. "There is absolutely no sport in this. They are being bred to be shot in enclosed areas where they have no chance of escape or a fair chance. They are already accustomed to humans and associate them with food.
"They are drugged to keep them even more docile so they put up even less of a fight."
She said the industry was growing "out of control" and measures were desperately needed to stop the expansion that was undermining South Africa's international reputation for wildlife management.
Six years ago trophy hunting in South Africa was worth about £14m a year. By last year that figure reached nearly £80m. Zimbabwe is also vigorously promoting itself as a canned hunting destination and other African nations are also developing it.
Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock has been campaigning for Britain to impose a total ban on the import of trophies and the promotion of the practice. "It is just about as low as it gets to kill animals in this way and it is beyond belief that people can be allowed to make money out of it. We are actively encouraging people to sell these so-called holidays and why anyone would want to bring back an elephant's foot as a trophy is beyond belief," he said.
Mr Hancock is holding out little hope that the Government could implement a ban despite a recently concluded consultation exercise on the trade in exotic pets and animal parts.
Jim Knight, the Bio-diversity minister, told the House of Commons that he did not consider new legislation as enforceable. But he said existing powers could be used to outlaw the possession of tiger, bear and other protected species' parts.
"We are currently considering responses to a public consultation on the subject and I will announce our conclusions in the summer," Mr Knight said.
At present many species hunted for trophies are covered by the EU laws implementing the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which allows for imports to be refused where the trade is considered detrimental to the conservation of individual species.
The South African government is also expected to announce soon the findings of a panel of hunting experts on the future of wildlife resources. But some campaigners believe it is a cynical exercise. Chris Mercer, a South African conservationist who is in the middle of a British speaking tour to convince people against going on canned hunts, said: "The hunting industry now owns conservation in South Africa and what you will get is a splendid exercise in public relations. Even if the law is changed there will be no one to enforce it and the policy will not be worth the paper it is written on."
The Independent was offered a two-week hunting trip costing £5,000 a person with impala, warthog, kudu and zebra. Another operator quoted the cost of killing and skinning an elephant at £10,000 with taxidermy charged extra. The most sought-after trophy of all is that of a black-maned lion, which will cost up to £625,000.Reuse content