Scottish tourism chiefs came under fire for backing a hunter who organises safaris where millionaire clients can shoot a lion for £60,000.
Highlands-based Peter Swales arranges trips to Africa for big game hunters.
But campaigners are angry that the national tourist board VisitScotland promote the 71-year-old’s business through a link on their official website.
Animal rights campaigners called for them to cut ties with Swales.
But he yesterday defended his operation, which also organises shooting parties in Scotland, and distanced himself from the illegal killing of Africa’s most famous lion by US dentist Walter Palmer.
Influential campaign group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) led criticism of VisitScotland.
They said: “Most people are appalled by the idea of gunning down sensitive, intelligent animals – whether they be stags, lions or elephants – for the sake of a trophy. So it seems almost unthinkable that Scotland’s national tourism organisation is promoting a company who profit from exactly that. Smart travel agencies are cutting ties with activities that harm animals. Given the Scottish Government’s support for maintaining the Hunting Act, we can assume this promotion is a massive oversight. We’ll be contacting VisitScotland to urge them to remove all such promotions from the website as a matter of urgency.”
Labour’s Highlands and Islands MSP, conservationist Rhoda Grant, said she was “appalled” by the promotion of Swales’s business.
She added: “Hunting endangered animals is wrong. I also find it strange that VisitScotland would promote a business that takes people away from this country.
“VisitScotland should have a long, hard think about their association with this firm and remove the link to the website.”
The death of Cecil, who had been tagged by researchers in a Zimbabwe nature reserve, thrust animal conservation to the top of the global news agenda last week.
SolentCecil and Jericho the LionsCecil the lion (right, darker mane) fighting with a male lion called Jericho
Authorities there say the lion was lured from the park and illegally shot by Palmer with a bow and arrow before it was tracked, shot dead and skinned.
It was claimed Palmer paid £32,000 to kill 13-year-old Cecil on July 1. He has apologised and insisted he didn’t know he had broken any laws.
He went into hiding and closed his business in after suffering a backlash which included threats to his life.
Professional hunter Theo Bronkhorst and landowner Honest Ndlovu pleaded not guilty to charges they faced over their role in Cecil’s death.
Bronkhorst said the dentist also wanted to hunt a “very large elephant” with tusks weighing more than 60lb.
Cecil, Jericho and Brent StapelkampCecil, Jericho and Brent Stapelkamp
Zimbabwean politicians have called for the Minnesota dentist to be extradited from the US to face trial for the illegal hunt.
He could face a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a fine of £13,000 if convicted.
Swales, who arranges hunting trips to Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Namibia and Central African Republic from his home in Beauly, Inverness-shire, was quick to distance himself from Palmer.
He said: “All my hunts are legal and that’s why people come to me. My clients are mainly from overseas who’ve visited Scotland, many are from the United States but Palmer’s not one of my clients. Customers want me to organise hunts for them in Africa because I have a good reputation. Bad publicity won’t harm big game hunting. It costs a lot of money and so few people do it. What happened with this lion in Zimbabwe won’t put them off hunting at all. If what’s said about Walter Palmer is true then the man is an idiot. But not all hunters can be tarred with the same brush. It’s like saying all footballers go around raping women because Ched Evans raped one.”
Former Sheffield United striker Evans was jailed for five years in 2012 when he was found guilty of raping a 19-year-old woman in a hotel room.
He was freed last year after serving half his sentence.
Swales also organises hunts in Scotland, in which his clients shoot red stags, grouse and pheasant.
He claims on his website that his firm can also arrange hunts in Russia, Canada, Argentina, Turkey and Hungary.
The site includes images of Swales and his clients posing proudly over dead animals including a lion, a leopard and a buffalo.
The Englishman moved to the Highlands in 1972 and has been arranging hunts since 1976.
The website for Peter Swales International Big Game and Bird Hunting also boasts that the company have “an ever-expanding portfolio of locations and species in many other interesting places in the world”.
Swales has a display at this weekend’s CLA Game Fair at Harewood House, Leeds, in a bid to drum up business.
He said: “A lion hunt will cost you a minimum of $95,000 – around £60,000 – so it’s very expensive. That covers your fees, taxes and three-week safari. Customers also have to pay to have a taxidermist stuff their trophy and transport home – that’s another few thousand on top. I don’t do as many lion hunts as I used to. I probably do about one every five years at the moment. I’ve been to Africa many times but not so much to Zimbabwe these days. I’m more likely to be in Tanzania. The photo of a customer with a lion was taken in Tanzania. Big game hunting is worth millions to Africa but there’s always rogues somewhere. I don’t know any and wouldn’t know where to find them. Everything I do is legitimate and that’s why people trust me.”
MPs are setting up an All-Party Parliamentary Group which will meet this month to highlight the plight of endangered species after Cecil’s death.
Other bodies were more supportive of hunting.
Alex Stoddart, director of the Scottish Association of Country Sports, said: “Poaching or illegal hunting is a serious crime and those responsible should be severely dealt with. But it’s a fact that in some parts of Africa there would be no wildlife if there was no hunting. If the killing of a lion is done legally and half of the fee goes to the community, that’s a good thing. I see no reason for VisitScotland to remove their link to Peter Swales.”
Dr Colin Shedden, of the Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group, said: “VisitScotland will only be interested in what Peter Swales can generate for the Scottish economy. Like many operators, he may have other interests that lie outside Scotland but he is a responsible agent. Expecting VisitScotland to distance themselves from him is irrational.”
A VisitScotland spokeswoman said: “We work with country sports organisations as they are a major part of the tourism economy but we try to be sensitive with the imagery we use as we understand that there are strong views on this. If anyone has a problem with anything on our website we would be happy to discuss this with them.”