Sunday Times

Elephants in the room: the wild allegations against Carrie’s animal charity (England)
Rosie Kinchen, The Sunday Times
July 11, 2021

See link for photos.

It sounds like the plot of Disney’s next blockbuster: a herd of captive African elephants reared in Kent are flown to Kenya to roam free on the savannah. This isn’t fiction, though, but an ambitious “world-first” project announced last week by the Aspinall Foundation. The conservation charity is headed by the gambling millionaire Damian Aspinall and in January hired Carrie Johnson, the wife of the prime minister, as its PR guru. It hopes to “rewild” the ten adults and three calves next year.

The fundraising campaign (the charity wants to raise £1 million) got off to a triumphant start. Johnson and Aspinall co-wrote a piece for The Sun pledging that “in time, [the elephants’] descendants will number in the hundreds — and then the thousands”. There was even a dramatis personae: readers were introduced to Manzi, a noisy eater, and Mchumba, who likes to playfight. It was the sort of publicity money can’t buy, although connections probably could.

When Aspinall, 61, who shares his time between Howletts, a 22-hectare estate near Canterbury, and a flat in Knightsbridge, announced that Johnson was joining the foundation as director of communications, he said his fellow conservationist would be “a huge asset” — which is just as well, because the foundation has never needed help more.

Behind the scenes, the trustees of the foundation and its sister charity, Howletts Wild Animal Trust, which Aspinall also chairs, had been co-operating privately with the Charity Commission on a series of matters raised by the watchdog relating to potential misuse of funds. Two months after Johnson’s appointment was announced, the commission dramatically escalated that process, launching separate statutory inquiries — its most serious level of investigation — into the trust and foundation, saying it had “serious concerns about … governance and financial management” at the latter.

The Charity Commission — which is waiting for the prime minister to appoint its new chairman or woman — said last week that the inquiries were still in progress and declined to provide more details. But tucked away in the charity’s financial reports are some interesting facts, including that the foundation, which owns Howletts House, a 30-room, grade II* listed Palladian mansion in Kent, rents the property back to Aspinall for £2,500 a month. That’s about the same cost as letting a five-bedroom house in Canterbury — and is 40 per cent less than he was paying in 2016. In normal circumstances charity trustees are forbidden from profiting or otherwise benefiting from their role.

There are other anomalies. Aspinall’s wife, Victoria, 34, a former management consultant, has been employed as an interior designer and paid £62,000 in fees, and his 75-year-old stepmother, Lady Sarah, receives a pension of £30,000 a year, which the charity claims is an “annuity” for her previous service as its head gardener. It is not clear whether she was ever actually employed by the charity, or indeed if she was living at Howletts at the time, in which case it would have been her own garden. The Aspinall Foundation said it remained “firmly committed to its ethical and legal duties as a charitable body. Our trustees will continue to work openly and transparently with the Charity Commission to ensure best practice, governance and compliance.”

That none of this has raised alarm bells before may be because the foundation is a very cosy affair. As well as Aspinall himself, the Aspinall Foundation’s board is made up of Tansy Aspinall, 32, his daughter with his first wife, Louise Sebag-Montefiore; Ben Goldsmith, the son of his father’s great friend Sir James Goldsmith; Ben’s half-brother, Robin Birley; and Charles Filmer, who once worked as Sir Jimmy’s PA and now runs the wealth management firm Alvarium, which charged the charity £65,000 last year for accounting services. Meanwhile, trustees of Howletts Wild Animal Trust include Aspinall’s stepbrother Amos Courage, the son of the noted gardener Lady Sarah, and Tansy.

Howletts has always been the jewel in the Aspinall family crown. The park was founded on the estate by his father, John, the gambling mogul who was once suspected of hiding his friend Lord Lucan on the estate. A huge win at the races is said to have provided the money to buy the house. Before that, Aspinall Sr lived in a flat in Eaton Square, in Belgravia, London, with a leopard, a capuchin monkey and two Himalayan bears in a shed. “My father used to walk the leopard at 3am so no one saw him,” Aspinall has said.

At first the zoo was private and animals wandered freely — so free, in fact, that Robin Birley was mauled by a tiger as a teenager. Damian Aspinall recalled waking up next to a chimp and eating breakfast with gorillas. Behind the scenes, though, there was unhappiness. His parents divorced when he was six on the grounds of his mother’s infidelity and he never saw her again.

John was distant and authoritarian, but it was in business that Aspinall finally won the old man’s respect. He made his wealth in property after his father refused to assist him, and bought back the family casino interests. Aspers, his chain of mega-casinos, made £9 million last year. Even that victory was hollow. His father would put his arm around his shoulders, he recalled, “and say ‘chip off the old block’ and I’d smile, but inside I thought it was all phoney. Why was I more lovable because I was rich?”

The one passion they shared was conservation. Aspinall’s focus when he took over the foundation from his father was breeding critically endangered species. The charity had particular success breeding lowland gorillas, with more than 130 infants born. It has also bred 30 black rhinos, 180 tigers and 140 rare clouded leopards. Yet Aspinall’s focus has shifted over the years and he now ardently opposes the keeping of animals in captivity.

“If I could extinguish all zoos over the next 30 years, including my own, I would. I wouldn’t hesitate,” he told an American documentary-maker. In June he wrote a letter opposing Sir David Attenborough’s drive to raise £12 million to save the beleaguered London Zoo, arguing that “no civilised society should keep these animals on display in a small city zoo just to satisfy some barely interested curiosity of mankind”.

Many would agree with him but his methods have always been controversial. Respected figures in conservation believe his money would be better spent protecting animals that are already wild. Aspinall, who calls himself a maverick (disconcertingly, he also calls himself “the Silverback” and “the Lion”, and refers to the mothers of his children as the women he has “bred with”) does not help himself. “I actively oppose employing anyone with a zoology degree because they will bring a rationality with them and I will not have that!” he has said.

The foundation, which relies on donations from the public, has had its fair share of success, including last year returning two captive cheetahs to South Africa, but not all its projects have worked out as hoped.

In 2015 Aspinall and his daughter Tansy attempted to return a family of zoo-born gorillas to Africa. A silverback named Djala, five females and four infants were taught to climb trees and avoid poison berries before they were couriered to an island in West Africa by DHL. It was described at the time as “a project no other zoo would consider”.

With reason, it transpired. Within a month of leaving the safe enclosure that had been demarcated for them, all five adult females and one of the babies were dead. The charity claims to have released 74 gorillas into the wild, of which 23 were born in captivity and 51 were wild-born orphans rescued from the illegal bush-meat trade. It says the annual post-release survival rate is 97 per cent for wild-born gorillas and 80 per cent for captive-born.

With his elephants, Aspinall is taking his ambitions to the next level. Niall McCann, director for conservation at the UK and Zimbabwe-based charity National Park Rescue, says: “I think it is a worthy sentiment to take sentient animals out of captivity — elephants do not belong in captivity, they are far too intelligent — but the practicalities involved are what make this different.” According to the plans outlined last week, the elephants will be taken in crates to the airport next May, sedated but still conscious, then flown to Kenya and taken by low-loader to a ten-acre livestock enclosure, where they will spend six months acclimatising to their surroundings.

McCann is sceptical that the £1 million the charity is trying to crowdfund — to pay for flights, customised crates and custom duties — will be adequate to make this a reality, but that is only one concern of many. Reintroducing animals to the wild is “incredibly difficult and fraught with danger for the animal”, he says. Kenya’s attempt in 2018 to reintroduce 11 black rhinos to Tsavo East National Park ended in disaster when ten died from “multiple stress syndrome” and the last was killed by lions. These elephants will have everything stacked against them. “They will not be accustomed to the types of parasites that proliferate in Kenya, because they have been brought up in Kent,” McCann says. “They will not be accustomed to the food, to the predators, or to other elephants.”

Perhaps the biggest problem is whether the Kenyans actually want them there. Unlike in other parts of Africa, elephant numbers in Kenya are rising and conflicts between the animals and local communities are increasingly frequent. “Human-elephant conflict is a very real issue and one of the greatest stumbling blocks to conservation,” McCann says. The proliferation of elephants in populated areas is one of the main reasons why wild animals are moved and sold. Zimbabwe and Namibia are in the process of rounding up elephants to sell abroad, a deeply controversial practice, for exactly this reason.

“Sticking a bunch of tame elephants into a place like that needs a lot of thought,” McCann adds. Perhaps that is why there was one strong voice of dissent among the positive news stories last week. On Wednesday the Kenyan ministry of tourism and wildlife said the announcement had been “noted with concern”. In a statement released on social media, it said: “The ministry wants to state that neither them nor the Kenya Wildlife Service has been contacted or consulted on this matter … Relocation and rehabilitation of an animal from a zoo is not easy and is an expensive affair.” The Aspinall Foundation maintains that it has been in contact with the Kenya Wildlife Service.

It looks as if there might be some stumbling blocks ahead on Nellie’s return to the wild. But maybe that’s just as well: a herd of deceased elephants would be a disaster that even Carrie Johnson and her impressive contacts book may struggle to spin.