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Wilbur Smith: From shooting lions to protecting them

Nature "needs new heroes to protect it against the greed and the ignorance of humans," author Wilbur Smith said
Eight-year-old Wilbur with his father and three slain lions. Image: Pigi Cipelli/Archivio Pigi Cipelli/Mondadori via Getty Images

Prolific bestselling author Wilbur Smith was born in Northern Rhodesia in 1933. He grew up on a farm where shooting lions that threatened the cattle was just a way of life.

Now 88, Smith has witnessed the world transform.

It’s not just the name of the country of his birth that has changed (now Zambia) but the landscape, the threat to the wildlife who live in it and the attitudes towards our planet.

Over six decades, Smith has sold over 130 million books full of gung-ho derring-do and now has a series aimed at younger readers. Its hero, 14-year-old Jack Courtney, the youngest member of a dynasty that has featured in many of Smith’s books, gets up to adventures with an environmental theme. But what would he make of the younger Wilbur Smith?

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The Big Issue: Jack Courtney is swimming with sharks while hunting for sunken treasure, battling poachers and attending conferences about gorillas. What were you doing at that age?

Wilbur Smith: I borrowed my father Willy’s Jeep and took off into the bush on our Zambian farm with my friend Barry and without permission. It was meant to be the adventure of a lifetime but we lost sight of the Jeep and were lost for two days, cold to the bones at night and weak with hunger and thirst during the day. Stuck on a rocky hilltop, we finally spotted my father flying over us in his Tiger Moth airplane as he looked down at waved at us. So Jack Courtney’s adventures feel very relevant to me and my experiences.

Jack is the age you were when you shot your first lions – what would he make of that?

If Jack was there with me that day he would have thanked me for saving his life and then we both would have felt a pang of our conscience for taking the life of a beautiful animal. When this happened to me, I was alone on the farm, my parents were away and the lion was a threat to the farmers who worked there. The lion had killed the cattle and was moving towards us. I had little choice in the matter and I think Jack would have respected that. It’s not something I planned or enjoyed.

What changes have occurred in areas like the place you grew up?

I was born in Broken Hill in what was Northern Rhodesia back then. Now it is Zambia and that part of the world has changed a great deal with the growth of the sugar cane industry and other intensive farming, as well as becoming a popular tourist destination. The mighty Kafue River dominated the landscape during my childhood. At that time the landscape was really wild, just like in the novels of H Rider Haggard. The game would congregate where the water was and hunting back then was a means to eat and feed your family to survive. There were no supermarkets back then. So sadly the landscape and even topography has changed drastically now.

Smith's Legacy of War is out on April 15.
1456 Wilbur Smith portrait
Smith's Legacy of War is out on April 15. Image: Piers Allardyce/Shutterstock

If you were growing up today would you be striking for the climate like Greta Thunberg, taking action to help the environment?

There is nothing I enjoy more than going on safari and watching the game. Seeing a Cape buffalo in a herd, a lioness with her cubs or a leopard sleeping in an acacia tree, they are all marvels of the natural world. When you have to see these creatures on a fenced-in game reserve, you know something has gone badly wrong in our world.

If you have seen the wildlife shrink and the vast landscapes of Africa diminish like I have, you would do anything you could to protect the first love of your life; nature. Africa is a treasure chest of stories but also the cradle of civilisation. It needs new heroes to step forward to protect it against the greed and the ignorance of humans.

What do you think about it being young people leading a movement to save all of us rather than supposedly more responsible older folks?

Greta Thunberg is an inspiration to young people around the world. Her generation appreciates the fact that the world is a place of finite, not infinite, resources. At some point corporations will realise there is more money to be made in saving the planet than destroying it. That’s when things will turn around. But what will be left by then?

What could have been done to protect the planet at an earlier stage?

People like the way the world works. They are happy to donate to good causes but aren’t interested in changing their lifestyle or the system in order to protect the world in a meaningful way. Change is hard especially when you are looking at it on a global scale. Disinformation is easier than making real changes to your life. But if the story of a planet is like a football match we are in extra time and down two goals to a determined adversary.

Legacy of War by Wilbur Smith and David Churchill is out on April 15 (Zaffre, £20) and Thunderbolt by Wilbur Smith with Chris Wakling is out now (Piccadilly Press, £6.99)