While many good people and fine organisations raise public funds to support conservation, there are others who use conservation issues to raise money for themselves. The sad-eyed lion cub, baby chimps in a cage, adopting a motherless rhino or the urgent need to save creatures from culling are among many hooks to reel in sympathy cash from the web-linked public.

A petition appeared on change.org a few months ago to raise money to ‘save 80 elephants who will be shot unless we move them’ from Atherstone Nature Reserve in Limpopo. But there was hope: “We have found a home for all 80 elephants! They will be able to roam freely with their families, safe from hunters and poachers.”

The plea is impassioned:”You can make donations of any amount. The elephants thank you with all their heart. We can't let these beautiful elephants die! This herd of 80 elephants is a close-knit, loving family and must be saved. With your help we'll save the fathers, mothers and babies.”

For their urgent translocation, it says, funds are urgently needed. A red button on ElephantRescue.net solicites donations from $30 to $5 000. An additional $100 nets you a Herd Protector badge.

The website claims 25 040 supporters and an impressive board of specialist advisers from around the world. They include top conservationists, expert safari guides, attorneys, directors of research institutes and a senior Roman Catholic prelate.

For Andrew van Ginkel, a tireless pursuer of fake appeals in the name of conservation, it smelled fishy. Were the elephants really about to be shot? Was the board of advisers genuine? Had a new home really been found?

He began digging, firstly by tracking down each board member and asking if they were aware they were on the list. Two who responded definitely weren’t, though they knew about Hathaway. It seems he had entered into brief email correspondence and, on the strength of that, claimed them as advisers.

One NGO reacted immediately with a letter to Hathaway: ‘We have been informed you are advertising that you are working with our director, using his name, and that you have “found a home” for the 80 elephants of Atherstone, while taking donations on behalf of your organization and the online petition. We have looked into the matters claimed … it appears your advertising is misleading and sensationalized. We expect you to his name and amend any false claims.

Two others who responded knew they were advisors and defended Hathaway, disbelieving Van Ginkel’s warning of a possible scam. ‘I have known Phillip for a few years,’ wrote the Catholic prelate, ‘but I can't say that I know him well. His efforts seem well-intentioned and so I allowed my name to be listed as a member of his advisory board. My involvement does not extend further than that. Perhaps I am naive. Is there something you think I should know?’

A second member was indignant: ‘I am a member of the board and have proof – read my bio entry on to that site. You do not need to waste anymore of your time trying to find a scam with ElephantRescue.net as there isn't one.’

The member clearly then asked Hathaway some difficult questions and was effectively told by him to shut up. The next email to Van Ginkel was less abrupt: ‘It is upsetting and, following your emails, I communicated with the whole board of advisors to ask who else has had such an email and whether transparency is important for any charity. I have been told not to approach board members and as such I resigned from Elephant Rescue yesterday.’

Deeper digging disclosed more falsehoods. According to Hathaway’s petition, the man targeted as being Atherstone overseer who applied for cull permits is Johan Kruger. Marion Garai, who chairs South Africa’s Elephant Specialist Advisory Group, pointed out that Kruger isn’t the manager of Atherstone but Vice Director of Biodiversity for the Limpopo’s Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism (LEDET). There is elephant overcrowding, but culling 80 is not on the cards: ‘Several months ago LEDET submitted an Elephant Management Plan (EMP) to the Department of Environmental Affairs containing management reduction options such as hunting, contraception, translocation and culling. If at all possible, they would go for translocation as first option.

‘They have to reduce the elephant population, but first the EMP needs to be approved and they would have to put together a proposal and budget for any option. This will take a long time. When Change.org says the cull is scheduled for 7th September, that’s total bull.’

Another dubious fund appeal on ElephantRescue.net concerned a forest elephant named Can. It lead with heartfelt plea: ‘I’m focusing my attention on rescuing Can, the beautiful little forest elephant from the Abidjan Zoo in Africa. Now I’m making arrangements to take her to the republic of Botswana, the only place in Africa where I know she’ll be safe. Change.org fundraiser has a goal of $90,000 to move her.’ The destination, it seems, was Amakhala, which is actually a reserve in South Africa who know nothing of the elephant transfer.

When Van Ginkel asked the reserve about the claim, they replied: ‘We are a conservation entity and would not bring a forest elephant to South Africa to live with savannna elephants in the wild. Mr Hathaway, may be using our name to profit.’

Abidjan Zoo definitely knew about Hathaway and his fundraising: ‘My name is Ingo Schmidinger. As an elephant keeper I have been actively involved in supporting the husbandry and welfare situation of Can in Abidjan. Approximately two years ago I was contacted by Phillip Hathaway. He asked me a lot of questions related to Can´s current situation. He was also talking about “releasing” her (even if it had to take place in Botswana, he told me). I told him that Botswana, in this case, wouldn´t make sense. After some further emails he just kept on collecting money via change.org.’

After questions to Hathaway by Van Ginkel plus replies he received, the ‘Can’ page was taken off the website.

Another Hathaway scam seems to be around ‘the unspeakable misery’ of zoos. His site ZoosAreForTheBirds.org has some advice – clearly lifted from a zoo website – on how to start a ‘zoo chapter’, a tirade against zoos and, of course, how to donate to Hathaway. It is unclear what your donation would be for, whether an anti-zoo programme or membership.

 ‘It’s a dirty game these people play,’ said Van Ginkel. ‘Eco-scammers often believe their own lies and are very convincing and passionate. They’re almost not common thieves and believe God or some other greater force is telling them to save the planet. It’s a delusional personality.

‘But I know the damage they cause to people they use along the way. Their victims either want revenge or feel betrayed burst into tears. I’m not a natural fighter or trouble causer, it hurts being the one having to tell people their good intentions were abused. To prevent their pain of betrayal is what keeps me doing this.’