African Sons: lions and us

It is a singular relationship, that which exists between humans and lions.

A compelling relationship running throughout our respective histories, and to say that our roles were gradually reversed would be understating our rise, from life as potential lion-prey in the ever-prevalent shadow of their seemingly untouchable position as apex-predator, to life as unique and peerless super-predator, maintaining, at the species level, a dominance nothing short of absolute, and yet, as individuals, just as vulnerable and small to them as we ever were. More so, even, for a lot of us.

But it is not a relationship that can be simply summed-up by role-reversal. We, to them, have been, in turn, food, competitor, pest, danger, antagonist, mystery, power-personified, captor, jailer, provider, and guardian. They, in turn, have been, to us, danger, mystery, power-personified, antagonist, pest, muse, symbol, idol, commodity, trophy, captive, entertainment, property, victim, adopted cause.

Our stories are not unalike: African in origin and at heart, we both spread across the continents to rise to prominence in each new ecosystem, resulting invariably in success and new varieties. But the similarities end when we leave Africa a second time, this time fully formed and mostly modern, intolerant of threat or competition, and, when confronted by it, fully capable of dealing with it.

Of course, each of us has our own, for lack of a more grown-up term, favourite animal, and there is a strong case to be made for a special relationship between humans and a number of other species, not least of them wolves. However, lions have always stood out and apart for us in terms of our evolutionary story, our deeply and naturally programmed fears and impulses, our cultures, our view of the animal kingdom, our stories and legends, our view of ourselves, our symbols and flags and statues and shields, our writings and research (and blog posts), and our current attempts to reconcile further human progress and development with conservation and giving back to nature some of what we took away.

In terms of public awareness, conservation of endangered mega-fauna has long meant tigers, rhinos and elephants. But lions have, in recent years, begun finally to receive the recognition and concern that their current situation warrants, most recently due to a depressingly routine encounter made newsworthy by its unwilling participant: a tenured and impressive Zimbabwean lion with a colonial name, enduring a drawn-out death Nature would have been satisfied with, yet inflicted by an animal trained and equipped to end a life, if it must end a life, in a single painless moment.

Conservation is undeniably rooted in hunting, and hunting is not intrinsically bad, nor is it always unnecessary. The idea that the practice of hunting lions for trophies plays, or can play, a real and invaluable role in their conservation is a contentious one (see here). Amongst all the noise, all the useful debate, all the pointless bickering, all the hunting industry-funded pro-hunters, all the firmly close-minded anti-hunters, and all the better ones from both camps, the sanest voice belongs to that of the organisation LionAid (http://www.lionaid.org/). A UK based charity, they are involved in many aspects of lion conservation, but stand out the most in educating the public, raising awareness, and cutting through all that noise to provide clear, wise, fact-based-yet-extremely-passionate information on lions and their current situation, their greatest threats, and the best way forward. Look through their website, read their blogs and reports and research, donate to their cause, either your money or your voice.

Far and away the absolute best of all those attempting to prevent decline and promote growth in lion populations, in- or ex-situ, is the organisation Lion Guardians (http://lionguardians.org/), based in Kenya and Tanzania. In their own words:

Our approach involves recruiting young, non-literate Maasai and other pastoralist warriors to learn the skills needed to effectively mitigate conflicts between people and wildlife, monitor lion populations, and help their own communities live with lions. By actively engaging in our solutions-based conservation model, people who were once lion killers are transformed into lion protectors.

Look through their website, read their annual reports, donate to their cause, either your money or your voice, preferably both. Here is a snapshot of their work that ought to send you on your way to do exactly what I have just suggested: in the year 2013, in the areas where Lion Guardians operate, the total number of lions killed by Maasai, the greatest threat to lions in those areas, was not merely less than in previous years. It was not simply a promising heading in the right direction.

It was zero.

It is the complicated mix between our species and theirs of kinship, estranged brotherhood, animosity, mutual respect, mutual fear, competition, obsession on our part, compatibility and incompatibility that colours our current relationship. By all rights we should have wiped them out as soon as we realised we could. The fact that we stopped short of it and are now trying so fiercely to reverse their decline and dial back our dominance is an undeniable testament to our species’ unique signature blend of being both incomparably, horrendously bad, and incomparably, truly good.

Our history has us running from them, surpassing them, dominating and decimating them, and I don’t doubt it will eventually read conserving them. I also do not doubt that there will more to be written beyond that. Whatever our differences, whatever danger we pose to each other, and whatever peace, speaking in terms of natural survival, would be brought to each of us by finally being rid of the other, we would be awfully alone in the world without them. Perhaps they would feel the same way about us, if they were able. Perhaps not. If lions are lost, I’m not sure the African sun would care to rise knowing it would no longer be greeted by the roaring dawn chorus.

(Originally written for Trek-Eco Adventures, found here.)

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