Africa: How the New Lion King Film Could Help the Real-Life Lion Crisis

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Disney’s Lion King juggernaut rolls on with the recent release of director Jon Favreau’s remake of the 1994 film that started it all, now with entirely computer-generated imagery and a star-studded voice cast that includes Beyonce, Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, and Seth Rogan. Five days into its run, it earned $242.3 million in the US and $595.1 million worldwide. In the past quarter-century, The Lion King franchise (the musical, the national and international tours, the merchandise, the films) has grossed more than $8.1 billion dollars.

Yet during that time, the lion—king of beasts—has continued to slide toward extinction.

The rate of disappearance is shocking. The number of lions in the wild has fallen from around 450,000 in 1950, to 40,000 when the first Lion King came out, to around 20,000 today. Whereas lions were once dispersed throughout the African continent, they now occupy only 8 percent of their historic range. They can be found in only 25 countries, though most are in only 8. There are no lions left in North Africa, they are functionally extinct in West Africa, and they are under threat everywhere else. (The species is on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s ominous Red List, right along with elephants and rhinos, whose plight has been more insistently trumpeted.)

In environmental, conservation, and philanthropic circles—and at Disney itself—the hope is that the 2019 version of The Lion King will finally galvanize attention on the cats’ predicament, and serve as a catalyst for their conservation. And more. For what is ultimately at stake, scientists working with lions point out, is the entire “circle of life,” that intricate web of species interdependence so stirringly celebrated in the opening sequences of both Lion King 1 and 2 (and which, although we do not appear on screen, includes us humans, too).

Upon the new movie’s release, Disney launched a global conservation campaign called Protect the Pride. Its goal is to build awareness of “the silent crisis” and to help protect and revitalize the lion population through philanthropy. “With a film like The Lion King, we can shine a huge spotlight,” said Claire Martin, the self-styled “resident conservation nerd” at Disney (she is senior manager of the Disney Conservation Fund and of Disney’s corporate social responsibility). “We can really use our platform to inspire people.”

Disney has partnered with the California-based Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN), which identifies organizations working to save endangered species around the world and finds the most effective ways to support them—think of it as a venture capital firm for wildlife (its founder, Charles Knowles, is a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur).

A constituent of the network is the Lion Recovery Fund (LRF), which WCN created together with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. Less than two years old, LRF has already disbursed $5.5 million to 53 separate conservation entities working with lions in 17 African countries.

”Lions,” says Peter Lindsey, LRF’s director, “is the umbrella species. If we can help the apex predator be healthy, we can affect other species and the ecosystem itself. This is not true of elephants and rhino, who face very specific threats—the ivory and horn trade.”

“More than just saving lions, we want to create a global movement,” adds Lance Williams, a founding donor of LRF and its communications advisor. “We want to build the political and philanthropic will to achieve healthy and sustainable human-wildlife coexistence. The Lion Recovery Fund is our tool, a sort of clearinghouse for conservation strategies. We seek out the most innovative solutions, fund them, nurture them, and share their successes with the world.”

“We have to go big and we have to go fast,” adds Paul Thomson, director of WCN’s conservation programs. “Honestly, we don’t have any time to lose.”

DISAPPEARING IN PLAIN SIGHT
A casual traveler in Africa might not realize that lion numbers are in such steep decline. “Lions suffer from the disadvantage that they are gregarious, live in prides, and certainly don’t mind being observed,” says Thomas Kaplan, the chairman and founder of Panthera, the global big-cat conservation organization and an LRF grantee. “All of which creates the impression that there are plenty of them.”

Indeed. Go on safari in any of the tourist hotspots in Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe—and you might spot a solitary leopard slinking by, or lolling somewhere way up high on the branch of an acacia tree. But you are almost certain to see multiple lions, lying bellies up, or loping past your game-drive vehicle in that nonchalant, “I own this” way.

(Prides consist of up to three males and around a dozen females and their young.) “We are paying a huge price now for our insouciance,” reflects Joss Kent, CEO of the travel and safari company &Beyond.

Some attrition in the lion population is simply part of nature’s cycles. While they are apex predators, lions nevertheless compete with other predators—hyenas, for example, who can injure them; diseases are common, and can occasionally kill off large numbers; and they also fight among themselves for food and territory, the winner often slaughtering the cubs of his antagonist. (The Lion King’s Scar-Mufasa-Simba drama is not far from fiction.)

A FRAUGHT COEXISTENCE
But the greatest threat to lions—to all wildlife—is posed by humans. Lions, despite their apex predator status, are especially vulnerable to us homo sapiens because many of them—about 14,000, or 70 percent of the total population–live outside protected areas and national parks, either in remote and unmonitored places where poaching can most easily take place (or the kind of legality-flouting game hunting that so famously brought down Cecil the Lion), and/or near people and their villages and livestock.

The coexistence of humans and lions is, to say the least, a complicated affair.

Lions can—and do—kill people. “And of course there is nothing worse for lion conservation than for a lion to kill someone,” says Colleen Begg, a member of the WCN, a judge on the granting committee of LRF, and founder of the Niassa Carnivore Project in northern Mozambique, whose goal is to find ways for humans to live successfully among lions and other predators. “There will be retribution killing.”

And not just retribution. “With the killing of a human,” Begg elaborates, “you lose support for conservation in general, for all species, as there is just no compensation for the loss of a family member. It builds resentment, and the story quickly becomes about injustice and inequality, not just about conservation—why are we poor people, with little say in the matter, bearing the brunt of saving wildlife? Remember, living with lions can be terrifying, and the emotional and economic costs for communities doing this, in the 21st century, are high.”

In southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique, for example, there were more than 500 lethal lion assaults between 2005 and 2006, the victims mostly subsistence farmers killed at night while protecting their fields from bush pigs; lions, hunting those same bush pigs because their natural prey had grown scarce, would stumble on the farmers. “Humans,” Begg adds, “are quite easy to catch. Once a lion population realizes this, it can develop a man-eating culture.”

(Begg and her staff of 100 Mozambicans were able to halt the killings in her area of operation by building shelters on stilts for people, and instilling a safety-first mentality, evinced by such practices as keeping children close by at night; in the last two years, there have been no lion-related injuries in the Niassa National Reserve.)

Lions, too, are difficult to get along with because of their taste for livestock. “Because they are apex carnivores, the biggest and the strongest, they are stuborn,” says Paul Fuston, the lion program director at Panthera. “Psychology, as it were, is at work here. They are not programed to get out of the way. A hyena will run away after it kills a villager’s cow. The lion will make a kill, then go sleep under a tree a few feet away. And because lions have big paws, they are easier to track down.” Their predation gives rise, more often than not, to retribution killings as well. Cows especially are highly valuable, and tribespeople, says Map Ives, the Botswana-based naturalist, “will absolutely not forgive the lion and will mercilessly hunt it down.”

Exacerbating all this, of course, is Africa’s population explosion and the concomitant increase in the numbers of cattle, goats, horses, and donkeys (lion prey) that rural people keep in their villages and bomas. Says Begg: “In 2003, when we started our project, there were 25,000 people living inside the Niassa National Reserve; in 2018, there were 60,000 people, in 42 villages.”

People also kill lions because of the growing demand in Southeast Asia for lion body parts: not the heads that trophy hunters covet, but claws, teeth, skin, and bones, used as empowering trinkets and in traditional medicine. (A dead lion can fetch $1,500—a small fortune for a villager whose regular monthly income might be $150.) Tiger bone wine has long been a status item in that part of the world, deemed to make the drinker braver, wiser, and stronger, but with the scarcity of tigers, significantly further along on the extinction spectrum than lions, lion bones have become an acceptable substitute. “The numbers are not huge,” says Lindsey, “but the extraction of bones from wild lions is ethically terrible.”

DWINDLING PREY
Lions are pure meat eaters and their natural sustenance is dwindling. Unless they are presented with easy livestock prey, they hunt wild ungulates—antelopes, buffaloes, wildebeest, zebras, warthogs. But as the human population grows, livestock increasingly competes with ungulates for grazing land—and wild ungulates decline.

They are under pressure, as well, from human poaching for bush meat. Much poaching in Africa, in fact, is not for the insanely valued ivory and horn at all (the latter now worth more than its weight in gold), but simply for protein—poor rural people without other means to make a living engaging in it to feed their families and provide for them by selling the meat in town. “This trend is growing,” says Lindsey. National parks and reserves in countries where governments lack funds to maintain and police them are studded with thousands of snares (in which lions themselves are often inadvertently caught as well.)

As much as lions need protein, they also need space, and today 90 percent of their historic roaming range is gone. Loss of habitat—to human settlement, agriculture, gathering of wood for charcoal, logging, and more—contributes to the vanishing. As Darwin and Wallace observed, the smaller the island, the quicker the rate of extinction. Crucial for the survival of lions are so-called corridors between national parks and protected areas along which the big cats can migrate—in search of prey and for genetic diversity. If those connective areas fill up with people or become prey-devoid, environmentally compromised dead zones, “we will have not wilderness, but de facto zoos,” says Thomson. “And we don’t want that.”

“Remember,” says Kaplan, “that an apex predator, unlike an elephant or a rhino, by definition has a central role in the food chain. If an ecosystem can support big cats, it is a healthy ecosystem. If it cannot, it isn’t. And keep in mind that there is a direct relationship between a healthy ecosystem and the health of the human population.”

THE DRAMA ON THE SAVANNA
Consider the African savanna, the lion’s habitat, which covers 65 percent of the continent—a vast sea of grasses, grass-like plants, and widely spaced trees (thorny acacia, baobab, eucalyptus, and more), on which feed wild grazers and herbivores, and which is also the main source of food for livestock, an important zone of biodiversity for both plants and animals, a major carbon sink (and therefore climate change mitigator), and protector of watersheds.

Here’s what lions do for this ecosystem, as Dereck Joubert, the CEO and founder of the Great Plains Conservation safari company (and long time student of lions), puts it:

“Unlike leopards, lions are herding hunters. They will surround a herd of ungulates, then come in for the kill. They are successful only 24% to 27% of the time, meaning that 3 out of 4 attempts fail. But the effect of the attacks themselves, dramatic and traumatic, is magical: Herds bunch up in fear, stomp the ground, then take off. Doing so, they break up the soil, which reinvigorates the seed band, which makes grasses revive, which invites the next migration.

“I hope that people understand the ‘circle of life’ expression from the film. It’s about space, and about the importance of blood spattered across the savanna.”

Without lions, grasses won’t flower, migrations won’t be compelled to happen, and herds, more stationary, will pick up parasites. Without lions, medium-sized prey like zebras will be hunted more aggressively by hyenas, their numbers will decline, and we will end up with a monoculture of large prey (like buffalo), because there will be no one to hunt them.

And before long we will be at the tipping point of environmental collapse. We need lions clustering in prides, hunting over and over again across a vast, unfettered territory.

“I hope that people understand the ‘circle of life’ expression from the film. It’s about space, and about the importance of blood spattered across the savanna.”

by KLARA GLOWCZEWSKA
Source: townandcountrymag.com

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