Changing Planet

On World Lion Day, Let’s Celebrate the Lions That Made Us Who We Are

By Dereck Joubert, National Geographic Big Cats Initiative

What is a ‘World Day’ after all? Who cares? Probably the better question is “Who should care?”

August 10 is designated as World Lion Day, and as with other allocated “Days,” the origin of such an event is to celebrate something globally, and think about how the day, and how the individual or entity being celebrated, influences our lives. I can see a World Dhali Lama Day, or World Peace Day because it has real meaning to the way we live our lives, and our meditations on this affects the way we change course. So at first I wondered if lions actually deserve a day and whether we should really be contemplating the impact that lions have on our lives.

Take a walk in any city in the world and within a few blocks you will see a lion. London, New York, Washington, Shanghai, Helsinki, Nairobi … flags, statues, icons … lions are probably the most prolific creatures in the world if we include the symbols that represent them. So it’s shocking that hundreds of millions of icons represent a population that is now only around 20,000 real, live, living, breathing, roaring, hunting lions. A hundred years ago we think there were over a million lions. When I was born, maybe 450,000 lions roamed these plains. Today we niggle over if there are 20,000 or 35,000 lions left and forget to look over our shoulders at history. There have never been as few lions on the planet since 3.5 million years ago, when we think that lions evolved from the early saber-toothed cats.

Photograph by Beverly Joubert
Photograph by Beverly Joubert

So perhaps celebrating them is wrong. We should actually be mourning the loss of lions. But celebrating, in many ways, is consistent with our long involved relationship with lions. As early hominids we watched them in fear from our dolomite cave entrances near a place called Swartkrans in South Africa, and looked on as dark storms flashed with streaks of lightening behind them as they devoured their kills. This is one of the highest lightening strike zones in the world, the result of which was the eventual dawning of the idea that we could walk down and ‘capture’ fire and take it back to our caves for warmth and 24 hour light and as a weapon against the marauding giant cats that made our lives a living hell. We also realized that we could scavenge from them, and dig out bone marrow left behind, and suddenly we were in charge of our destiny, not just passive witnesses to the hardships of what was dealt us.

We evolved because of big cats, and lions were the biggest in the landscape we wanted to dominate. At some stage there was a tipping point where we developed weaponry: spear, arrows, guns, and within a short time, it was the lions that were dancing to our music, not the other way around. We were no longer shaking in our skins at every roar in the darkness. There has been a back and forth between us and lions ever since as if our destinies we are locked in combative dance, a tango, a flashing set of maneuvers to show our strength, our fitness, our metal capacity to out smart our dance partner: the fearsome lion.

I stepped into a boardroom a few years ago and was confronted by a stuffed male lion, his face set in a snarling position, eyes forever locked in anger. Because I understood what this hapless creature was doing there, I sat in the largest chair at the end of the table with the lion behind me. When the CEO arrived, he was visibly unsettled by my selection of seating, and it confirmed my little experiment that the stuffed lion that the CEO had selected, hunted, shot, imported, filled with glue and now displayed, was about sending a single message: “If I can do this to our most fearsome and ancient competitor, imagine what I can do to you in this deal, this oil company merger, to you.” While I think it’s foolish, safari hunting of lions is all about display, and it’s an understandable one if you place it in this context. No hunter wants to kill a lion and then leave it behind. It’s about showing the trophy as a measure against oneself. The dance continues.

Photograph by Beverly Joubert
Photograph by Beverly Joubert

At some point though we understand that we cannot dance alone. Beverly and I started the Big Cats Initiative with National Geographic to be able to protect those very lions and we now have over 56 projects in more than 22 countries; we’re determined that we never dance alone.

World Lion Day happens to be on the birthday of my late brother, a famous wildlife artist who crystalized the essence of what a lion is in brush strokes and in bronze, and as I sit in the shade writing this, trying to do the same, four lions are feeding on a buffalo nearby and I wonder at the fact that with our guns and anger, our insatiable desire to dominate everything around us, that we have allowed lions to still exist at all, these giant killers tearing away at flesh nearby. It stems I think, from our capacity to be good as well as bad, selfish as well as kind, creative as well as boorish.

Photograph by Beverly Joubert
Photograph by Beverly Joubert

World Lion Day is us at our best, celebrating the very thing that in the past has driven us insane with fear, killed our ancestors, our friends and our livestock. As we celebrate these manic killers in fact we celebrate more than lions and what they represent, we celebrate our capacity to be unselfish and broad minded, and most of all … tolerant.

World Lion Day is when we celebrate that lions made us who we are.

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Photograph by Beverly Joubert
Photograph by Beverly Joubert
  • caroline graham

    i will dance with you, as millions will, on World Lion Day next Sunday August 10th. We will celebrate the lions that made us who we are, and your extraordinary efforts to save them.

  • Ima Ryma

    The lions did once rule as king,
    When humans were just starting out.
    Lions upon humans could bring
    A lot of fear and pain, no doubt!
    But then the humans with more brain
    Made weapons against lion brawn.
    Just thousands of lions remain,
    Billions of humans weapon on.
    Lion cubs that be born still act
    As the kings that lions once were.
    But grownup lions teach the fact,
    Humans are bad news – him and her.

    The modern lesson in each pride –
    Beware of humans be the guide.

  • Gerald Hobbes

    There’s so much hoopla in LA and the nation right now because of a ‘mystery lion’ in Norwalk, CA – see TIME, Washington Post, Today Show, CNN (et al) – they even had experts fly in with special equipment to decipher this ho0me security video, but it still didn’t render a clear enough image. Nat Geo ought to come out here and keep the buzz going with “California’s Mystery Lion” –

    SoCal City on Alert After Possible Mountain Lion Sighting
    NBC Southern California

  • t.giobbi

    this is “us at our best”? that is a sad statement. this is a good lesson in what our affect is on lions, not the opposite as the title would have us believe.
    how does an article purporting to respect these creatures refer to them as “manic killers”? wouldn’t the hunting CEO he referred to more accurately be called a manic killer?

  • t giobbi

    this is “us at our best”? that is a sad statement. this is a good article about what our affect is on lions not the opposite, as the title would have us believe.
    how does an article purporting to respect these creatures refer to them as “manic killers”? wouldn’t the hunting CEO he referred to more accurately be called a manic killer?

  • Shankar

    It only takes us so far when we say the animals are part of our landscape and we need them. It is very difficult to answer the question “what is the use of the lion or the tiger” to society. If we answer that from human “use” perspective — that their skin and bones are valuable for decoration and to Chinese medicine — they are doomed. On the other extreme, fear and uselessness drives us into viewing them as pests. They are doomed this way as well. Dogs have been domesticated by humans, we see their use as pets and in detecting cancer, and hence they are considered sacred and will likely be the most successful animals should something happen to “us”. The biggest problem today is the human population of 7 billion predators; that is stressing the wild animals out indirectly – more human wildlife conflict, less wilderness leading to inbreeding, predation, etc. The only hope in my opinion is eco-tourism. If more and more people want to get out of their armchairs and computers, and want to see the cheetah running in the wild, the “industry” can turnaround as it already has. I read somewhere without wild-tourism, the current numbers would have been even lower. Let me know if you have any feedback because as a conservationist it looks like the battle cannot be won!

  • R.N

    May your work continue to change opinions of Hunters who seem to think it’s their god given right to kill & display an animal just for their Ego.

  • Irene Grilo

    A must read! ROARING with you all the way Dereck & Beverly Joubert! Love & Light

  • Sheila Collins

    “There have never been as few lions on the planet since 3.5 million years ago, when we think that lions evolved from the early saber-toothed cats.”

    —- Not true! At least get the science straight – lions did not evolve from early sabertooth cats; lions and sabertooth cats are from separate lineages within the feline family tree. They evolved alongside one another and until quite recently existed within the same ecosystems.

  • Manessa Weaver

    If there are so few, then how do rich people (such as the owner of Jimmy Johns) get away with killing them in their big game hunting? They even post pictures to show off. Shouldn’t the species be protected and it would be illegal to kill them (especially for fun)?

  • Nilesh Kakade

    Lions are forever!

  • Annabella Carrasquero

    Please stop to hunt de animals

  • Allison Hegan

    @t.giobbi, I think it is correct to say, “this is us at our best.” Dereck Joubert means that World Lion Day represents us being tolerant, respectful, and celebratory of an animal that for so long we misunderstood and hated. As one of lions’ biggest advocates, I know Joubert doesn’t mean we are at our best, because we have killed off the majority of lions, quite the contrary. We are at our best when we move past the killing and towards tolerance.

    Although I do agree that the CEO is also a manic killer, I don’t think it is wrong to call lions that as well. They are wild creatures, who kill to survive- unlike the CEO. Manic simple means wild, frenzied, excited, intense, etc…., which is true of the way lions attack their prey. There is nothing untruthful in describing it this way. Nature is not always pretty and kind.

  • keisha

    What’s amazing creature of the wild(forest)for it strenght and beauty.but we need to take care of our animals

  • Jackie Powell

    I don’t care for the term “manic killers” either. It puts a human mental attribute where one does not exist and casts a negative light on what the lion does naturally and to survive: it kills ferociously and efficiently and solely for the purpose of sustaining itself. The CEO, on the other hand, may be a manic depressive, narcistic, bully, egomaniac who kills for pleasure, spite or sport. Either way, he’s a sick bastard.

  • krishanprasadmishra

    natural with lust, green,back ground what else to please eyes ?
    The photographer has taken risk, pain for this moment of picture . Hats off to him.I congratulate him, & wish more picures.

  • simon webb

    Sorry, I find this little essay attempts a romantic prosody that comes off rather poorly.

  • simon webb

    Not that anybody should care about my opinion of the writing, when the intention is so good.

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