Imagining a world without lions

As conservationists we get a little wound up sometimes, thinking about how to save wildlife, their environment and the whole of the natural world. But there are times when I like to take a step back and reflect.

Sure, I will be mortified if, in the near future, I awake and look out from our Botswana wilderness camp at the dawn, to a ghostly silence instead of a lion’s roar that echoed through the mist-filled plains for thousands of years. Many of us who have lived amongst these big cats for most of our careers, if not our entire lives, would be sad if we did not get an occasional glimpse of a shaggy-maned male lion becoming irritated by a tumbling horde of cubs defying decorum by bouncing on his regal head, or yanking his luxurious tail while he was trying to nap.

Photograph by Beverly Joubert

Millions of megapixels of safari photos would be less thrilling, and a certain heart and soul of the African savanna would be missing, if the lion had had his day. But who really cares, or should care, if that ever came about?

I spoke to Daniel Sambu, a Maasai elder, about this a few months back. For about a million of his people in East Africa, lions are those things that hunt their cattle, he explained. The rattling roar at dawn, that I am absolutely in love with, inflicts fear and loathing in their hearts.

Isaac Seredile in Botswana has a similar feeling about this intersection, where the continent’s largest predator meets nearly a billion head of cattle. It’s a real flashpoint for conflict between people and predators.

Left to right: Beverly Joubert, Daniel Sambu, Tipape Lekatoo, Dereck Joubert.
Photo credit: Wildlife Films.

But both Mr. Sambu and Mr. Seredile have chosen a different path than the one taken by most other Africans faced with this predicament. Mr. Sambu found a job with a group called the Big Life Foundation, leading a team of more than 200 men to protect lions and elephants in southern Maasiland. Mr. Seredile, the head guide at Great Plains Conservation, a safari operation, was deeply conflicted by searching for lions each day for his guests to admire and photograph, and then worrying about the safety of his cattle at night. So he decided to sell out of the cattle business, and sleep easier.

In the face of this enormous conflict, more and more people in Africa are considering my question: Why should we care? The answer cannot be given in an easy one-liner.

Photograph by Beverly Joubert

Ecosystems out of balance

Rationally, there is an argument that without lions, whole ecosystems will spiral out of balance. The strongest case for this line of thinking is from Yellowstone National Park, where wolves impact the landscape by “managing” the numbers of herbivores, which prevents erosion, stimulates aspen tree growth, and generally benefits other wildlife by filling what had once become a gap in the ecosystem. Recently I came across compelling evidence that suggests that even in Africa, the large pack hunters, like lions, have a startling effect on herds that bunch up when attacked. Daily their hooves churn up the ground, creating different areas that are open and ready to accept the benefits of the next rains into the soils and the grass seed banks, rather than the water simply running off into the rivers. This ensures typical rolling East African plains that are perfect for grazers, including cattle, a natural and ancient cycle of replenishment.

Ecologically, by extension, a landscape without lions leads to large herds of grazers, such as buffalo, and little else. Overgrazing by them, and the parasite load on the land as they become sedentary, ultimately makes the ecosystem poorer.

The last traditional lion protectors

Stepping away from the science for a moment, a Zulu friend of mine, Mr. Ngonyama, draws his ancestral name from lions. The Ngonyamas are the lion people, and in the times of the Zulu Kingdom, it was their clan that protected lions and voiced their concerns to Shaka Zulu and other leaders when they felt that the big cats were being persecuted. It was a check and balance. Today very few Zulus have seen a lion and very few Ngonyamas have had any experience with their spiritual totems. As Zulus draw closer to the cities and carry multiple smart phones for their businesses, they step further away from their ancestral connection with Africa. This “divorce” results in abandonment of many of cultural traditions, including respect and empathy for elders, that old Mrs. Ngonyama will talk about passionately if you give her half a chance.

Photograph by Beverly Joubert

Billion-dollar ecotourism industry depends on lions

Since the recent attack on Paris and other places in Europe, the ecotourism revenue stream flowing into Africa has gone up significantly, as it is seen as a relatively safe haven and a good time to check off an African safari from the bucket list. But this U.S. $80-$100 billion-a-year ecotourism and safari industry relies, to a large extent, on lions. A safari without any possibility of seeing a lion is a very much less attractive experience, so much of those tourism dollars flow elsewhere. As that happens, it creates an even more serious problem: Many communities thrive on this income, so when it dries up, they fail.

When communities fail, governments need to step in and help. If the problem becomes too large, aid agencies are approached to help out.  When that escalates, it doesn’t just put strain on finances, but on reputations too.  Western and Eastern donors start to look at Africa as a failed continent, and that fuels racial stereotyping, even downright racism. All of this because of lions.

So when Cecil the lion is shot to satisfy an individual’s desire to kill for sport, or entertainment, and then his son Xanda (just 6 years old, the equivalent of a young adult just getting a start in life) is also hunted to his death, it’s worth taking a step back to reflect on the future of lions and what they represent : a symbol of the wild, an icon of ultimate “power” that transfers to us and our egos when we kill one, a threat to our livelihoods, or a mirror for us to hold up to ourselves.

How we regard lions says much less about them than it does about our own ability to live life according to the characteristics we use to define ourselves as humans, with acceptance, empathy, trust, respect and dignity.

As we imagine the future of Africa lions, it is worth reflecting on what we might lose, but also who we really are.

Dereck Joubert is an award-winning filmmaker from Botswana who has been a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence for many years. With his wife, Beverly Joubert, also an Explorer-in-Residence, his mission is the conservation and understanding of the large predators and key African wildlife species that determine the course of all conservation in Africa.

They have been filming, researching, and exploring in Africa for over 25 years. Their coverage of unique predator behavior has resulted in dozens of films, books, scientific papers, and many articles for National Geographic magazine. This body of work has resulted in five Emmys, a Peabody, the World Ecology Award, and the recent induction into the American Academy of Achievement.

The Jouberts are the founders of the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative.

Photograph of the Jouberts byBeverly Joubert

Changing Planet

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Dereck Joubert is an award-winning filmmaker from Botswana who has been a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence for many years. With his wife, Beverly Joubert, also an Explorer-in-Residence, his mission is the conservation and understanding of the large predators and key African wildlife species that determine the course of all conservation in Africa. They have been filming, researching, and exploring in Africa for over 25 years. Their coverage of unique predator behavior has resulted in dozens of films, books, scientific papers, and many articles for National Geographic magazine. This body of work has resulted in five Emmys, a Peabody, the World Ecology Award, and the recent induction into the American Academy of Achievement. The Jouberts are the founders of the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative.