SILENT PRIDE: Saving the Last Lions of Africa

Cecil the Lion article - Cyril Christo

SILENT PRIDE: Saving the Last Lions of Africa

The so-called civilized people? They had no excuse. They hunted for what they called ‘trophies’, for the excitement of it, for pleasure, in fact. —Romain Gary, “The Roots of Heaven” 1956

A global warning needs to be sounded and action taken against big game hunters while there is still time. The licensing of murder begs the question, why are we killing? The demand for ivory has to stop. But the lion of Africa is also imperilled, in fact, it is so endangered that it could be gone in our lifetime. Can the world possibly imagine a world without Lion Kings? We no longer need to kill to survive as our ancestors once did.

©Christo & Wilkinson Photography

The recent slaughter of Cecil the lion must serve an admonition to what we are doing to the natural world as a whole. Our killing frenzy is merciless. Over 600 lions are killed every year. Although wanton killings have been going on for more than a century since the colonial powers invaded Africa, the genetic pool of lions is now plummeting. Canned hunting incites trophy hunters which in turn attracts poachers. Within a few days of Cecil’s killing five poachers went into Tsavo in Kenya and killed five elephants, news which hardly reverberated in the world’s conscience for what humanity is also doing to the largest land mammal on earth. Henry David Thoreau, the greatest voice for the wilderness once wrote, “What if a greater race of beings were to make flageolets and buttons out of our bones?” Indeed!

The lion’s roar is ineffable, a sonic detonation, a reverberant spell, a guttural eruption discharged into the entire outback of the second largest continent on earth, Africa. We should all feel privileged to live in an age when one can still hear that unique sound calling out to the rest of creation. But for how long? In 26 range states in Africa lions have already disappeared. Only a few countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa harbor populations of at least 1000 lions. The lynch pin in the ecology of the African savannah walks on the tightrope of survival.

©Christo & Wilkinson PhotographyThere used to be well over 100,000 lions little more than a generation ago but due to habitat loss, trophy hunting, inbreeding and poaching their numbers have dwindled to perhaps 20,000 today. There may be a few as 3000 male lions in all of Africa according to the Jouberts. There are still those wishing to pass lion bones off as tiger bones for the Asian market. The elephant crisis continues but the drop in the lion population is even more staggering. We have also crucified the whales and sharks and tuna in staggering numbers in recent years. We have desecrated the oceans. Now predators all over the planet are in serious trouble. After the polar and grizzly bear and the tiger, lions are the third largest land predator on earth. The next ten years are crucial in bringing back a being both stigmatized as vermin and considered as symbols of nobility since the beginning of civilization. Lions haunted early man’s dreams since the time of the cave dwellers in Chauvet, France millennia ago. Losing the lion would be a nightmare in our ability to hold onto to the ecology and the larger biological immune system of Africa.

In light of the recent and almost unprecedented global outrage against the killing of Cecil, the lion in Zimbabwe, it behooves humanity to rethink the legitimacy of trophy and canned hunting once and for all. Cubs which are regularly taken from the wild, are bred for lion hunts and once they are killed their bones are sold to the increasing Laotian and Vietnamese lion bone trade. Some mistakenly believe that wild lion bone is more potent than captive bred lions. This heinous practice, which encourages poaching, is taking its toll on the last lions of Africa where the lion population has shrunk by %80 in the last generation!

Theodore Roosevelt on his safari in East Africa in 1909 ‘bagged’ as many mammals as he could. He even killed eleven elephants! He was lauded as a great President and yet his need for power and control, resulted in the destruction of dozens of the great mega-fauna of East Africa.

Ernest Hemingway in “True at First Light,” exemplifies the top-heavy ego of the writer/artist whose need to triumph over life results in its subjugation, “He’s my lion, he’s magnificent and I have to shoot him.”

©Christo & Wilkinson PhotographyOur violence, neuroses, and drug addictions, abject narcissism and superstitions are symptoms of a greater malaise: emotional, spiritual and existential. Trophy and canned hunting may not seem like a wayward activity to some. The idle rich and members of the various safari clubs around the world, especially those in the US use broad measures and arguments to convince themselves of their prowess, and the necessity to hunt the great charismatic species of the planet. Innocence and wonder are being sacrificed to bloodlust for its own sake.

True, corruption in Africa is rampant but there has to be a demand for the taking of life. As Lion Aid in London has exclaimed, trophy hunting from America and Europe has been proposed as a conservation tool for decades…”It is arguable that strictly regulated, ethical and sustainable trophy hunting offtake of selected African species might justify annual offtakes, but it has been shown time and again that trophy hunting is not regulated, not ethical, and not sustainable at current levels.”

Whatever psychologies apply, Elspeth Huxley, the grande dame of African letters said it best, “You’ve substituted the skill of one man versus one beast for the skill of the whole race of man versus one beast. So you have the brains and resources of every one from geniuses like Priestley and Pasteur to modern big business combines like ICI and du Pont, pitted against the wits of one poor African lion. It isn’t sporting; it isn’t even exciting. True sport involves equality between rivals, you see. It isn’t sport, it’s murder.”

It has been said, as stated in Bonner’s, “At the Hand of Man,” that hunting is the only way for conservation to go forward. Money raised from trophy hunting must go to communities, and certainly without the people of Africa benefiting from the wildlife, the wildlife has nowhere to turn to; it is doomed “as certainly as the dodo.” But most money does not help communities, it helps hunting outfitters. Can the world in this tested hour find another way? With all the money at the world’s disposal, with all the world’s billionaires, can the human species not find the conservation will to save a being that has taunted childhood’s very imaginations since children first learned to talk?

Lion Guardians in East Africa is near exemplary in employing, Maasai warriors and other pastoralists in mitigating human wildlife and especially lion conflict in over a million acres in Kenya and Tanzania. It should serve as a model for the rest of Africa. While Maasai used to pit their bravery and strength against lions in a formal lion hunt called the alamaiyo, their ritual combating of lions was to show off their bravery. Whoever killed the lion then shouted the name of his clan. An entire dance with the life force was enacted and life was never taken gratuitously. Warriors only killed lions to prove their courage or if their cattle were at stake. The ability to confront a lion, face to face, mocks the very definition of big game hunters. It is why, when a Maasai elder heard the exploits of Charles Lindbergh and his aviation exploits over 70 years ago, he responded, “We have known a freedom such as you have never known.”

That freedom with regards to the larger natural world is precisely what is being undermined in our time. Canned hunts are the mark of cowards. Trophies are the carcasses of an abject morality. By contrast the Bushmen in the Kalahari honored the extraordinary prowess of the greatest hunter. They lived in a coherent pattern of respect they extended to all their prey and even the top predator. The lions would come to the water hole at night to drink while the Bushmen went during the day. That mutual recognition is a model of relationship and one reason why the Bushmen have survived for well over 3000 generations. With modern man’s ability to overturn the entire organic web of life, will lions still walk the earth in a generation?

There are those in the US Congress who wish to ban lion trophies. But the profit motive and the iron grip of special interest groups who believe in shooting the most treasured mammals on earth for prestige still has the upper hand. Those who fight for the right to bear arms and rifles are not fighting for the right of wolves, coyotes, grizzlies and mountain lion to live. As the lifeblood of the wilderness in the Western United States is at stake, so too is the soul of Africa. After the wanton massacre of tens of millions of buffalo by the end of the 19thcentury, hunters turned their sights on the wildlife of the cradle of man. But there are those in Congress who wish to overturn the Endangered Species Act, recklessly encouraging the shooting of creatures believed to be vermin, while the cattle industry turns a blind eye to keystone species in the Midwest, Idaho, Montana and Alaska, everywhere where Nature still has viable predator populations.

With the global outcry for Cecil and his species, so late in coming, the legitimacy of sports ‘hunting’ must be called into question. There are those who feel justified in sacrificing a few animals for the so called greater good. Conservation must be maintained with the gun. Or must it? Lion Aid in London cites statistics that argue that the gene pool of the hippo, leopard, giraffe and many other animals, including the lion are being endangered by trophy hunting. Between 1999 and 2008 over 5000 lions were shot for trophies. Along with twin threats of poaching and climate change, what is to become of a species who is killed for so called sport.

As long as our civilization deems it worthwhile to forego the principles of non-violence, nature will always bend under the strain of man. Now is the time to find an alternative before it is too late. A male lion taken out will find its progeny and cubs challenged by other males. Stress and death surrounds lion cubs on all fronts. Losing one’s father is never advantageous. Narnia, the Lion King, the MGM lion is more than an icon, it is the very symbol of freedom in the wild. Species extinction and climate change are the twin evils of our time and have immense ecological consequences, not least of which is our own long term survival.

I once has the privilege of meeting Roy Sesana, whose group the First Peoples of the Kalahari, in Botswana won the Right Livelihood Award ten years ago. The oldest continuous genetic group on earth knew how to live in complete accord with the lion whose name they never dare utter during the day. While their lives evinced a truce with the lion our society betrays itself with nothing less than treason towards the environment. When the Bushmen were forcibly relocated to make room for diamond prospecting, Roy asked why should he be moved away from his brother, the lion. The Bushmen who came first, were made to be last in a country that deemed them inferior. Their relationship to the natural world goes back 60,000 years. In the last hundred, a people who lived in perfect resonance with nature were made outcasts on their own land.

©Christo & Wilkinson PhotographyHow lions fare in the coming years, will depend ultimately on how we can stop the onslaught of greed and corruption at all levels, individual and governmental. Those who are willing to sacrifice treasures like the world heritage site of the Serengeti to the highways of so called progress and the wiles of bureaucrats are selling their countries to the demons of globalization. In the end, it will not just be the wildlife that suffers but also the very local people, the wilderness surrounds. The wild is not just a place without, it is also the space within the soul and it is being daily reduced.

It was a major elephant researcher in South Africa who told us that the answer to saving what remains of the natural world would come not through science but through poetry by which she meant our emotional commitment to life, our ability to draw from our reserves of awe before that which created us. It is the galvanizing call in the Pope’s recent Encyclical which admonishes capitalism’s reckless behaviour towards earth and all its inhabitants, human and non-human.

It was Edward Abbey who remarked that if humanity does not preserve large tracts of the wild with eagles and wolves and bisons and lions and tigers and bears and elephants, it will invite a future that is a high tech slum. We will have lost the earth and no amount of visitations to other planets will remedy the loss of a roar that once sprang from earth’s creatures.

This time will be gauged not by the symphonies, nor art we exult in, nor the skyscrapers we concoct, nor the satellites we launch beyond earth’s atmosphere, it will be remembered by our ability to salvage our carnal relationship to earth and its biodiversity. The reality behind the murder and wanton destruction of a beautiful being called Cecil should activate a new and final wave of response, not just for the animals of the world, but also for our children. The decision Delta, American and United airlines made to ban trophy imports should spread globally and immediately!

The global disconnect from nature is most evident in the children of today whose appetite for digital games and artificial realities is in direct proportion to the loss of the natural world. Perhaps the nervousness, the violence , the Nature deficit disorder so rampant today is a sign of the great malaise upon us. If we were to lose the beings of earth, we will have no words to explain to children of tomorrow what happened. We cannot let the lions of today become the dinosaurs of tomorrow. They are among the great intermediaries between earth and our own conscience.

Nature is being cornered in every direction and as it diminishes, humanity finds itself in the center of a collapsing morality. Can we turn things around? Humpbacks are coming back in Australia, we could have lost the cheetah, there are more mountain gorillas now than ten years ago but industrial projects like the proposed oil ventures by the British based company Soco could damage one of the greatest rainforests on earth. Lions too can come back as the great social cat on earth, if given a respite from the ignorance and perfidy of our ways.

A story, perhaps the greatest of its kind concerning a lion, was told to us by Koni, a former elephant hunter in Kenya of the Waliangulu tribe. Forty years ago, his father was in the outback and late at night was befriended by a large make lion with a porcupine quill entrenched in his paw.  Koni’s grandfather took out his knife and gingerly took out the quill which would have kept him from hunting. A few days later the lion and the hunter saw each other. The lion looked at the hunter and slowly lured the hunter into the bush. The hunter followed for several kilometrers not knowing what the lion was up to, until he finally came to a clearing. There in a meadow, lay a newly killed giraffe, the lion had taken out to thank the hunter for having saved his life!

The brute extermination of our original mentors, begs the question, why are we killing? In eliminating the great landmarks of nature, we are collecting infamy and oblivion at every turn. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas who spent five years with the oldest people on earth, the Bushmen in the 1950’s wrote that lions roared as if responding to an even greater symphony, the thunder. Our place on earth has always been given meaning and ballast by the so called beasts. We became human and invented language with the other species as the background grammar and color of our evolution. Without them we invite a post-human order. Witness the fascination with artificial intelligence. Instead, go to the savannah. Go to the forests. See the whales. Go to Yellowstone. Go to Africa and listen to the place where man was born. Africa is where we began and it is fast becoming a major litmus test for where we are heading.

I once asked a saddhu in India what would become of humanity if we lost the tiger? He responded “It will not matter because humanity will not be here anymore.” The same could be said for every species. But it does matter because they were here first. We are second. I believe we will not long endure without them. A Samburu elder, cousin of the Maasai say, once told me, nothing will be left, “except to kill ourselves.”

Without lions and the other predators of earth as a ballast to the human species, I believe, we will eventually self cannibalize. It is time to tame the brute within us. For in the end, the beast within the human heart does not need more statistics and algorithms and video games to tell it that is has not yet landed on earth, as our soon to be ten year son Lysander once told us. His son must be able to know that lions and tigers and polar bears still roam the hinterlands, not just of the imagination, but of the wild. As our son remarked with the wonderful curiosity of one who has seen the fauna of Africa, Jericho, brother of Cecil, stills lives in the outback, just like Socrates whose brother was killed in the animated feature Animals United. What is happening to the gene pool of the world’s organisms cannot be properly explained by video fantasies. A world without real animals invites a world without real children.

Children know what is at stake. It is time adults care enough about their children and the future to stop its pay to slay depravity which is putting a bullet through the life force. Those who pay a premium to slay polar bears and lions may not care, but their children may one day inherit a lifeless simulation of a planet we once called earth. We must reverse course or else, Cecil, that superb, guileless icon of majesty and carnal magic, and tens of thousands of his kind will have died in vain.


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