On March 1, a coalition of wildlife protection organisations (Born Free USA/Born Free Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, The Humane Society of The United States/HSI and the International Fund for Animal Welfare) submitted a Petition to the US Secretary for the Interior to have the African Lion listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
My love of lions go back to childhood when, as a five-year-old boy, I lived for a year in Kenya when my mother and my late father, Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, were making the film Born Free. It wasn’t just Africa that entered my soul, it was the spirit of Elsa the lioness.
As the tiger is to India, the lion is to Africa.
Nothing encapsulates all that is wild and free like the magnificent lion. The huge natural spaces they require, abundant prey species, the eternal struggle with their main competitor and nemesis, mankind.
And yet, lions, portrayed as vicious blood-thirsty killers in literature and in early films, gained greater understanding and respect thanks to the pioneering work of George and Joy Adamson. Elsa was not just a lioness, she was a character. She displayed many of the traits that we ascribe to our companion animals — affection, remorse, pleasure — but she was no ‘pet’. She was a wild lion. And the subsequent efforts of George Adamson, Tony Fitzjohn, my parents and others, have enhanced and increased our understanding of lions as individuals.
No one who has seen ‘The Reunion’ on YouTube, where Christian the Lion is reunited with the two young Australians who originally bought him from Harrods’ pet department as a cub, can possibly fail to appreciate his personality. A fourth generation zoo-bred lion, after nearly a year successfully competing in the wild following his rehabilitation by George Adamson, Christian remembered them and demonstrated his affection with a great embrace filmed by my father, Bill Travers, and which has now been seen by more than 100 million people around the world.
Yet, for all its iconic status, and for all our greater understanding, the wild lion faces a desperate future. Its wild lands are being consumed by a tide of humanity, as are the prey species on which it needs to survive. It is poisoned, speared, and infected with deadly diseases that have arrived along with people, their livestock and their dogs. And, extraordinarily, it is still shot by the hundred to be mounted on a wall in someone’s ‘den’ as a trophy.
Evidence provided to the US Government this week overwhelmingly concludes that unless urgent action is taken now a species that is symbolic with the heart of Africa will be lost from most of its current range. Numbers are in rapid decline across much of Africa — down from nearly 76,000 in 1980 to less than 40,000 today. In some countries, populations are so rare they may be counted on the fingers of two hands. Lions have become extinct in three of their former range States since 2008.
But does it matter? Why not let them go? Why not continue to persecute lions, convert their wilderness for agriculture, poison them with cheap insecticides or cut off their magnificent heads to hang above the door. Would we really miss them? Isn’t the lion in the zoo a safe, secure, viable alternative? We are not going to lose lions as a species, they breed far too well in the miserable confines of captivity — but we may be about to lose ‘wild’ lions and with them the wilderness areas of Africa, where our soul was born.
Unlike the lion, which waits for our omnipotent will to be known, we have a choice. To destroy or to protect, to squander or to save. If we cannot conserve with compassion, make room for and appreciate the wild lion, then no other species stands a chance. If wild lions go, then, for the rest, it’s only a matter of time.