What is it with lions?


Will Travers OBE, Born Free’s President and Co-Founder, reflects on how lions are viewed today

They have tea, beer, insurance, chocolate bars, sports teams, eggs and more named after them.

Lions are regal symbols on heraldic shields and emblazoned on flags and sportwear. They protect Trafalgar Square in London, and are emblematic of countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia and, indeed, the UK.

Music celebrates the lion (The Lion Sleeps Tonight), stage shows about lions seem to run forever (The Lion King), in books (How To Be A Lion) – and then there are films, like Born Free.

Children’s alphabet books proclaim that ‘L is for Lion’.

So, if lions are such celebrated animals, renowned as the kings of the jungle, imbued with characteristics we wish we could emulate – strength and courage – why do we do what we do to them?

Lions are hunted and persecuted; exploited as exotic pets; forced to endure the artificial world of the travelling circus; put on miserable display for our education in zoos; shot and stuffed by vainglorious trophy hunters; brutally executed with no chance of escape by canned hunters; and increasingly coveted as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine.

It’s tough being a wild lion – and there are only 20,000 left across all of Africa.

But, despite this, it is not all bad news.

There’s the ones lucky enough to be rescued from illegal trade and squalid captivity, living at Born Free’s sanctuaries in South Africa and Ethiopia, who will receive dedicated care for the rest of their lives.

There’s also the wild ones protected, with our partners at The Kenya Wildlife Service and Big Life Foundation, in Amboseli, southern Kenya, where our conflict mitigation strategies help people and wildlife to co-exist. 

And there’s the remote prides that our team monitors and conserves in Meru, Kenya – Born Free’s lion heartland, where Joy and George Adamson released the original Elsa into the wild and where she is buried. 

Born Free was started by my mother, Virginia, my late father, Bill, and myself over 35 years ago. The journey that led to its creation started with Born Free, the book and the film about a lioness. In Elsa’s memory – respecting our history, confirming our compassion and rededicating ourselves to the needs of individuals – it must be our determination to secure the future of one of the world’s most charismatic species. 

On this day – World Lion Day – and every day, we will stand up for lions.  We will not only fight for the survival of wild lions but we will fight against every action of abuse, suffering, neglect and cruelty we inflict on a species that for some, myself included, is the embodiment of the wild future we want for generations to come.