Wild life

I cannot imagine living in a world without lions

Once they inhabited most of our world; now we must work to save them from extinction

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM


We are privileged to live with lions on the farm. We hear them most nights. We encounter them frequently. Out walking last month, I sensed four lions the instant before I saw them. Adrenaline raised a mane of goose bumps from my skull to my thighs. I should have shouted and advanced on them and certainly not run away. Instead I became rooted to the spot, hypnotised by their great yellow eyes. After seconds they timidly slunk off — in Kenya’s recorded history honey bees have killed more people than lions have — leaving me to feel neither scared, nor relieved, but thrilled.

Sixty years ago Elspeth Huxley wrote that all the lions in Laikipia, the ranching plateau I call home north of Mount Kenya, had been shot out. Ranchers exterminated all the lions based on the simple logic that they killed cattle, and because frankly it was fun to kill big cats in a world abundant with game. Farmers even had what they called the ‘five before breakfast club’, which involved the enthusiastic destruction of entire prides.

Today Laikipia has recovered, with a population of 250 lions. This is greatly thanks to my scientist friends, Alayne Cotterill and Laurence Frank. They have converted many ranchers and nomads into lion lovers. These days we don’t lose cattle, because we put them in proper lion-proof bomas at night. In 14 years of ranching I’ve lost just one cow to a lion and she was blind. By fixing VHF or GPS signal collars on lions, the scientists can track them. Each day the various farms receive emails showing the GPS satellite-plotted movements of collared lions on maps of our plateau.

Collar signals not only inform the scientists about lion behaviour, but they also alert us all when they stray into harm’s way. When the lions move out of Laikipia ranches they are more likely to be shot, since there’s an AK-47 behind many a bush. Or they are poisoned with a pesticide called carbofuran, which people like to sprinkle on carcasses and is so toxic that it will kill the lion and everything else in the food chain including vultures that die so suddenly they fall out of the sky mid-flight.

Now the collar signals can send the landowner an alert by text message, telling you when lions are entering danger zones so that you can go and chase them back into safe havens. Berkeley academic Laurence is researching new technology that will make the collar prevent a lion from crossing harmful boundaries by sounding an alarm that gets louder until the animal retreats. Alayne, an Oxford academic and blonde goddess with a darting gun, is using ‘Energetics’ collars to detect a lion’s oxygen consumption and energy use, to see how stressed it is when in the vicinity of human settlements and cattle. What they’re finding is that lions do all they can to avoid people — and that we must give them room to breathe. Alayne’s team is also running a ‘Warrior Watch’ programme, in which Samburu young bloods guard rather than spear lions to prove their manhood.

Laurence says with proper livestock management and no shooting you can ‘train’ lions to regard cattle as ‘non-food’. They then form healthy prides that kill common species like zebra. If you shoot lions for killing your ill-protected stock, you break up prides. Single mothers are driven by starvation to kill cattle or rarer animals, such as baby giraffe, while their cub litters are left untended and vulnerable to being eaten by hyena or killed by lone male lions.

Once lions inhabited most of our world. When humans migrated into the Americas we destroyed them all. Lions survived in Europe until a thousand years ago. Homer describes how Trojans scatter like cattle maddened with fright before Agamemnon, the lion who ‘springs on one, seizes her neck in the grip of his strong teeth and laps her blood and gorges on her entrails…’ This is the image of a poet who knew about lions first-hand; it’s an image I have seen myself. When I took my son Rider to London’s Natural History Museum, we saw the fossil of a lion’s skull unearthed from beneath Trafalgar Square. Today the only lions under Nelson’s Column are bronze. Rembrandt drew a black-maned Cape lion, which is now extinct.

I cannot imagine living in a world where the only lions left alive are in zoos or where they have become merely heraldic symbols, stage characters in West End shows or a roar in the MGM movie title. I am astonished to say Alayne and Laurence’s work is badly underfunded. To find intelligent ways to save the world’s last lions they could do with our help.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

To discover more about saving the last lions left in the wild visit Alayne’s project at www.ewasolions.org and Laurence’s project at www.livingwithlions.org

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Show comments
  • Kaine

    Interesting stuff, particularly the point about tribal behaviour. The true sign of maturity is protecting and stewarding, not killing.

  • BFS

    The mothers of these animals are not given proper consideration as they struggle in raising these little animals; Lyons, White Bears, Pandas.

    We should provide to their mothers the choice to abort their little cubs so they can have a normal mating season without the burden of raising babies in this difficult world.

    Horrified at this idea? …with baby humans it seems so benign.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    Lions are indeed imposing beasts and it would be a shame if they were to disappear. OTOH it’s easy to feel this way if one lives in a country with no dangerous predators that might eat one’s livestock – or one’s family. Native Africans tend not to think a great deal about such as lions and elephants, except in so far as they can destroy one’s livelihood…
    I dare say some of our ancestors lamented the decline of the sabre-tooth tiger and the cave bear – at least, those who’d just heard about them, or seen cave paintings, and thought they sounded really cool.

  • cambridgeelephant

    The Marsh Pride of Lions on the Mara are a famous bunch. They used to be headed by Clawed and Romeo but they have lost out to four newcomers, who have mated with plenty of the females and beefed up the pride numbers to over 25.

    Walk round St Paul’s Cathedral in London and you might be struck – as I was – by just how many statues of Lions there are accompanying the graves of famous British warriors. And then there’s the Lions of Trafalgar Square.

    For a country that has never had wild lions in it’s recorded history, we sure do like to portray ourselves alongside them.

  • montague_stjohn

    “Once they inhabited most of our world”.

    An odd claim.