A Letter to the Lion

December 15, 2016 Updated: December 16, 2016

Your roar is the great tremor in the voice of the world.

Some say your voice answers the call of the thunder there in the vast open spaces of Africa. Your spirit honors the cave dwellers of the olden days where we sought protection from the prowess and presence of your kind because you were the unfathomable predator, often silent, and terrifying, but ultimately the great foil to man. 

Even our son Lysander who learned to walk and talk in Africa as a child said you are the “ghost in the grass.” Indeed, who does not know you, a beast that haunts the entire conscience of our species?

Millennia ago you may have taunted our dreams in the caves of Chauvet and forced early man to cower behind fire and tell stories of your amazing power. Still others sang songs of protection against your vaunted species. 

I am still bewildered by the time a young lioness Kamunyak, the blessed one, adopted a baby oryx antelope as one of her own back in 2002 in Kenya. She had lost her family, her mother, her sister and took the oryx baby as part of her family. She amazed biologists all over the world. Whatever moved her to adopt a being so very unlike herself, we will never know, but it was born of play and fellow feeling and perhaps even something of compassion. The proverbial lion could lay down with the lamb. It was a lesson for humanity, a lesson for us all. You are a killer, yes, but you are so much more!

We grew up side by side there on the plains, on the savannah where we too began. You were so noble and magisterial in your stance that our royalty had to have you as their emblem. We have honored you all over the world in insignia, on shields, on fountains, on flags, on castles, on temples. You have been the emblem of royalty for kings for millennia and yet they have persecuted you and shot you as if challenged by your great pride, unmatchable and regal beyond compare, like the great predator of Africa that you are. 

And yet you were so superb in your ability to take life and colonizers’ cattle in the 20th century that you also became vermin for the empire makers in Africa. You were so magnificent that they had to possess you in death. In our confusion we started to destroy you willfully, remorselessly, like murderers. But when you killed, it was always for food. You were stronger, faster, more cunning. 

“A lion does not except for food, kill nor fight nor interfere with other living creatures,” wrote Martin Johnson in 1929. That is more than can be said of man. How many of you were there then? Half a million? More?

A lion walks in front of a tree. (Cyril Christo/Marie Wilkinson)
A male lion walks in front of a tree through the tall grass in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya in 2007. (Cyril Christo/Marie Wilkinson)

Today, the experts say there are perhaps no more than 20,000 of you roaming the entire continent. Your loss would crucify the remains of the greatest continent of them all, the place where man was begun—Africa. Africa may become the place where mankind’s spirit is laid to rest.

A great crusader for the wild, Laurens van der Post once wrote, “Other animals because of some particular specialty can claim to represent a particular feature of natural life, but none represent all its features as does the lion—its beauty and power in the animal world are those of balance and proportion. Only the lion has all the qualities—the sight, the scent, the hearing, the intelligence, the courage, the speed, and the strength.” 

Not being a hunter but a seeker of truth he understood the great warrior within you. He at least was thankful for your roar. But for how long will we hear its wondrous reverberation, the guttural detonation more evocative than anything from our music? Because in your voice the entire symphony of the natural world awakens.

The first time I heard your voice sounding across the Chyulu Hills in Kenya, its sound rang out like a vocal eruption directed at the stars. The Bushmen, the oldest people on earth have known you for countless millennia and saw in you a brother. They who form the oldest of human speech, we who maligned them and shot them and persecuted them for centuries, watched you and learned from you, the ultimate hunter as the great mentor, as a peer. 

The first peoples did not understand why they had to be moved away from your ineffable spirit as the dominant society attacked the land, sterilized, homogenized it and even alienated the very peoples who could teach modern man how to survive the dry spells and the coming droughts, for they would be enormous. The dominant society pushed the Bushmen away in search of diamonds as so many others have been pushed away for gold, oil and minerals that fuel the engine of our industrial folly. 

But as Roy Sesana, the leader of the First peoples of the Kalahari once exclaimed, “We are the diamonds of the desert.” It has been said that some San Bushmen could transform themselves into lions. They honored your place in the world more than any other and channeled your heart. If we of the so-called civilized world could listen to them, we would know that you were our first teacher, long ago, even before we could hunt. 

The medicine men, they were practically one of you, being able to survive the spell of the outback and also, in trance, climb the threads to God’s village. All without the paraphernalia of spacesuits and spaceships whose debris now encircle the planet. Like you, they hunted only for what they needed and no more. They truly loved you like a brother. The truce between you was once of the great accords our kind has ever known with another species.

Greatest of hunters, you have been reduced to a semblance of what you once were. From over 250,000 when I was an adolescent, now an entire continent bleeds your dissolution. The bold black streaks of your males, they have become mythic cloaks of insuperable pride. You stalk with a gallantry equal to your ineffable strength, and the blood that collects on your face after the remorseless chase and kill define you. 

Once an elder told us of your power, there in the Kalahari. Four women friends came with him and narrated tales of an ageless relationship with the wild. So much have they learned from you. There was a sense that we were almost listening to two-legged lions, and time was stilled, as if every grain of sand were answering a distant star that the Bushmen so honor. 

Then we went into the outback and saw wildebeest and giraffes and oryx but none of your illustrious countenance, until in the fading light of the final day, a small tuft of your black hair stuck out of the red, red sand. We knew you were asleep. We waited an hour. Our guide thought we needed to go but then you started to stir, and that signaled that you would soon be getting up. Your majestic face appeared. A few moments later four of your pride, four superb lionesses came gamboling down the dunes in single file. It was a spectacle to behold. It was as if our Bushmen guide and his four consorts had sent some of their spirit to greet us! It was a vision beyond anything we could have expected. Over time, over space the five of you greeted us as envoys of the lion kingdom, come to greet us, as lion alter egos of the Bushmen hosts who had introduced us to the Kalahari!

There are mysteries we will never understand, and the Bushmen told us so. One is that in the midst of your grave power, there is a soul we neglect at our own peril. We have labeled you a killer, but within you resides a heart not dissimilar from our own. But you are more noble. You kill only to serve the pride. 

Once you even liberated a woman from our kind. It was in southern Ethiopia among the tribes struggling to hold onto their ways, as modernity and globalization threaten to sweep them away. One woman who did not want to be with a man in her tribe wanted to escape. She had been hurt and beaten.

Suddenly out of nowhere four lionesses came out of the bush sensing that the woman was in trouble. They chased off the man who could do nothing against the woman’s new-found and formidable allies. The lionesses stayed with her for the night encircling the young woman until she was found by a ranger the next day. The ranger went to a nearby village and found the girl’s mother who proceeded to gather her daughter from the lionesses who opened up their circle without incident and let the mother take her daughter back to the village. The lionesses had in all likelihood saved the young woman’s life.

A lion roars at the camera. (Cyril Christo/Marie Wilkinson)
A male lion roars above a female lion in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya in 2007. (Cyril Christo/Marie Wilkinson)

Simba, Swahili for lion, your eyes define a continent’s design. Terror and beauty meet in your rapturous stare in unparalleled light. You are both an angel and a demon. We may have something in common that goes to the center of our being. And yet we pursue your kind for fun, for some kind of perverse pleasure I cannot define, supporting hunting for the pursuit of trophies, like the abject perversity that it is.

In a time when almost 60 percent of the animals have gone since I was born, I must say that I am ashamed of our species. The National Rifle Association (NRA) will some day stand for Nothing Remains Anymore because we will have blown the brains out of so much life. These are the very species our children exult in when they come into the world and whose names they learn when they learn to speak. Our children know of your wonder, but then the awe often leaves them when they become adults. It is our fatal flaw!

Some of your children are bred to be destroyed there in South Africa, under the guise of a sport that should shame our humanity. Canned hunts will one day be outlawed as urgently as slavery. As Martin Luther King once exclaimed better than anyone, “One day the almost universal belief in the slavery of other animals will be palpable. We shall then have discovered our souls and become worthier of sharing this planet with them.” He was a warrior of spirit unequalled. He knew. 

In the old days, some hunters put their lives on the line and walked for days to match their fortitude against yours. They struggled against tse-tse flies and safaris that took weeks and months. They at least braved the land. The killer, the so called hunter of today is a wanton fool. It is not the warrior’s way of the Maasai. The Maasai were the bravest humans our species can offer. 

Beryl Markham wrote, “What upstart race sprung from recent callow century to arm itself with steel and boastfulness can match in purity the blood of a single Maasai Murani whose heritage may have stemmed not far from Eden?”

Instead of several gun bearers aiming their cowardly metal at one innocent lion, the Maasai went with their shield and spear and confronted you eye to eye. Instead of shooting you while you were encaged and enraged and targeted by the shameless cowards of overwrought white men, the Maasai had to prove themselves on foot before the great monarch of the plains. Instead of insidiously butchering a being who was sacrificed for the mercenary amusement of spineless assassins, the Maasai at least faced their greatest fear and acknowledged the monarch in the mind of a superior predator. The Maasai at least acted to save their wealth, the cows and bulls that gave them blood and milk. At least the Masai cried the name of their clan, to acknowledge victory for their own. 

What did the destroyers and businessmen from overpopulated cities have to prove from a being in every way their superior in the eyes of Creation? As Lysander once so aptly exclaimed, decrying the butchery of trophy hunters, “The important thing is not to decorate your house. The important thing is to live!” And he was only five. 

Or as Elspeth Huxley, the great dame of African literature, so aptly put it, “There’s only one sporting way to hunt big game, and that’s the old way, the way the natives follow—to hunt on foot with spears and bows and arrows. Weapons a man can make himself out of materials ready to his hand. Man, if he uses his wits, can usually win; but it’s a victory worth having, because it doesn’t go to the coward or the dolt.”

And the cowards today are indeed imperiling the genetic pool. Oxford Professors who give out doctorates to would-be ecology students excuse the wanton murder of the innocent in the name of conservation, when hundreds of outstanding males are gunned down every year. They still deserve life. The money paid out by hunters does not help conservation, and it does not help the indigenous people. It benefits only the bureaucrats and the politicians. 

At this late hour Africa is being carved up by the world. You and the rhino and the elephant and now the giraffe with its wondrous neck that sees beyond the immediate horizon are being sacrificed to the greed of the world. We still do not honor life. We defame it. We are destroying the face of Eden that gave birth to both of us. 

“Danger! Lord Baradale snorted,” reads Huxley’s 1938 novel “Murder on Safari.” “Danger be damned! There’s no danger at all in going after some wretched animal, whose only idea is to escape, armed with a battery of expensive high-velocity rifles and flanked by a couple of professional sharpshooters. There’s ten times the risk in a single drive in a fast car along the Kingston bypass. If any one wants to hunt, let him use a bow and arrow and match his wits against those of a lion or an elephant as some of these natives do. If he uses a rifle, he shouldn’t pretend it’s a sport.”

A lion basks in the sun in the tall grass. (Cyril Christo/Marie Wilkinson)
A female lion basks in the sun in the tall grass in Chyulu Hills, Kenya in 2014. (Lysander Christo)

We are most probably jealous of your inimitable kind, your superb face on this earth. Still you astound us with tolerance for our kind. Once a young Maasai mother and her child had to walk towards her father’s boma enclosure in Kenya. It was getting late and one of your great males, perhaps even an older one, one our shameless bloodthirsty hunters would have shot, noticed that she was alone and the sun was going down. The lion followed her as she walked and stayed with her that night as she slept under a tree. The lion kept hyenas and other lions at bay, protecting her from predators during the night. The next morning the mother walked a few more kilometers until she reached the safety of her father’s boma. 

All the warriors and young men saw the lion and were startled, and they got their spears ready to attack. But the mother said, “No. This lion stayed with me and saved my life.” The elder of the village said they had to sacrifice a goat, which they did, and thanked the lion for escorting one of their own to safety. The lion ate the goat and disappeared into the bush.  

There are so many ways our kind must thank you. Yes, you have hurt and hunted us throughout our history, and we have mutilated you in the thousands, but we have always acknowledged you and seen you for the balance of power you represent in the bush, to the other animals. Your stare, like that of your cousins the leopard and tiger and jaguar are the safeguard that we are not alone in the world. You are one of the great elemental powers of time and space. Without you, something inestimable would perish from the earth, and a loneliness such as we have never faced would creep over the entire pattern of who we are on this planet. We are confused assassins, but some of us know we must salvage the great fire in your eyes, the light you have owned since the beginning of time.

Once when you saw a struggling mother in the bush, somehow you showed mercy and retrieved a gazelle for her, saving her from hunger. Above all you showed compassion. You, the greatest killer. If you can help one of us, why can we not do the same in this tested hour when so few of you remain? You are not just a world heritage species as we would proclaim, but one of the great reasons for being on this earth, to see your eyes, to see your cubs playing in the light of dawn and to hear the roar that challenges even the thunder of heaven. You command the respect of all of Creation. That our poor species cannot do.

The greatest story I have ever heard, I will repeat, because it is unequalled. It was from the 1960’s when great elephant herds still roamed and your numbers had not yet collapsed. A hunter from the Tise clan of the Waliangulu was hunting in southern Kenya perhaps 40 years ago. He was a great hunter, but had not caught anything for a week. His family was hungry. 

One night the Tise was about to settle down for the night. He had gone for days without catching anything to eat. It was late at night and had built a fire and a small hut when he heard a male lion who roared a different kind of roar than anything he had ever heard before. Something was off. The timbre in his throat was unlike the roar he had heard ever since he was born. In the middle of the night, a male lion came to the Tise and woke him. Startled, the Tise awoke as the lion presented his paw to him. In his paw the lion had a porcupine quill, a quill which was causing tremendous pain and which would have kept the lion from hunting. Another few weeks and the lion would have died of hunger. The Tise took out his knife and extracted the quill. The lion then retreated into the night. 

Several days later the Tise noticed what he thought was the same lion. The lion saw the hunter and started to walk into the bush trying to lure the hunter after him. Every few hundred yards the lion stopped and looked behind him to make sure the Tise was following him. Eventually the Tise was led to a clearing where he saw the lion sitting on top of a large untouched giraffe the lion had killed, in order to thank the Tise for having saved his life!

Lion, you are so much more than a killer. We have seen into your eyes of origin; they are the eyes that dominate the primal night. Now your species stares into the eyes of oblivion. The drinkers of lion bone wine in Asia, like tiger soup, are destroying the soul of their own children. One day a child will ask its parent if the lions still roam, there where the wild things used to roam. And parents will have to wonder where the lions still roam, and above all where all the wonder went in this age of algorithms. Where has the magic, indeed the miracle of life gone? Some of us know that without you we will not long survive. As an elder in Africa said, “Without the other animals we will lose our minds. The only thing left will be to kill ourselves.” 

Perhaps a few of you will remain, and perhaps you will come bouncing back, because cats can come back if allowed to do so. Perhaps as we overpopulate this time with dreams of cybernetic intelligence and a robotic future of confusing lifeless machines, a few of us will find the means to crown you king again and put back the pieces of a dismembered earth and see in your kind, not a commodity to be sold, but the terrific will of unmatched beauty. Not just a beast, but an unparalleled being, still mesmerizing and brave.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Cyril Christo is an award-winning photographer and filmmaker. He and his wife, Marie Wilkinson, have travelled extensively around the world. They have published several photography books exploring ecological and man-made challenges and endangered bioregions and species. The couple is currently working on a documentary film, “Walking Thunder: The Last Stand of the African Elephant,” which weaves a family’s personal journey in East Africa with indigenous people’s stories.