Silent Pride, Saving the Last Lions of Africa

October 22, 2015 Updated: October 26, 2015

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 they killing? The lion of Africa is in peril. 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. The recent slaughter of Cecil the lion must serve an admonition to what we are doing to the natural world as a whole.

The elephant crisis and the demand for ivory 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.

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 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 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?

The lynch pin in the ecology of the African savannah walks on the tightrope of survival.

There used to be well over 100,000 lions a 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 as few as 3000 male lions in all of Africa according to the conservationists, Dereck and Beverly Joubert. Over 600 lions are killed every year. Lions have already disappeared in 26 range states in Africa. 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.

The next ten years are crucial in bringing back a being both stigmatized as vermin and considered as symbols of nobility. Lions haunted early man’s dreams since the time of the cave dwellers in Chauvet, France millennia ago.

Koni, a former elephant hunter in Kenya of the Waliangulu tribe, told us perhaps the greatest story of its kind concerning a lion. Forty years ago, his father was in the outback and late at night was befriended by a large 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 the lion 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 kilometers 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.

Losing the lion would be a nightmare in our ability to hold onto to the ecology and the larger biological immune system of Africa.

Male and female in tandem Tarangire, Tanzania 2002. (Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson)
Male and female in tandem Tarangire, Tanzania 2002. (Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson)

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.

We cannot let the lions of today become the dinosaurs of tomorrow.

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 ‘hobby’ resulted in the destruction of dozens of the megafauna of East Africa.

Ernest Hemingway in “True at First Light” exemplifies the topheavy 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,” he wrote.

Our 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 U.S. use broad measures and arguments to convince themselves of their prowess, and the necessity to hunt the great species of the planet.

Innocence and wonder are being sacrificed to bloodlust for its own sake.

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.”

As Lion Aid in London has exclaimed, trophy hunting from America and Europe has been erroneously proposed as a conservation tool for decades. The charity stated, “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.”

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. They argue that 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.

As nature diminishes, humanity finds itself in the center of a collapsing morality. Can we turn things around?

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 and 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.

Lion drinking on kopje Serengeti, Tanzania 2011. (Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson)
Lion drinking on kopje Serengeti, Tanzania 2011. (Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson)

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 regard 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.

There are those in the US Congress who wish to ban lion trophies. But the profit motif and the iron grip of special interest groups who believe in shooting the most treasured mammals on earth for prestige, most unfortunately, 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.

How 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.

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 19th century, 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, and anywhere where Nature still has viable predator populations.

Lion in Serengeti, Tanzania 2011. (Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson)
Lion in Serengeti, Tanzania 2011. (Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson)

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. Must conservation be maintained with the gun?

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 that 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. Narnia, the Lion King, the MGM lion is more than an icon, it is the very symbol of freedom in the wild.

How 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 greed.

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.

Lions too can come back as the great social cat on earth, if given a respite from the ignorance and perfidy of our ways.

It was Edward Abbey who remarked that if humanity does not preserve large tracts of the wild—with eagles, wolves, bison, lions, tigers, bears, and elephants—it would 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 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 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, violence, and 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.

As nature diminishes, humanity finds itself in the center of a collapsing morality. Can we turn things around?

The decision Delta, American and United airlines made to ban trophy imports should spread globally and immediately.

Humpbacks are coming back in Australia. There are more mountain gorillas now than ten years ago. Lions too can come back as the great social cat on earth, if given a respite from the ignorance and perfidy of our ways.

Male with lionesses Kalahari, South Africa 2010. (Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson)
Male with lionesses Kalahari, South Africa 2010. (Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson)

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. I believe we will not endure long without them. A Samburu elder, cousin of the Maasai, once told me, nothing would be left, “except to kill ourselves.”

Without lions and the other predators of earth as ballast to the human species, I believe, we are in danger of cannibalization. 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 also 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 that 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.

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. 

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

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