Philanthropy

How the New Lion King Film Could Help the Real-Life Lion Crisis

The king of beasts is endangered across Africa. Here’s why, why it matters, and what can be done.
IMAGE DISNEY
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Disney’s Lion King juggernaut rolls on with the recent release of director Jon Favreau’s remake of the 1994 film that started it all, now with entirely computer-generated imagery and a star-studded voice cast that includes Beyonce, Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, and Seth Rogan. Five days into its run, it earned $242.3 million in the U.S. and $595.1 million worldwide. In the past quarter-century, The Lion King franchise (the musical, the national and international tours, the merchandise, the films) has grossed more than $8.1 billion dollars.

Yet during that time, the lion—king of beasts—has continued to slide toward extinction.

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The Duke and Duchess of Sussex chat with Beyoncé and Jay-Z at the Lion King premiere earlier this month.
Photo by WPA POOL / GETTY IMAGES.

The rate of disappearance is shocking. The number of lions in the wild has fallen from around 450,000 in 1950, to 40,000 when the first Lion King came out, to around 20,000 today. Whereas lions were once dispersed throughout the African continent, they now occupy only eight percent of their historic range. They can be found in only 25 countries, though most are in only eight. There are no lions left in North Africa, they are functionally extinct in West Africa, and they are under threat everywhere else. (The species is on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s ominous Red List, right along with elephants and rhinos, whose plight has been more insistently trumpeted.)

The number of lions in the wild has fallen from around 450,000 in 1950, to 40,000 when the first Lion King came out, to around 20,000 today.

In environmental, conservation, and philanthropic circles—and at Disney itself—the hope is that the 2019 version of The Lion King will finally galvanize attention on the cats’ predicament, and serve as a catalyst for their conservation. And more. For what is ultimately at stake, scientists working with lions point out, is the entire “circle of life,” that intricate web of species interdependence so stirringly celebrated in the opening sequences of both Lion King 1 and 2 (and which, although we do not appear on screen, includes us humans, too).

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Upon the new movie’s release, Disney launched a global conservation campaign called Protect the Pride. Its goal is to build awareness of “the silent crisis” and to help protect and revitalize the lion population through philanthropy. “With a film like The Lion King, we can shine a huge spotlight,” said Claire Martin, the self-styled “resident conservation nerd” at Disney (she is senior manager of the Disney Conservation Fund and of Disney’s corporate social responsibility). “We can really use our platform to inspire people.”

Disney has partnered with the California-based Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN), which identifies organizations working to save endangered species around the world and finds the most effective ways to support them—think of it as a venture capital firm for wildlife (its founder, Charles Knowles, is a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur). A constituent of the network is the Lion Recovery Fund (LRF), which WCN created together with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. Less than two years old, LRF has already disbursed $5.5 million to 53 separate conservation entities working with lions in 17 African countries. ”Lions,” says Peter Lindsey, LRF’s director, “is the umbrella species. If we can help the apex predator be healthy, we can affect other species and the ecosystem itself. This is not true of elephants and rhino, who face very specific threats—the ivory and horn trade.”

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“More than just saving lions, we want to create a global movement,” adds Lance Williams, a founding donor of LRF and its communications advisor. “We want to build the political and philanthropic will to achieve healthy and sustainable human-wildlife coexistence. The Lion Recovery Fund is our tool, a sort of clearinghouse for conservation strategies. We seek out the most innovative solutions, fund them, nurture them, and share their successes with the world.”

“We have to go big and we have to go fast,” adds Paul Thomson, director of WCN’s conservation programs. “Honestly, we don’t have any time to lose.”

DISAPPEARING IN PLAIN SIGHT

A casual traveler in Africa might not realize that lion numbers are in such steep decline. “Lions suffer from the disadvantage that they are gregarious, live in prides, and certainly don’t mind being observed,” says Thomas Kaplan, the chairman and founder of Panthera, the global big-cat conservation organization and an LRF grantee. “All of which creates the impression that there are plenty of them.” Indeed. Go on safari in any of the tourist hotspots in Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe—and you might spot a solitary leopard slinking by, or lolling somewhere way up high on the branch of an acacia tree. But you are almost certain to see multiple lions, lying bellies up, or loping past your game-drive vehicle in that nonchalant, “I own this” way. (Prides consist of up to three males and around a dozen females and their young.) “We are paying a huge price now for our insouciance,” reflects Joss Kent, CEO of the travel and safari company &Beyond.

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Lions hunting antelopes in Namibia, Africa.
Photo by AVALON / GETTY IMAGES.

Some attrition in the lion population is simply part of nature’s cycles. While they are apex predators, lions nevertheless compete with other predators—hyenas, for example, who can injure them; diseases are common, and can occasionally kill off large numbers; and they also fight among themselves for food and territory, the winner often slaughtering the cubs of his antagonist. (The Lion King’s Scar-Mufasa-Simba drama is not far from fiction.)

A FRAUGHT COEXISTENCE

But the greatest threat to lions—to all wildlife—is posed by humans. Lions, despite their apex predator status, are especially vulnerable to us homo sapiens because many of them—about 14,000, or 70 percent of the total population--live outside protected areas and national parks, either in remote and unmonitored places where poaching can most easily take place (or the kind of legality-flouting game hunting that so famously brought down Cecil the Lion), and/or near people and their villages and livestock.

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The coexistence of humans and lions is, to say the least, a complicated affair.

Lions can—and do—kill people. “And of course there is nothing worse for lion conservation than for a lion to kill someone,” says Colleen Begg, a member of the WCN, a judge on the granting committee of LRF, and founder of the Niassa Conservation Project in northern Mozambique, whose goal is to find ways for humans to live successfully among lions and other predators. “There will be retribution killing.”

And not just retribution. “With the killing of a human,” Begg elaborates, “you lose support for conservation in general, for all species, as there is just no compensation for the loss of a family member. It builds resentment, and the story quickly becomes about injustice and inequality, not just about conservation—why are we poor people, with little say in the matter, bearing the brunt of saving wildlife? Remember, living with lions can be terrifying, and the emotional and economic costs for communities doing this, in the 21st century, are high.”

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In southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique, for example, there were more than 500 lethal lion assaults between 2005 and 2006, the victims mostly subsistence farmers killed at night while protecting their fields from bush pigs; lions, hunting those same bush pigs because their natural prey had grown scarce, would stumble on the farmers. “Humans,” Begg adds, “are quite easy to catch. Once a lion population realizes this, it can develop a man-eating culture.”

(Begg and her staff of 100 Mozambicans were able to halt the killings in her area of operation by building shelters on stilts for people, and instilling a safety-first mentality, evinced by such practices as keeping children close by at night; in the last two years, there have been no lion-related injuries in the Niassa National Reserve.)

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Photo by SOPA IMAGES / GETTY IMAGES.

Lions, too, are difficult to get along with because of their taste for livestock. “Because they are apex carnivores, the biggest and the strongest, they are stuborn,” says Paul Fuston, the lion program director at Panthera. “Psychology, as it were, is at work here. They are not programed to get out of the way. A hyena will run away after it kills a villager’s cow. The lion will make a kill, then go sleep under a tree a few feet away. And because lions have big paws, they are easier to track down.” Their predation gives rise, more often than not, to retribution killings as well. Cows especially are highly valuable, and tribespeople, says Map Ives, the Botswana-based naturalist, “will absolutely not forgive the lion and will mercilessly hunt it down.”

Exacerbating all this, of course, is Africa’s population explosion and the concomitant increase in the numbers of cattle, goats, horses, and donkeys (lion prey) that rural people keep in their villages and bomas. Says Begg: “In 2003, when we started our project, there were 25,000 people living inside the Niassa National Reserve; in 2018, there were 60,000 people, in 42 villages.”

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People also kill lions because of the growing demand in Southeast Asia for lion body parts: not the heads that trophy hunters covet, but claws, teeth, skin, and bones, used as empowering trinkets and in traditional medicine. (A dead lion can fetch $1,500—a small fortune for a villager whose regular monthly income might be $150.) Tiger bone wine has long been a status item in that part of the world, deemed to make the drinker braver, wiser, and stronger, but with the scarcity of tigers, significantly further along on the extinction spectrum than lions, lion bones have become an acceptable substitute. “The numbers are not huge,” says Lindsey, “but the extraction of bones from wild lions is ethically terrible.”

DWINDLING PREY

Lions are pure meat eaters and their natural sustenance is dwindling. Unless they are presented with easy livestock prey, they hunt wild ungulates—antelopes, buffaloes, wildebeest, zebras, warthogs. But as the human population grows, livestock increasingly competes with ungulates for grazing land—and wild ungulates decline.

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They are under pressure, as well, from human poaching for bush meat. Much poaching in Africa, in fact, is not for the insanely valued ivory and horn at all (the latter now worth more than its weight in gold), but simply for protein—poor rural people without other means to make a living engaging in it to feed their families and provide for them by selling the meat in town. “This trend is growing,” says Lindsey. National parks and reserves in countries where governments lack funds to maintain and police them are studded with thousands of snares (in which lions themselves are often inadvertently caught as well.)

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A lone lion roams the Savanna.
Photo by WOLFGANG KAEHLER / GETTY IMAGES.

As much as lions need protein, they also need space, and today 90 percent of their historic roaming range is gone. Loss of habitat—to human settlement, agriculture, gathering of wood for charcoal, logging, and more—contributes to the vanishing. As Darwin and Wallace observed, the smaller the island, the quicker the rate of extinction. Crucial for the survival of lions are so-called corridors between national parks and protected areas along which the big cats can migrate—in search of prey and for genetic diversity. If those connective areas fill up with people or become prey-devoid, environmentally compromised dead zones, “we will have not wilderness, but de facto zoos,” says Thomson. “And we don’t want that.”

“Remember,” says Kaplan, “that an apex predator, unlike an elephant or a rhino, by definition has a central role in the food chain. If an ecosystem can support big cats, it is a healthy ecosystem. If it cannot, it isn’t. And keep in mind that there is a direct relationship between a healthy ecosystem and the health of the human population.”

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THE DRAMA ON THE SAVANNA

Consider the African savanna, the lion’s habitat, which covers 65 percent of the continent—a vast sea of grasses, grass-like plants, and widely spaced trees (thorny acacia, baobab, eucalyptus, and more), on which feed wild grazers and herbivores, and which is also the main source of food for livestock, an important zone of biodiversity for both plants and animals, a major carbon sink (and therefore climate change mitigator), and protector of watersheds.

Here’s what lions do for this ecosystem, as Dereck Joubert, the CEO and founder of the Great Plains Conservation safari company (and long time student of lions), puts it:

“Unlike leopards, lions are herding hunters. They will surround a herd of ungulates, then come in for the kill. They are successful only 24% to 27% of the time, meaning that three out of four attempts fail. But the effect of the attacks themselves, dramatic and traumatic, is magical: Herds bunch up in fear, stomp the ground, then take off. Doing so, they break up the soil, which reinvigorates the seed band, which makes grasses revive, which invites the next migration.

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“I hope that people understand the ‘circle of life’ expression from the film. It’s about space, and about the importance of blood spattered across the savanna.”

Without lions, grasses won’t flower, migrations won’t be compelled to happen, and herds, more stationary, will pick up parasites. Without lions, medium-sized prey like zebras will be hunted more aggressively by hyenas, their numbers will decline, and we will end up with a monoculture of large prey (like buffalo), because there will be no one to hunt them. And before long we will be at the tipping point of environmental collapse. We need lions clustering in prides, hunting over and over again across a vast, unfettered territory.

“I hope that people understand the ‘circle of life’ expression from the film. It’s about space, and about the importance of blood spattered across the savanna.”

What You Can Do to Help

1. Donate to the Lion Recovery Fund

With LRF, 100% of your donation goes to assiduously vetted fieldwork.

2. Visit African Wildlife Areas

Paying to experience the wilderness economically preserves it.

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3. Travel Off The Beaten Path

Spread the love; they need contributions to their economies as well.

4. Don’t Buy Trinkets Made with Wildlife Products

Simple as that.

Avoid any tourism settings with captive animals except for accredited zoos. The penned lion farms in South Africa are a travesty of conservation although they are marketed as supporting it; there is zero benefit to wildlife if you pet baby lions or “walk” with older ones, and some of the lion-bone trade originates here.

EYES ON THE PRIZE

While the conservation status of lions is “worrying and depressing,” in Lindsey’s words, there are reasons for optimism.

For one, there is strong political will among African governments to do something about it. “Large swathes of land have been set aside for conservation, “ Lindsey points out, “land that could support 3 or 4 times the number of lions it does now—the problem is critical funding deficits.” And conservationists know what to do—“we have clear strategies and techniques.” Also, lions are a resilient species. “They can recover quickly. They breed fast.”

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Accordingly, LRF has set an ambitious goal: to double the current population of lions by 2050 to 40,000. It is one reason why Disney has gotten on board. “We were attracted to the clarity of that,” Disney’s Martin told me. “We like how working with LRF allows us to support many different organizations, how we can tell our donors that 100 percent of their money is going to real field efforts [LRF’s partners take care of the administrative and overhead costs], and how the Protect the Pride campaign allows people to take action. We want to be part of the lion recovery story.”

Some of that story is already being written. Organizations currently supported by the Lion Recovery Fund are coming up with innovative ways to promote co-existence between people and lions and to help educate rural people about the ways in which lions—and wildlife generally—can be a source of economic value and civic pride. (Only Africa, after all, has the magnificent animals and landscapes that the entire world wants to come see.)

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The Korongoro People-Lion Initiative (KopeLion) in Tanzania, for example, has created a “lion guardian” program, hiring warriors from the local Masai and Datooga tribes to act as a warning system to herders about lions passing through the populated land separating the Ngorongoro Crater conservation area and Serengeti National Park. 

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Last week our @AfricanParksNetwork team met with African Parks’ President The Duke of Sussex in London, coinciding with our participation in the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference. The team shared several updates on the parks, briefings on community engagement and law enforcement. The Duke of Sussex was appointed African Parks’ President in December 2017 and has been working with African Parks in various capacities to further our mission in managing national parks on behalf of governments, and to advance wildlife conservation across Africa and around the globe. Click our link in our bio to learn more. ___________________________________ #Regram #RG @kensingtonroyal The Duke of Sussex, @AfricanParksNetwork President, received an update from African Parks' team attending the Illegal Wildlife Conference on several of the parks, briefings on community engagement and law enforcement, and viewed a demonstration of their Geosuite technology used in the fight to #EndWildlifeCrime. #PrinceHarry #AfricanParks #Wildlife #Community

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The NGO African Parks, another LRF grantee, whose president is Prince Harry and which currently manages 15 national parks and nature reserves in 9 African countries, is working to shore up core lion habitats and repopulate those where lions no longer exist. Liwonde, in Malawi, is one of their latest lion repopulation success stories.

The lion body-part trade is being studied with a view toward more stringent preventive law enforcement. And there has been a major breakthrough with the travel industry.

Safari companies by definition have always had a stake in conservation. (“Our guests, whether they are 6, 16, 60, or 90, want to see the predators first and foremost,” says &Beyond’s Joss Kent.) But they are naturally competitive with each other, and so their actions have been piecemeal—a lion collaring here, a rhino dehorning or translocation there. Now, they are coming together in LRF’s recently created Lionscape Coalition. Thus far, &Beyond, Wilderness Safaris, Singita, Ultimate Safaris, and Dazzle Africa have joined, and Joubert’s Great Plains Conservation has just announced that it will, too.

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The companies will each be donating $50,000 annually to LRF, and LRF will in turn deploy half of that to support lion projects in each company’s area of operation and half to projects beyond the tourism hotspots.

Lion cubs in Tanzania.
Photo by GODONG / GETTY IMAGES.

All of this is encouraging. But to save panthera leo in a decisive way, says Peter Lindsey, who co-authored a scientific paper on the subject, “we need $1 billion a year.” This may sound formidable. “But remember, it is peanuts in geopolitical terms.”

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“Conservation is very expensive,” emphasizes Colleen Begg. (Niassa, the reserve where she works on easing human/lion strife, is 16,000 square miles—the size of Massachusetts.) “And the most important thing I realized sitting here in the bush is that we can’t do it alone.

“We must involve local people in a meaningful way. We must incentivize them to address the disappearance of lions by developing economic opportunities for them. There must be revenue sharing. There must be performance payments for meeting conservation goals. Their children must be educated about conservation. These are among the poorest people in the world. If we don’t find a way for them to benefit and reduce the costs to their communities, conservation is never going to work. There will be no future for lions.”

*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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