The lion is a beautiful animal, when seen at a distance.—Zulu proverb
We carry within us the wonders we seek without us: there is all Africa and her prodigies in us.—Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici (1643)
In 2005 Canadian veterinary students travelling with me in Uganda were horrified to learn that villagers in Queen Elizabeth National Park had poisoned two lions. The lions had killed a cow, and there is nothing an African pastoralist values more highly than his cattle. What the students learned first-hand was that the killing was merely that latest skirmish in one of the longest running wars on the planet—the war between wild animals and humans. As one student put it, “That’s not quite the same as the nature films we see on the TV at home.”
There can hardly be a better example of the conflict between wildlife, on one hand, and livestock and humans, on the other, than the history of lion–human interactions. Jonathan Kingdon, whose magnificently illustrated, seven-volume East African Mammals is the pre-eminent text on many species, including lions, has described our relationship with lions as being governed by “the fact that for centuries lions have been predators of, competitors with and above all a source of symbolism for the human race.” Each of these components of the relationship has created problems for the most charismatic of Africa’s big cats. But, there are two other elements to our interactions with the so-called “King of Beasts” that are relevant to this particular story of the human–livestock–wildlife triangle. First, lion parts have long been used in witchcraft and for a variety of traditional medical practices. Second, within the last fifteen years a new element in the conflict has arisen as domestic animal diseases crossing into wildlife populations has become more prevalent.
Two hundred years ago lions ranged over most of Africa, the only exceptions to their large territory being a belt across the two great deserts, the Sahara and the Namib, and a swath of tropical rain forest stretching from the coastal regions of what is now the Ivory Coast across through to the Congo Basin. There were also lions in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, and across much of northwestern India, almost as far east as Delhi. As with most other wild species, today their range is much reduced and dwindling. The only wild population outside Africa lives in the Gir Forest of India’s Gujurat state, where numbers are said to exceed three hundred, on a positive note up from the approximate twenty animals recorded a hundred years ago. More evidence of the former extent of lion presence, even beyond Africa and the Near East was revealed when the Chauvet Cave in southeastern France was discovered in 1994. The cave is adorned with more stunning lion images than all other European art caves combined. It has been dated back about 35,000 years.