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Keeping animals wild vs ‘safe’ should be prioritized, lion biologists argue (commentary)

  • Despite growing media and public pressure to ‘sanitize’ the wild, the priority for conservation should always be keeping populations and areas wild above keeping individual animals safe, six leading lion conservationists argue.
  • The power and beauty of a wild lion comes in part from immense struggle, as they battle for food and supremacy: many lions are badly injured or killed in fights with their prey and with one another.
  • The urge to intervene and treat injured lions, perhaps even to scoop up their cubs to keep them safe at rescue centers, is of course deeply human. But when we do that, their lives are often degraded and endangered, anyhow, as we go against all we hold dear: the essence of wilderness embodied in these animals.
  • Public-pressured, sanitized, and media-friendly management of animal populations will ultimately be crippling for real conservation efforts. This article is a commentary, and the views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.

Wild animals, especially big cats, have captivated human interest for as long as we have existed. The very first figurative art, laboriously carved out of woolly mammoth ivory over 40,000 years ago, showed the head of a lion on a human body: ancient cave paintings from Europe over 30,000 years ago reveal extensive, careful and accurate tableaux of lions. The pull of big cats has stayed immensely strong throughout the millennia, and they are still represented on everything from the door knocker of 10 Downing Street to sportswear and luxury goods.

So why do we have such an enduring and powerful attraction to these incredible creatures? They are clearly beautiful, but that does not explain the depth of their appeal: an Oxford study revealed that people found big cats far more appealing than would be expected purely from their physical characteristics.

That is particularly true for lions: despite not having the striking coloration of a tiger, the appealing cuteness of a red panda, or the immense physical presence of a rhino, they are a predominant wild animal in the human psyche, becoming the world’s most chosen ‘national’ animal. All of us writing this have personally felt that pull: we all run conservation organizations where lions are the focal species, where it is the plight of these animals more than any other that attracts attention from across the globe.

Wild African landscapes support a myriad of species. Photo courtesy of Colleen Begg.

The real reason, we believe, for the intense magnetism of big cats is the fact that they are true icons of what it means to be wild. To survive, wild big cats need vast, functioning landscapes, with all the diversity of plants, insects, birds, reptiles and small mammals required to maintain the habitats and prey they depend upon. The scale of the areas that support big, wild lion populations is almost impossible to comprehend, even if you spend hours or days driving through them. It becomes evident only from the air, since you can still fly for hours across immense wild places. For us, it is deeply satisfying that those places still exist. They are fragmented, they are under enormous pressure, but for now we still have some of these spectacular landscapes left, and the presence of wild lions is a reflection of that.

Contrary to what many assume, wilderness does not have to exclude humans: in many places, the rights, cultures, and lives of local people are exactly what maintains wildlife across these vast areas. Human presence does not negate what it means to be wild: species like lions thrive and continue to be truly wild alongside humans, given enough space, tolerance, security, and value.

In fact, it is likely that our shared human history with lions has helped make them so uniquely iconic. In Africa, the very evolution of our ancestors was shaped by living alongside this immensely powerful predator. Even today, walking through wild areas of Africa transports us back through time, humbled by the power of nature and reminding us that we humans are a small speck of life within these vast ecosystems.

To stand and look deep into the amber eyes of a wild lion, even for a few moments, erases millennia of human artifice and arrogance. The fearsome ability to kill with one strike of a paw, the immense strength coiled up in those muscles, and that unflinching gaze that reminds us that humans have long been – and in some places still are – lion prey. It instantly reminds us that when all else is stripped away, we are so much less powerful than they are.

That power and magnetism comes from being utterly wild. A lion in captivity is still beautiful, but it is a very different animal. The power and beauty of a truly wild lion, as with any wild animal, comes in part from immense struggle. They battle for food and supremacy: lions are badly injured and killed in fights with prey and with one another.

We have all seen devastating injuries: lions with jaws hanging off or scalps peeled away after battles with buffalo, appalling wounds after bloody, internecine fights, and the particular horror of watching young cubs savaged to death by incoming males after a pride takeover. It is of course deeply human to want to intervene: to treat the injured lions, perhaps even to scoop up the cubs to try to keep them safe. But if we did that, we would be going against all we hold dear: the essence of wilderness embodied in these incredible animals.

Life in the wild is a brutal, bloody circle: wildebeest must run within minutes of being born to try to escape predators waiting to transform their births into deaths; weak or injured prey animals will often be eaten by carnivores, sometimes while they are still alive. These events are horrible to watch, and seem terribly cruel, but they are part of the lifeblood of nature. It is through these events that you see the true resilience and power of wild animals. We have also seen many animals survive horrific injuries thanks to their innate strength, sometimes aided by pride or pack mates, and those unbelievably resilient animals have gone on to breed, continuing the natural selection that has led to everything we find inspiring about them.

Lionesses must be fierce to protect their cubs. Photo courtesy of Lorenzo Rossi.

Pressure to sanitize the wild

However, more and more over the course of our careers, we have seen a push to intervene and manage wild animals and wild places. This is likely another result of the global fascination with big cats, as people across the world – often from the comfort of their homes thousands of miles away – are becoming increasingly vocal in how these species and areas should be managed, often without any real understanding of the complexities involved.

We see the impacts of this daily. If wild animals are injured or suffering through natural causes – even in supposedly wild areas such as national parks – there is an increasing tendency to rush in and treat them, presumably to avoid upsetting tourists or risk condemnation on social media.

Young or injured animals may be ’rescued’ by people, in acts of kindness that can condemn them to an (often-miserable) life in captivity. This impacts not only those individual animals, but has consequences for the wider ecosystem and natural selection.

Alarmingly, ‘rescue’ centers are increasingly seen by the public as playing an important role in conservation: this is amplified by the media, where beautiful images of humans caring for wild animals suggest this is helping safeguard species. However, these places require significant donor funds, and can amplify conflict as local people see the welfare of wild animals prioritized above their needs.

There is also a risk that if ‘orphanages’ and the like become viable businesses, wild animals could be taken in without sufficient reason, actively damaging wild lives. And while ‘sanctuaries’ can have a role in animal welfare, it is rare (and often unwise) for species like lions to ever be released from these captive situations into the wild, with particular risks of conflict from habituated animals. Ultimately, these places may be little more than a distraction: if we are to save wild large cat species, we need to focus on conserving wild animals and wild places together with the people who share their landscapes.

Male lion and cub. Photo courtesy of Paul Tickner.

Prioritizing visible costs risks major hidden harms

This growing pressure to ‘manage’ wildlife and avoid the public awareness of suffering and death can have adverse impacts. In terrible events such as lion attacks on humans, or other clearly ‘problem’ animals, media and public pressure can be so intense that authorities feel unable to shoot the animal concerned, even if that is legitimately the best course of action.

Instead there is increasing movement towards capturing the animal and placing it in captivity, with major welfare implications for a wild animal and major cost burdens for already overburdened governments. There is also a growing move towards translocation: a media-friendly approach, but one beset by many problems. It is expensive, stressful for the animal concerned, hard to find suitable release sites without competing animals or substantial threats, and when it involves conflict-causing animals, it can create problems in local communities around release sites.

Translocation requires monitoring of the released animals and a clear plan for what should happen if it fails, yet this is very rarely done. Animals are often merely moved elsewhere, risking a horrible death, but – apparently importantly – one which happens beyond unforgiving public and media scrutiny.

It is these well-intentioned actions – which reduce visible, public costs, but risk significant, hidden harms – that concern us the most. This is not just about translocation: any interventions or policy changes aimed at ‘saving’ wildlife should be very carefully examined to avoid unintended consequences, such as habitat loss or ‘hidden’ wildlife deaths such as through conflict or snaring. Alarmingly, those deaths – which we have personally witnessed, and know have appalling consequences both for wild animals’ welfare and conservation – seem to be viewed as less important, or as failures. They do not lend themselves to easy campaigns or the photogenic ‘successes’ of rescues.

Lioness in Tanzania. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
A lioness in Tanzania shows her battle scars. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Keeping animals wild should be prioritized over keeping them safe

We are not advocating an entirely hands-off approach to conservation. Wild areas and species will often need to be used and managed to generate revenue, and in some cases intervention is unavoidable and warranted – for instance, treating animals injured through human impacts such as snares or poison. However, the priority should always be on keeping populations and areas wild above keeping individual animals safe. Furthermore, part of our role as conservation scientists and organizations should be engaging with and informing public opinion, rather than being fearful of public pressure.

Ultimately, we find this drive for public-pressured, sanitized, media-friendly, managed areas and animals crippling for real conservation efforts and impact, as well as ethically questionable. It creates a myth of conservation far removed from the gritty reality of balancing human wellbeing and biodiversity conservation.  It is based on external pressure, rather than the rights, views, and needs of local people, or even the needs of wild animals and their conservation.

We fear this leads not to the conservation of wilderness, but instead to the preservation of small, fenced areas where nominally wild animals are endlessly managed. We fear these areas and animals being increasingly protected by armed guards against the very local communities who should be engaged and empowered through their conservation, creating a divide and resentment that will be increasingly difficult to bridge.

It is hard to know how even we, as field-based conservationists – let alone the local communities and others we work with – can have any real impact against this immensely powerful juggernaut of public and media pressure.

It is likely that we cannot: but with whatever voice we have, we call for more considered and informed discussions of these issues, an embracing of complexity and nuance,  rather than a fearful bowing to uninformed social pressure empowered by celebrities on social media. Only then, together, can we protect wilderness and the essence of wild animals, in all their untamed reality, ensuring they can continue inspiring humanity for millennia to come.

Founded in 2015 by six leading field-based conservationists – Amy Dickman, Colleen Begg, Shivani Bhalla, Alayne Cotterill, Stephanie Dolrenry, and Leela Hazzah – the Pride Lion Conservation Alliance combines science with community conservation to address the biggest threats to lions and improve the lives of local people. The founding members lead carnivore conservation projects in four key lion range countries, researching and protecting more than 20% of Africa’s existing wild lion population. Together, Pride’s founders have 100+ years of experience.

More from Mongabay’s podcast: hear Alliance co-founder Leela Hazzah about challenge and opportunity for Lion Guardians during the pandemic:


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