By Josh Robertson, 10th July 2019
Mufasa: “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance, and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to leaping antelope.” — The Lion King (Disney)
I often wonder what Mufasa would say to Simba looking down from Pride Rock in the 21st century; mainly curious of the warnings he might give to the land’s future king. “Everything the light touches now belongs to them”? The truth is, lion habitat and populations have declined dramatically (by 92% and 43%, respectively) in recent decades because of people: humans encroach on lion habitat, hunt them for trophies, diminish their prey base, use their bones for traditional medicine, and poison them for attacking livestock. With human and livestock populations continuing to rise in the areas where large felines roam, there is increasing conflict between farming communities and lions. Furthermore, in a parallel to Scar leading Simba to a stampede, lions are enticed out of protected areas by several factors, including an easy livestock meal. Consequently, the fate of the remaining lion prides now lies in improving the relationships between farmers, conservationists, and lions.
Despite the many challenges that lions face in an increasingly human-dominated landscape, there is some good news. Our new research, published in Oryx, uncovered some valuable additions to the conservation tool kit that could help improve these relationships and protect the Pride Lands. Working in an area of frequent lion–livestock predation incidents in Botswana, we looked at data on lion attacks in relationship to environmental parameters such as temperature, moon phase, and rainfall—and made some important discoveries.
Living in the harsh African wilderness, lions are constantly exposed to and influenced by the elements. In analysing our data, we found that lion attacks on livestock were more frequent and more intense during cooler periods: with every 1 °C decrease in temperature there was a 2.52% increase in the odds of a lion attack. But what explains this connection? The answer lies in lion physiology: these are large, powerful animals with few mechanisms to cool down (they don’t sweat, nor do they have cool, wet noses), and with a high proportion of heat-producing muscle tissue and a comparatively small surface area, they are vulnerable to overheating. In addition, males have thick, often dark manes to attract females, and lions hunting livestock near people will also be stressed, experiencing higher body temperatures through what’s known as stress hyperthermia. So, during warmer periods lions may hunt livestock less to avoid overheating.
During colder periods, on the other hand, hunting helps lions to keep warm. When the African plains get chilly, hunting and eating in these stressful human-dominated areas generate large amounts of heat.
The dark side of the moon
Stories of new moons bringing bad omens are more than a product of human imagination, according to our study. We found lower moonlight levels resulted in higher livestock predation: the likelihood of a lion attacking livestock was 1.52 times higher when moonlight levels were lowest. This could be because lions are less likely to be seen by both farmers and livestock during darker nights, which makes for an easier, safer meal for the felids.
Can you feel the rain tonight?
As in the scene after Simba ascends Pride Rock to claim his rightful place as king, the rains bring life back to Africa’s savannahs. But when the rains do not come, the following month sees an increased severity of livestock incidents. This delayed effect is probably a result of poor quality grazing in dryer periods, which leads farmers to take their herds further afield. Away from protective enclosures and human settlements, domestic animals are left more vulnerable to lion attacks. Worryingly, with climate change leading to increasing droughts throughout Africa, this
problem is likely to worsen in the future.
Protecting the pride
The environmental conditions included in our study (temperature, moonlight levels and rainfall) are easy to monitor, enabling conservationists and farmers to introduce deterrents and inform livestock management strategies based around specific weather conditions (e.g. ensure cattle are in their enclosures during colder, darker periods, and following droughts). Management regimes that take into account such environmental conditions can help reduce lion attacks on livestock and thus facilitate coexistence between people and these majestic big cats.
Whilst I experienced many tear-filled moments in my childhood (and admittedly adulthood) thinking about how Mufasa is not there to protect Simba, it is with great pride that I can say this research will contribute to lion conservation. It is time to tip that delicate balance Mufasa spoke of back in favour of lions and wildlife. Hopefully, with new research like this coinciding with the live action release of Disney’s The Lion King and their Protect The Pride campaign, we can fill the shoes of that iconic and beloved king, protecting lion generations from the ‘dark shadowy places’ and ensuring a future for our lion dynasties. Long live the king!
All photos by Josh Robertson.
The article ‘Environmental predictors of livestock predation: a lion’s tale’ is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.