Why have lions held the world in thrall since the dawn of history? As long ago as the seventh century BC, the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal had his royal palace at Nineveh decorated with magnificent bas-reliefs of lion-hunting scenes. In Ancient Rome, the walls of the Colosseum resonated to the roars of lions as gladiators fought to the death with the king of beasts. Even in my lifetime I have watched spear-carrying Maasai warriors loping over the savannah to prove their manhood on a ceremonial lion hunt.
Celebrated in literature by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen, lions have maintained their enduring hold on the national psyche, appearing on the shirts of the England football team and even entering our living rooms thanks to the popularity of TV wildlife documentaries such as ‘The Big Cat Diary’ and Sir David Attenborough’s ‘Dynasties’ series. But not since ‘Born Free’, Joy Adamson’s true-life saga of Elsa - the lioness she raised and returned to the wild - has anything gripped the public imagination like ‘The Lion King’.
From its very beginning in 1994, the original Disney production took the world by storm, becoming the ninth-highest-grossing animated film of all time. Now, following his successful remake of ‘The Jungle Book’, director Jon Favreau has created a similarly photorealistic state-of-the-art version for Disney that looks set to break all records.
The story remains essentially faithful to the 1994 film, revolving around a mischievous young cub called Simba, his father Mufasa and Scar, his wicked uncle. When Scar plots to usurp Mufasa’s place by luring father and son into a wildebeest stampede, his plans go astray. Only Mufasa is killed and Simba eventually returns as an adult to take back his land with the help of his friends.
In their search for authenticity, Disney’s writers visited Kenya’s lion country, discovering locations such as Borana Ranch on the Laikipia Plateau, whose sweeping views and spectacular granite outcrops provided the inspiration for Pride Rock and the Pride Lands.
Having seen the film, you too may wish to follow in their footsteps to find the real Lion King, in which case Kenya is hard to beat. This is where I saw my first wild lion 40 years ago in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, and the memory is as fresh as if it happened only yesterday.
I’d flown down by light aircraft from Nairobi at the end of the rains and the land was still green as we bounced from thermal to thermal over endless plains on which herds of buffalo stampeded away beneath our wings. Even before we touched down on the rough dirt airstrip I knew it would be love at first sight. The kiangazi was just beginning, the dry season that would tempt the migrating wildebeest to pour in from the Serengeti, and the ripening grasses had not yet been eaten down. Instead they stood tall, rippling in the wind like the waves of the sea towards a horizon so far away that it seemed like the edge of the world, heralding a time of plenty for the Mara lions.
We had driven out at first light to find the cats before they went flat and hadn’t gone far when I spotted an adult pride male perched on a termite mound. He was still quite a long way off, so I watched him through my binoculars, a magnificent sight with his mane backlit by the rising sun. Then he began to roar through half-closed jaws, and with every cavernous groan his breath condensed in the sharp morning air like smoke from a dragon’s nostrils. All other sound ceased, as if the whole world was listening, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I thought: who could fail to be hooked on lions after a moment like that?
Since then I have lost count of the lions I have seen and heard, but from that day on they have continued to walk through my life and my dreams. Over the years they have become an obsession. Fellow fanatics will know the feeling. When you’ve been away from lions for a long time you long for a sight of them, and whenever I return to Africa I lie awake in my tent at night, unable to sleep until I have heard them grunting in the starlight.
Today, tragically, these glorious carnivores are in decline almost everywhere except in the Serengeti and the private conservancies adjoining the Mara, leaving them with only eight per cent of their former range. In the 25 years since Disney released the original version of The Lion King, Africa’s lion population has halved, leaving no more than 20,000, of which perhaps only 3,000 are the big adult males everyone wants to photograph. That is why this latest version of The Lion King could not have come at a better time. Disney has already donated $1.5 million (Dh5.5 million) to lion conservation and now hopes to raise a further $1.5 million through its Protect the Pride campaign, whose aim is to double the lion population by 2050.
Not all conservation groups are happy, arguing that $1.5 million is a mere fraction of ‘The Lion King’s’ billion-dollar franchise profits. But there is no doubt that their contribution is desperately needed. Climate change, trophy hunting and conflict with the pastoralists who live alongside lions - all have conspired to loosen their grip on the land they once held; but above all it is loss of habitat to the inexorable advance of the modern world that is putting their lives at risk. Yet, miraculously, lions continue to grace our world, and the magic they exert upon the human psyche remains as strong as ever. “Who will speak up for the lion when my own voice is carried away on the wind?” asked George Adamson. Conservation organisations including The Tusk Trust (tusk.org) play a vital role, as does ecotourism, whose dollars underpin the survival of wild places where lions can still be seen. And this year The Lion King will add its own clarion call, appealing to the future generations on whose shoulders the very survival of the species will rest.
THE ROAR FACTS
A lion’s roar can be heard five miles away. - Life for a lion is nasty, brutish and short. Twelve years is a good age for a pride male.
A lion can run at 50mph over short distances. In other words, much faster than you, giving rise to the old hunter’s saying: “If you run, you’re done.
”A lion’s life is one of feast and famine. It may go hungry for a week, then put away up to 100lb of meat at a single sitting.
Lions live in a matriarchal society of family groups known as prides in which most of the females are related and male offspring are forced to leave as two-year-olds.
Lions can mate up to 100 times a day, but the act itself only takes a few seconds.
Every lion can be recognised by the unique pattern of whisker spots on each side of its face. - Lions have a lazy life, spending up to 20 hours a day at rest.
10 SAFARIS FOR LION LOVERS
1. Kenya Laikipia, Samburu and the Maasai Mara
In celebration of Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ remake, The Safari Collection (thesafaricollection.com) is offering a unique eight-day safari to the Kenyan locations that inspired the original film. Guided by Robert Carr-Hartley, who was closely involved in the creation of the first ‘The Lion King’ in 1994, the itinerary includes two nights at Borana Lodge on the Laikipia Plateau where he guided Disney’s animators in their quest for a location to inspire Pride Rock. During their stay, guests can enjoy sundowners on this very rock, overlooking the “Pride Lands” below. From Borana, guests fly to Samburu for two nights to meet the Ewaso Lion Warriors and learn how to track and identify lions as part of a successful conservation project. The following morning, guests will fly on to the game-rich Maasai Mara for two nights of game drives in classic lion country at Sala’s Camp, overlooking the Serengeti National Park.
2. Kenya Mara North Private Conservancy
Adjoining the Maasai Mara’s border, Mara North and its neighbouring conservancies are one of the few areas where lion numbers are healthy and even increasing.
3. Tanzania, Serengeti National Park
First comes Namiri Plains, where it’s possible to see up to 60 lions in a day. Then move on to Lamai Camp, where the big cats keep watch from granite kopjes when wildebeest herds pass by.
4. Tanzania, Ruaha National Park
Home to 10 per cent of Africa’s remaining lion population, Ruaha is second only to the Serengeti when it comes to actual numbers and Mwagusi has always been its foremost hotspot.
5. Zambia, South Luangwa National Park
The luxuriously refurbished Puku Ridge (opening in September) overlooks the floodplains where Ginger and Garlic, Zambia’s most famous lions, compete for territory with the local prides.
6. Zambia, Kafue National Park
For great lion viewing, head for Busanga Plains, a Zambian Serengeti known for its tree-climbing lions.
7. Zimbabwe, Hwange National Park
In a wilderness the size of Yorkshire, Somalisa is the place to choose, in the territory that was previously held by Cecil, the lion whose death at the hands of a trophy hunter outraged the world. His offspring are still there.
8. South Africa, Sabi Sands Game Reserve
Londolozi has an unrivalled reputation for leopard sightings, but lions come a close second thanks to impressive coalitions of males, notably the five “Birmingham Boys”.
9. Botswana, Chobe National Park
In the wild heart of Chobe is Savuti Marsh, where filmmaker Dereck Joubert followed Ntchwaidumela and Maome’s Pride as they competed with local hyena.
10. Botswana, Okavango Delta
Mombo, known as the predator capital of Europe, is Wilderness Safaris’ flagship camp in the Moremi Game Reserve.