Debunking lion stigma

By Norma Tsopo

Lions are imposing predators whose hunting prowess is eulogised by some wildlife researchers with a fanatical fascination at their highly refined prey instinct and adapted physiology. 

Emphasis on their being efficient killing machines brings images of blood and death at their mention so much so that they are now heavily stigmatised as unbridled monsters that will attack or hunt humans on sight.

It was interesting to hear such a beast being described as lazy and even shy.

Their imposing stature and tens of hours of footage of lions taking down everything from elephants to giraffes and rule other fierce predators in the savanna still makes this a rather tough sale.

But then, behavioural experts of these apex predators would not set up camp to mislead the nation and bring them directly in harm’s way by lying to people that they are predictable and encountering them even in the wild could be managed by understanding their behaviour.

Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife (Zimparks) is trying to cure this bad press lions have been having by educating people on lions, the introduction of a Lion Enclosure at Chinhoyi Caves to free the public of their stereotypical understanding as brute eternally hungry beast that are perpetually on the hunt.

Interestingly, hippopotamus kill much more people than lions in Africa annually but they hardly suffer any stigma.

Zimparks said the facility which has a seven-year-old lion and nine-year-old lioness was aimed at educating people about the possible relationship between humans and wildlife.

“It is safer to be with wild animals than with people. People are much more dangerous than lions and we feel safer around them than around people,” Petros Mwera Zimparks Extension and Interpretation Officer joked as he introduced the two lions to Madzimbahwe Explorer crew.

“The main purpose for the project is not for tourism purposes but to educate people especially the locals about what a lion is about and the need to respect wildlife.

“Most people think lions are cold-blooded predators that will take down anything and everything they come across but there is a lot to learn about them which will make both people and lions safer around each other. Lions have well defined behaviour with which we make use of in managing them,” Mwera said.

Mwera described lions as shy, explaining that they would not make a frontal attack even if they are tempted to attack a human out of hunger.

“Lions are shy and will not attack you when you are staring at them. They will always attack from behind but they may make a false charge in which they run at you to force you to turn and run but they will break at about six metres if you are not moved. They will then try to move around to come from behind and will go away if you stand your ground,” Mwera said.

He said the feared predators are amazingly lazy spending up to 20 hours sleeping and only eating 15 percent of their weight after about a week making the risk of their attacks very minimal.

“They spend most hours of the day sleeping and males hardly hunt if they are in a pride as the lionesses do most of the hunting but it’s always the male that eats first,” he said.

Living in the grasslands, scrub, and open woodlands of sub-Saharan Africa, the lion is the second largest cat in the world after the tiger.

Unlike other cats, lions are very social animals. They live in groups, called prides, of up to 30 lions. The size of the pride is determined by the availability of food and water.

African lions are considered vulnerable of extinction by the IUCN Red List.

They are threatened by loss and fragmentation of habitat. They are also killed by humans in bravery rituals, as hunting trophies, for medicinal powers, or by ranchers protecting their livestock.

Furthermore, they are susceptible to tick-borne diseases like canine distemper and babesia. Distemper often comes from dogs and hyenas with babesia striking during droughts, when they are malnourished.