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Protecting the Pride – Mufasa in the 21st Century

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” - Disney's The Lion King

​I often wonder what Mufasa would say to Simba looking down from Pride Rock in the 21st Century; mainly curious of the warnings he’d give to the land’s future king. “Everything the light touches now belongs to them”? The sad truth is, lion habitat and populations have declined dramatically (92% & 43% respectively) in recent decades because of people: we take their land and call it home, hunt them for trophies, steal their prey for food, take their bones for medicine, and poison them for attacking livestock; good job humanity. With human and livestock populations continuing to rise in the areas where our royal felines are found, there’s increasing bad blood between farming communities and lions in human-dominated areas. Furthermore, like 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 world’s beloved lion prides may now lie in improving the relationships between farmers, conservationists, and lions.

📸 Martin Harvey

Now for the good news! Our new research, published in Oryx, found some gems for the conservation tool kit that just might help improve these relationships and protect the Pride Lands. Using lots of data from an area of high lion-livestock predation incidents in Botswana, I compared lion-livestock attacks to data on temperature, moonphase, and rainfall and found some world firsts for science!

📸 Josh Robertson

Cool Cats

If you spent your life exposed to the wild unforgiving African domain, you’d most certainly be influenced by the elements; lions are no exception. In a new discovery we found that lions predated livestock more frequently and intensely during cooler periods; with every 1°C decrease there was a 2.52% increase in the odds of a lion attacking livestock. But what explains these cool runnings?

📸 Josh Robertson

Well, lions have very few mechanisms to cool down, and they’re stacked - lots of muscle, a low-surface area to volume ratio, and males have big, often dark manes to attract females; with Simba’s light locks Nala must’ve liked his Hakuna Matata attitude/been after the queen title.

I also believe that lions hunting livestock around people will be stressed, experiencing higher temperatures through what’s known as stress hyperthermia. So, during warmer periods lions may be trying to avoid overheating.

​But why increase predation during colder periods? Perhaps they’re eating to warm up! After all, lions can’t put on jumpers when the African plains get chilly, and hunting and eating meat in these human-dominated landscapes generates large amounts of heat.

📸 Josh Robertson

The Dark Side of the Moon

Stories of new moons bringing bad omens are more than just old wives’ tales - our study confirmed it! We found lower moonlight levels resulted in higher livestock predation; in fact, the likelihood of a lion-livestock incident was 1.52 times higher when moonlight levels were lowest. I believe this is because there’s less chance of being seen by both farmers and livestock, and therefore it makes for an easier, safer meal for those craft cats. Why rob a bank in broad daylight if you can do it at twilight?

Can you feel the rain tonight?

Like 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 don’t come, it turns out the following month sees an increased severity of livestock incidents. This delayed effect is likely because less rain means cattle are in worse condition and there’s less vegetation, causing farmers to take their herds further afield where more are left vulnerable to becoming lunch. Worryingly, with climate change rearing its ugly head in the form of increasing droughts throughout Africa, this problem is likely to worsen.

Protecting the pride

These environmental conditions are easy to monitor (look outside/check BBC Weather), and conservationists can now work alongside 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), to reduce lion-livestock attacks and facilitate coexistence between people and lions.

📸 Josh Robertson

Whilst I experienced many tear-filled moments in my childhood (and admittedly adulthood) thinking about how Mufasa isn’t there to protect Simba, it’s with great pride that I can say this research will help contribute to lion conservation. I​​t’s time to turn things around for lions and restore that delicate balance Mufasa spoke of back in favour of our wildlife, and hopefully, with new science like this coinciding with the new 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 shadowey places’ and ensuring a future for our lion dynasties. Long live the king!

📸 Josh Robertson

#LionKing #Lion #NewScience #Africa

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