If you want to know what it’s like to be a lion in today’s world, don’t conjure feelings of predatory awesomeness or regal might. Instead, picture yourself being held captive or hunted for sport. Imagine being forced to breed and have your babies taken away from you, never to be seen again.
These are the concerns driving the The Global White Lion Protection Trust’s StarLion Programme, which educates the Shangaan community in the Timbavati region about protecting the famed white lions found in the area.
The trust, which is situated about 20 kilometres from Hoedspruit in Limpopo, also launched the One United Roar campaign that is getting youth and adults from the commnity to be the voice for the lions, especially when speaking to policymakers.
The white lions of the Timbavati are of great significance to the Shangaan. They believe the kings and queens of the past were reborn as the felines.
One United Roar is set against the backdrop of the 17th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES CoP17) that will be held in Johannesburg from 24 September to 5 October. South Africa is looking to change the status of the African lion from endangered to a species not under threat.
Africa lions, Panthera leo, are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Animals classified as vulnerable means they are considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild and are likely to become endangered unless the circumstances threatening their survival and reproduction improve.
They are split listed on the CITES appendices, at Appendix I and II, which means some populations of a species are on one appendix, while some are on another. Appendix I means the species is threatened with extinction and may be affected by trade; trade in wild-caught species is illegal. Appendix II means the species is not necessarily threatened with extinction, but may become so unless trade in them is restricted. An export permit is required for trade in these species.
There are just 12 white lions remaining in the wild, while hundreds are in captivity. They would be deemed critically endangered if they were classified as a subspecies of lion. But CITES groups them among the tawny African lion population.
Linda Tucker, the founder of the Global White Lion Protection Trust, said the campaign recognised that all the policies governing wildlife did not represent the animals’ perspective. “We thought ‘how do we get lions as the silent stakeholders in human policies, to have a voice and a vote?’ We thought the only way to do that was for people to go into the position of the lion. And the best way to do that was through kids because they were much less indoctrinated than we were and they could feel from a lion’s perspective what it was like.”
The campaign is aimed at children from as young as five years old to young adults aged 21. It asks them to speak from the position of the lion and to tell policymakers what they need to hear. “It’s a heart activation,” said Tucker. “It’s not intended to rationalise and get into the detail of the policy. It’s intentionally emotive so that people get emotional about their heritage.”
One United Roar is inspired by indigenous knowledge systems as well as the ecological crisis of our day, explained Tucker. “In an indigenous environment, if there’s a council or a policymaker sitting to decide an aspect of nature, you’ll always have an empty chair because… who will speak for the wolf or who will speak for the lion? You actually invite nature into the discussion. So we’re saying to the policymakers, ‘Shut up and listen for the first time. What are the lions saying about your decisions?'”
MESSAGES THROUGH VIDEO
Part of the campaign was to get children from the community to create a video that could be uploaded on to the trust’s website, said Berry Gargan, one of the facilitators of One United Roar.
Audiences around the world would then be able to review and like the videos.
Out of these, 24 videos with the most likes would be assessed by an international panel of judges who would then choose six winners that most embodied what the lions wanted to say. “We will bring them from wherever they are to the white lion territory and give them the opportunity to really make a difference and have the policymakers hear them,” said Gargan.
TACKLING ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES FROM THE HEART
Over the 14 years that Tucker has been running the trust, she has had to influence policy, which she said could make one battle weary.
She has presented her case on behalf of lions in South Africa’s Parliament and even at Westminster Abbey. But with One United Roar, she wants to take the cause out of politics. “We want to step out of that whole forum and just hear nature calling to us and the best way we can do that is [through] kids representing nature from the heart.
“The most dangerous thing about the times we live in is that people are totally detached from the issues. Hearts are shut down. They’re working overtime here (points to her head) but their hearts not really connected to nature any longer.”
The lions played a big part in determining the health of the ecosystem, said Daréll Lourens, a filmmaker involved in marketing the campaign. “If the lions are flourishing, everything else below them falls into place. By focusing on lions it tells us that that we are screwing up nature by not giving it the place it deserves.”
Changing the lions’ status to species not under threat means that the captive breeding industry can be regulated. But for Tucker, the risk will be higher as it would make it acceptable to industrialise lions, or in other words, captive breed them purely for hunting. “Once that happens from a legislation point of view, it’s really the end of everything, the end of ecosystems.”