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A Tribute to Africa’s Most Iconic Animal Duo

Does this continent have a more iconic animal duo than the African lion and elephant? Well, this week we celebrate both of the days that pay homage to these mighty beasts: yesterday the 9th of August, was world Lion Day, and tomorrow, August 12th, is World Elephant Day. In this blog, we will delve into what makes these animals so special, where they differ and where they are remarkably similar, and how the fates of Africa’s two most iconic animals lies in your hands.

“The fiercest and most magnanimous of the four-footed beasts” Samuel Johnson (1755) Dictionary of the English Language. Photo credit: Liz Johnston

Lions are one of our favourite animals to work with in the bush. Every day is a challenge and the chance to see some kind of new behaviour. They’re also incredibly easy to locate, thanks to their night time roaring rituals, which can be heard up to 8 kilometres away. On top of that, while you may be used to seeing epic lion battles and confrontations from your screens, in reality they are incredibly lazy during the heat of the day and their 20-hour snoozes coincide perfectly with our midday siestas (we do start the day at 5am after all!). It’s hard to imagine these lumbering beasts are the same that can run at speeds of 81 kilometres per hour. In the heat of a hunt, lions transform, and are capable of taking down prey that others could only dream of.


“Africa’s Giant Killers” followed the incredible story of a young pride of brave lions

Normally elephants and lions exist in a state of mutual respect towards one another, with both seeming to acknowledge their ‘kings and queens of the Kalahari’ status. But this all changed in the harsh drought of 2013, in the Savuti region of Botswana’s Okavango Delta when a desperately hungry pride of young lions saw an enticing opportunity. As the flood waters receded, and the remainder dried away under the harsh Kalahari sun, the enormous breeding herd of elephants that had claimed this land were forced to remain in proximity to ever-diminishing waterholes. Unfortunately, the lions became wise to this. Their weakened foe made for a huge, and easy, meal in these otherwise starved times. This spectacle, that occurs only once every 20-years, was captured in the NHFU’s epic, and at times heart wrenching documentary, ‘Africa’s Giant Killers’.

An elephant startles two starlings. Captured at sunset on the Boteti River by Hannah Gormley.

Other than the lion-elephant hunt scenes, perhaps the most gut wrenching of sequences from this documentary was the wobbly-legged baby elephant collapsing with exhaustion and starvation, as its desperate mother tried to save it. Elephants have incredibly complex social interactions amongst their herds. They have been known to mourn for their dead, often returning to the sites of their passing to investigate their bones, and will work together to help injured herd members. Both lions and elephants live in matriarchal social groups. Like the elephants, prides of lionesses show remarkable affection towards one another with purring, rubbing heads and grooming. All lionesses in a pride are typically related and will usually stay in one pride for their entire lives. As such, they are the backbone of the pride, whereas the males are more often than not a transient figure in their lives. Remarkably, lions are the only big cat species that lives in such groups, with leopards, wild cats, lynxes and genets, living solitary lifestyles. It is thought that lions evolved this strategy in order to better take down prey, like the elephants mentioned above. But living and working so close to their siblings is bound to create problems….

A battle-scarred old male lion stares into the camera. Photo credit: Hannah Gormley

Male lions, unlike male elephants, play something of an active role in their prides. It is their responsibility to guard the territory and offspring from other encroaching males, who would not hesitate to kill their cubs. As a result, being a male lion is hard work. At just two years old, male cubs are ousted from their prides and forced into the life of a nomad. Everywhere this young male travels, he will be seen as a threat to other, more dominant lions. These next few years will be his most dangerous, as a confrontation amongst rival males is almost always to the death. If he’s lucky, he will band together with other male lions to take over a pride, almost certainly a brutal and bloody battle, or he could form a new pride with similarly ousted females. For the next few years, he may reign. But soon, another king will come.

By screening our documentaries in Setswana in local communities, we hope to change their perception of lions and elephants. Photo credit: Noah Falklind

Unfortunately, where lions and elephants are most similar is the threat that mankind poses to their survival. Elephants and lions once roamed huge ranges across Africa, but today they are confined to increasingly small areas by the rise in fences and human settlements. Being forced into such close proximity inevitably leads to problems, and today both are commonly killed in human-animal conflict. On top of this, both of Africa’s most iconic animals are being hunted to extinction by poachers. The elephants, for their glorious tusks, and the lions for their body parts, both for their renounced supposed ‘medicinal properties’. The fate of Africa’s most iconic animals lies in our hands. We’re trying to help by translating all of our documentaries into Setswana and showing these persecuted animals in a new light for the communities most impacted by them. What are you doing?

Written by Hannah Gormley

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