World Lion Day is a day meant to bring awareness to and help educate others on the plight of this iconic species. I thought who better to discuss Lions with than my friend Rob Janisch, awesome safari guide, lodge manager, camp owner and Lion aficionado. I first met Rob and his amazing wife Jos, while visiting Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, where they had been tasked with setting up the first private camp in the park, Explore Gorongosa.
For me picking Rob’s brain was a perfect way to share the perspective of someone who has grown up with Lions pretty much in their backyard and clearly has an understanding, the experience and a passion for this magnificent species. Or, in Rob’s words “...get me talking about lions and I just can’t shut up.”
I hope readers enjoy this informative perspective and that it inspires all to get involved by sharing, educating, supporting and fighting for Lions, today and everyday.
What are your earliest memories of wildlife growing up in Africa and what made you choose to work as a guide in the tourism industry?
RJ “Growing up in Africa meant a lot of holiday and weekend trips into ‘the bush’ – something that nurtured a lifelong passion and interest in all things natural.”
“Family outings during my wonder years meant that I got to experience some great and truly wild places in the company of my siblings and parents, which probably made it a bit more special. The first time I can recall being ‘moved’ by a lion was during one such trip where we came across a pride of lions lazing all over a dead giraffe – cubs, big males, beautiful females, the whole lot. I’m not sure if it was the sight of all those velvet clawed beasts, or the hideous smell of the dead and rotting half-giraffe underneath them… but it certainly was a sighting that stuck in my memory. Since having a young daughter of my own a few years back, I have tried to expose her to all things wild and wonderful too – her first safari was at age 3 months, and her first lion encounter was at 41/2 months in Gorongosa National Park. I studied along very different lines from what I am currently doing in the guiding and safari industry in Africa, but there was always something drawing me back into the bush and now I have to say I have the bug – I am hooked and I blame it all on my parents dragging me along on all those bush holidays all those years ago! “
What was your most memorable sightings of Lions and where it was?
RJ ” There have been many – more than I can even remember sadly. But one of the most memorable, would have to be a series of events that took place in Gorongosa, a place with significant emotional attachment to me, and since lions there were at one time practically extinct it was great to have an experience that could only be described as ‘wow’. It was a particularly lazy start to the safari with little much happening, however, once the sun had dropped off a bit, we came across some signs of lion activity and soon tracked down a personal favorite lioness of mine – a brave soul I used to call Tripod for she had lost one of her hind legs in a snare some time before. She was a beautiful lioness, and her disability seemed to make her all the more appealing.”
” We watched her for a bit before realizing that she was interested in something not far away – turned out there was a young, newly matured and independent male in the area who was one of the new kids on the block. It was almost as if he had come to check up on the old dear, who we had not seen for some time and who we all, perhaps like the young male lion, feared dead. We spent some glorious moments enjoying them, the tenderness and care they showed for each other was quite special. However just before nightfall, something stirred him (perhaps a roar from afar?) and he upped and said his farewells, leaving Tripod lying sphinx-like in front of us. By the time we had extricated ourselves to follow the male, he had managed to bump into a small herd of elephants. The elephants did not care much for this young upstart and chased him off, tail between the legs, before turning their attention on us. We fled in different directions, eventually catching up with the lion again as he started a purposeful and ritual display of territorial marking and roaring – no doubt communicating with whoever or whatever had drawn his interests away from the female in the first place. He strode down the track in front of us – the new king, so very proud of his loud voice and growing Mohawk mane. “
“Quite some time after dark we eventually left him and headed for our camp where we enjoyed a dinner under the stars around the campfire. Around dessert time though, we were rudely disturbed by the now-very-close roaring of a lion and we swiftly moved towards the vehicle to catch (under spotlight) the same male striding right through the camp we were in, heading towards the distant roars of his companion. Lovely Ms. Tripod, the pair of lions under the setting sun (with customary Gin and Tonics on our part of course), his sad departure, the elephant chasers, the regal roaring and the final dinner disturbances back in camp all added up to a truly unforgettable experience.”
What was it like to work in and be part of Gorongosa’s NP restoration project and see some of the first Lions come back to the park after years of civil war?
RJ “This was something quite special for sure. Here was a park that was once referred to as the ‘Serengeti of the South’ – a place that had thousands of animals and that was on the bucket list of A-list celebrities like astronauts and Hollywood stars. Then in the space of 16 violent years it was reduced to a vast empty stretch of floodplain and forest; most of its animals slaughtered for meat, skins, tusks and medicinal purposes. Many animals were made locally extinct – rhino, cheetah, jackal, leopard, tsessebe to mention a few.”
“Others, like the huge herds of buffalo, zebra and wildebeest were reduced to a few handfuls of animals hiding in the thicker forested areas. Lions too were hit hard – mostly presumably for sport or maybe because people did not enjoy the combined threat of human enemy and feline predator to deal with whilst on patrol in the bush during the war years. In 1995, once the first census was carried out after the war years, 6 lions were counted and assumed active in the park, this from a population of a few hundred in the 1970’s. When we first started in the park some 12 years later, this number had increased to around 40-50 animals, and I distinctly remember the sense of excitement when we encountered adult lions who we were not familiar with – ‘new’ arrivals, not offspring of the original lions, but migrants coming in from surrounding areas where they were perhaps now feeling the pinch of increasing human population and hunting pressure. Slowly these new entries mixed and matched with some of the ‘old timers’ and more and more today we are hearing of litters of lion cubs being born in the park. There is a dedicated research team for the lions of Gorongosa now, with collars and other modern tracking equipment aiding in the ongoing restoration of the park and its wild inhabitants, especially keystone species such as the lion.”
In your opinion why are people so fascinated with Lions and why do so many of us feel compelled to be close to them?
RJ ” I think it stems from back in the days of the caveman… Seriously, our human anatomy and physiology has changed little since the last Ice Age when, after glaciers melted and receded, large area of plains and savannah were created resulting in big herds of herbivores spreading into these more open spaces, and as such the pursuing carnivores got bigger and more powerful. At this stage, the predecessors of modern lions rose to prominence in these areas and of course came into contact with prehistoric man who at this point, being something of a carnivore himself, was now also enjoying the benefits of the bigger herds of prey and wider open spaces for his hunting exploits. Man now encountered beast (lion) as a competitor for the same prey – and vice versa. This competitive nature (fear/fascination/fancy) was thus hard-wired into our psyches at that stage and without any other major cranial or cerebral changes in man since, we have this primal nature stuck deep in the most primitive areas of our brains.”
“Anyone who doubts this just has to see their involuntary physiological response when they hear a lion roaring at close range to be reminded. A modern-day anthropology lesson on this exact subject can be made with the Hadzabe – an ancient tribe still eking out an existence in northern Tanzania with traditional methods of hunting and gathering. These folks make a regular habit of pinching meat from antelope and the like killed by lions in their area. Walking up to a pride of lions on a dead zebra, chasing them off, and walking away with a leg of zebra with nothing but a bow and arrow for protection is pretty thrilling. It also shows that the competitive conflict over resources between man and lion is not a recent one given the age of these ancient tribes and their customs. Although not the only indigenous tribe to practise this art (I have personally witnessed it in Botswana with the river bushmen too), it certainly is a feat of extreme bravery (stupidity?) and pretty awesome to witness all in all.”
What are your top locations/parks for seeing Lion?
RJ “Nothing (did I say nothing) beats the central areas of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania for absolute density and volume of lions. As a traveler to Africa wanting to experience the raw beauty and magnificence of these creatures, a drive around the Serengeti’s Moru Kopjes area and onwards to the Barafu area to the east of that is simply out of this world. Obviously the better-known and well visited Masai Mara, Kruger Park and Okavango Delta are well-known for great lion viewing, as are the harder-to-get-to, but just as worthwhile Ruaha, Katavi and Kafue areas. Then the desert lions of the Kgalagadi in Botswana are some of the more beautiful (not to mention big) lions around with their distinctive black manes and dark hairy elbows.”
“I guess my favorite place to watch lions is certainly on foot in Mana Pools in Zimbabwe along the Zambezi River. Here in the dry season, one is able to spend quality time viewing all manner of lions, mostly doing what lions do (i.e. killing buffalo) in some of the most spectacular settings in Africa. My final two places are not so much known for large densities of lion but for their relative ‘unknown-ness’ and both have really interesting lion stories. Firstly, Niassa Reserve in the north of Mozambique is a vast wilderness area with no fences, roads or developments of any major scale – lions here are as they have been since who-knows-when, wild and somewhat nervous of humans. Then Liuwa Plains in western Zambia is an emerging wildlife destination with a very interesting lion story. Google it, or better yet – come see it for yourselves!”
Lion numbers in Africa have and continue to decline drastically, it is estimated there are less than 25,000 left on the continent. From your perspective what are some of the key factors contributing to the decline?
RJ “There unfortunately is only one key factor leading to these sad but true statistics: too many people putting too much pressure on lions and lion habitats. Lion habitats and ranges have shrunk drastically as a result of increased human developments in these areas (agriculture, commercial/urban, hunting, etc) and of course the increased livestock densities needed to sustain all these humans. Many people believe that there are other factors like disease and genetic deficiencies to blame, but I don’t buy that for a second. As with so many of the Big Issues out there facing the word at the moment – the cause seems to be the same: too many people living out of sync and out of harmony with the rest of our ecological system. This leads to reduced habitats and movements of key species such as lions, and we get the massive drop-off in population numbers we see today. The only solution is better lion habitat preservation and reduced human impacts on these areas and their four-legged and furry inhabitants.”
What effect would losing Lions have on tourism and eco-systems?
RJ ” In terms of the multi-billion dollar safari tourism industry in Africa, losing this iconic flagship species would pretty much have as much of an impact as Bono losing his voice in the middle of a U2 concert… it would bring the curtains down on this incredible show in a way that the near-extinct rhino just simply cannot compete with. No 2 species scream African tourism dollar more than the lion and the elephant – both now on the critical list and dropping fast. Ecologically – one could argue the exact same point: in terms of big mammals of the African ecosystem, lions and elephants are 2 of the most important. Losing the apex predator (lion) would set off an ecological domino effect the consequences of which we are really not able to fathom at this stage... a bit like predicting what the world would be like without electricity, or ice-cream, or worse: chocolate.”
Why is it important for local communities to be directly involved in and benefit from Lion conservation?
RJ ” Mainly for the reason I mentioned above why lions are so under threat… the people living in and around the lion habitats (local rural communities mostly) are the same ones who are growing in population and pushing further and further into the lions home ranges, driving cattle, goats, crops and other developments right into the heart of these wilderness areas. A lot of these areas are the same areas used for safari tourism, a major economic driver for the people and communities of these regions. If these folks are not able to see the benefits of lions to them and their livelihoods, or more correctly: if they are not able to see how much they stand to lose if the lions all disappear, than we are facing a long uphill battle. “
How can Lions, and other big cats, benefit from Ethical/responsible tourism?
RJ “Doing tourism ‘right’ is one way of trying to spread the message both ways down the communication channel – local communities, and potential international donors. There is a great program initiated through a number of responsible tourism operations in Africa that falls under the umbrella term ‘Lion Guardians’ and it is aimed at educating and informing local communities about the benefits of lions to them and their futures. The program aims to help educate people how to live WITH lions in rural areas adjoining wilderness and also aims to provide compensation for stock loss to lions, and other innovative strategies to improve the sustainable nature of the complex relationship between local communities, high-value tourism operations, and of course the resident lions themselves.”
How will World Lion Day be marked in your country?
RJ “I know that there are a number of activities revolving around lions this weekend in Zimbabwe – my home country. Mostly these relate to schools and kids who – without sounding clichéd or cheesy – are the ones who most need to be celebrating such a day and getting a better understanding for this awesome and extremely important species as well as their role in the bigger picture of which we are just minor players really. I am personally going to be celebrating World Lion Day in my favorite Mana Pools National Park here in Zimbabwe, hopefully getting the chance to share it with some furry feline friends!”
“I really feel that the future, and indeed the present, scenario for lions is a microcosmic story of the world in general. We live in a world gone mad. We have done so since man first decided he was top of the triangle, rather than somewhere dotted along the spider web of life.” – RJ
Rob works as a private guide in his beloved Africa and would love to host anyone interested in seeing and learning more about lions on a once-in-a-lifetime African safari – for more see robjanisch.com.