Imagining a world without lions

As conservationists we get a little wound up sometimes, thinking about how to save wildlife, their environment and the whole of the natural world. But there are times when I like to take a step back and reflect.

Sure, I will be mortified if, in the near future, I awake and look out from our Botswana wilderness camp at the dawn, to a ghostly silence instead of a lion’s roar that echoed through the mist-filled plains for thousands of years. Many of us who have lived amongst these big cats for most of our careers, if not our entire lives, would be sad if we did not get an occasional glimpse of a shaggy-maned male lion becoming irritated by a tumbling horde of cubs defying decorum by bouncing on his regal head, or yanking his luxurious tail while he was trying to nap.

Photograph by Beverly Joubert

Millions of megapixels of safari photos would be less thrilling, and a certain heart and soul of the African savanna would be missing, if the lion had had his day. But who really cares, or should care, if that ever came about?

I spoke to Daniel Sambu, a Maasai elder, about this a few months back. For about a million of his people in East Africa, lions are those things that hunt their cattle, he explained. The rattling roar at dawn, that I am absolutely in love with, inflicts fear and loathing in their hearts.

Isaac Seredile in Botswana has a similar feeling about this intersection, where the continent’s largest predator meets nearly a billion head of cattle. It’s a real flashpoint for conflict between people and predators.

Left to right: Beverly Joubert, Daniel Sambu, Tipape Lekatoo, Dereck Joubert.
Photo credit: Wildlife Films.

But both Mr. Sambu and Mr. Seredile have chosen a different path than the one taken by most other Africans faced with this predicament. Mr. Sambu found a job with a group called the Big Life Foundation, leading a team of more than 200 men to protect lions and elephants in southern Maasiland. Mr. Seredile, the head guide at Great Plains Conservation, a safari operation, was deeply conflicted by searching for lions each day for his guests to admire and photograph, and then worrying about the safety of his cattle at night. So he decided to sell out of the cattle business, and sleep easier.

In the face of this enormous conflict, more and more people in Africa are considering my question: Why should we care? The answer cannot be given in an easy one-liner.

Photograph by Beverly Joubert

Ecosystems out of balance

Rationally, there is an argument that without lions, whole ecosystems will spiral out of balance. The strongest case for this line of thinking is from Yellowstone National Park, where wolves impact the landscape by “managing” the numbers of herbivores, which prevents erosion, stimulates aspen tree growth, and generally benefits other wildlife by filling what had once become a gap in the ecosystem. Recently I came across compelling evidence that suggests that even in Africa, the large pack hunters, like lions, have a startling effect on herds that bunch up when attacked. Daily their hooves churn up the ground, creating different areas that are open and ready to accept the benefits of the next rains into the soils and the grass seed banks, rather than the water simply running off into the rivers. This ensures typical rolling East African plains that are perfect for grazers, including cattle, a natural and ancient cycle of replenishment.

Ecologically, by extension, a landscape without lions leads to large herds of grazers, such as buffalo, and little else. Overgrazing by them, and the parasite load on the land as they become sedentary, ultimately makes the ecosystem poorer.

The last traditional lion protectors

Stepping away from the science for a moment, a Zulu friend of mine, Mr. Ngonyama, draws his ancestral name from lions. The Ngonyamas are the lion people, and in the times of the Zulu Kingdom, it was their clan that protected lions and voiced their concerns to Shaka Zulu and other leaders when they felt that the big cats were being persecuted. It was a check and balance. Today very few Zulus have seen a lion and very few Ngonyamas have had any experience with their spiritual totems. As Zulus draw closer to the cities and carry multiple smart phones for their businesses, they step further away from their ancestral connection with Africa. This “divorce” results in abandonment of many of cultural traditions, including respect and empathy for elders, that old Mrs. Ngonyama will talk about passionately if you give her half a chance.

Photograph by Beverly Joubert

Billion-dollar ecotourism industry depends on lions

Since the recent attack on Paris and other places in Europe, the ecotourism revenue stream flowing into Africa has gone up significantly, as it is seen as a relatively safe haven and a good time to check off an African safari from the bucket list. But this U.S. $80-$100 billion-a-year ecotourism and safari industry relies, to a large extent, on lions. A safari without any possibility of seeing a lion is a very much less attractive experience, so much of those tourism dollars flow elsewhere. As that happens, it creates an even more serious problem: Many communities thrive on this income, so when it dries up, they fail.

When communities fail, governments need to step in and help. If the problem becomes too large, aid agencies are approached to help out.  When that escalates, it doesn’t just put strain on finances, but on reputations too.  Western and Eastern donors start to look at Africa as a failed continent, and that fuels racial stereotyping, even downright racism. All of this because of lions.

So when Cecil the lion is shot to satisfy an individual’s desire to kill for sport, or entertainment, and then his son Xanda (just 6 years old, the equivalent of a young adult just getting a start in life) is also hunted to his death, it’s worth taking a step back to reflect on the future of lions and what they represent : a symbol of the wild, an icon of ultimate “power” that transfers to us and our egos when we kill one, a threat to our livelihoods, or a mirror for us to hold up to ourselves.

How we regard lions says much less about them than it does about our own ability to live life according to the characteristics we use to define ourselves as humans, with acceptance, empathy, trust, respect and dignity.

As we imagine the future of Africa lions, it is worth reflecting on what we might lose, but also who we really are.

Dereck Joubert is an award-winning filmmaker from Botswana who has been a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence for many years. With his wife, Beverly Joubert, also an Explorer-in-Residence, his mission is the conservation and understanding of the large predators and key African wildlife species that determine the course of all conservation in Africa.

They have been filming, researching, and exploring in Africa for over 25 years. Their coverage of unique predator behavior has resulted in dozens of films, books, scientific papers, and many articles for National Geographic magazine. This body of work has resulted in five Emmys, a Peabody, the World Ecology Award, and the recent induction into the American Academy of Achievement.

The Jouberts are the founders of the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative.

Photograph of the Jouberts byBeverly Joubert


  1. Andre Luis Neves
    Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
    October 12, 6:16 pm

    I’m really worried and I do not know what world we will live in the future! The greed of men is exterminating the animals and all the wildlife on our planet. I think it’s time for each of us to do our part to change that reality while it’s still possible to be done!

  2. Stephanie Graham
    Oklahoma, USA
    September 19, 10:21 pm

    I am so very appreciative of your work. I am deeply disturbed by the thought of wild big cats of any kind in any part of the world disappearing from the “DNA” of this beautiful planet we are blessed to inhabit. I am equally horrified by the captive breeding farms. I do not know what the world will be like in 10 years…but I know I want it to have lots of wild big cats in it.

  3. mike creaghan
    United States
    September 18, 10:08 pm

    Ask any of the countries in Africa that are now without lions how things have gone since that day? How has their tourist industry fared? The fact that many are scrambling desperately to resurrect lost national parks tells the tale.

  4. Denine
    Washington State, USA
    September 16, 12:11 pm

    It’s heartbreaking to read ‘millions’ of cattle live in Africa, but if even one cow is attacked by a lion for food, it is destroyed! When did it become acceptable for human to always take the easy way out? Humans, whom are ‘supposed’ to be the most intelligent animal in the forest, are the least tolerant of all other animals and the least willing to find resolution in non-lethal manners. We see more compassion and understanding with groups of wildlife communities than we do our own. When did humans become so arrogant and uncompassionate? If Africa doesn’t start implementing some harsh measures to stop the annulation of top predators on all fronts (trophy hunting, poaching, canned hunting), they will indeed reap what they sow when these magnificent creatures are gone. As the on-target article above states, when the ecosystem becomes out of balance due to the loss of Lions, Rhinos, Elephants, all hell will break loose. It is then that the most ‘intelligent’ animal in the forest will truly understand the devastation they themselves created. Humans are the terrorists to all other living creatures.

  5. Ellen Grossman
    September 16, 10:40 am

    It would be a tragic to never ever to see lions and tigers and other animals ever again. Extinction is a permanent . Nothing to see in this world . They are magnificent animals. Stop the animals from being extinct. the need to stop killing the animals.

  6. Cheryl Barry
    Heidelberg Western Cape Rsa
    September 16, 2:38 am

    It is a mammoth task but never give up on this. Every effort made by an individual or other conservation body is worth the ripple it makes no matter how small.

  7. Alex Strachan
    Vancouver, Canada
    September 15, 6:48 pm

    Love your work. I don’t think lions could possibly have better voices to represent them. If anyone can make a difference, it’ll be down to you both. I do hope Beverly has recovered from her “misadventure” with mbogo. What is it they say: There’s never a lion around when you need one. Thank you, on behalf of the planet, for all you do.

  8. Nessa Garrett
    United States
    September 15, 4:32 pm

    Thank You National Geographic and Dereck Joubert for bringing this well-deserved (article) matter of much needed attention to the forefront; to all who are deeply concerned with the conservation of our Lions; in their natural habitat in Africa and in other countries of sanctuaries they have been placed for safe shelter and survival. As we know Lions are referenced as the “King of Beasts”…of the ancient of days. They are to the Animal Kingdom…Royal and Regal, beautiful…as well as other big cats that now face a gradual…progressive extinction. This is a grave issue that has a saddening impact…at just the thought of “imagining a world without lions”! What an unimaginable grave missing…great lost to this world that would be. As the same goes for other wild-life animals…that are also an endangered species. Such as the magnificently beautiful Tigers of this world…all of God’s wonderful creation of animals. So, my heart is touched…my prayers go forth that the Governing Institutions [around the world, specifically in Africa] for the Preservation and Protection of Wildlife… *Do The Right Thing*.Protect and Preserve our beloved Lions of this world. Again, to all the wonderful people who work diligently in this cause. …God Bless you all in all your endeavors. Also, I’d like to express adoration and appreciation to the Photographers who contributed such awesome beautiful photos to this timely and very worthwhile article. Keep the Faith and your good-works going forward. Thank you and Blessings to you all. ~ Blackbutterfly Expressions (Vannessa Garrett)

  9. Anne Marie Smith
    Pretoria, South Africa
    September 13, 3:42 pm

    The issue that also needs to be addressed urgently is that of ‘canned hunting’, whereby lions are hunted by tourists for a hefty fee, and these are not wild lions, but lions who have been bred in captivity by breeders who steal the cubs from the lionesses on their properties. These cubs are then first hand-reared, and because they are accustomed to humans, are an easy target.
    Moreover lions are hunted for body parts, which are smuggled to the Far East, to be used for ‘medicinal properties’ in traditional remedies. It should all be stopped and forbidden by law, but lots of money is made by unscrupulous people. All these practices also have an influence on the gene pool, which is detrimental. We need to act and we need to act as soon as possible to indeed prevent the lions from going extinct.

  10. Peggy Sharpe
    September 13, 3:38 pm

    I agree— the World needs to protect the lions, as well as all
    wildlife species !

  11. Deb Lotan
    September 13, 2:57 pm

    Long Live the King!
    We, as a world, owe it to these majestic animals to do EVERYTHING possible to protect them… trophy hunting can NO longer be tolerated at any level and the punishment should be monetarily harsh and fast. We as a world need to unite behind this effort to find a solution that protects precious, beautiful families, children and the gift of Lions…

  12. Diana delGiudice
    Maine, USA
    September 12, 2:58 pm

    Excuse me but I read a million, billion head of cattle compared to a dying breed of cats. The cattlemen cannot part with (willingly) a few head of their weakest cattle for food to to the cats? Thats what I call conservatism. The only shooting of a cat I agree with is with a camera. They bring in more tourist attractions and money than the dollars received from allowing trophy hunts. Cecil and his sons death alone should be lesson enough for the government! Ppl ARE pissed. The advocates against killing ARE more willing to give/ donate to keep the cats/ elephants/ rhinos alive ..make all the land open FOR tourism industry and zero for hunts. Instead of poachers make them tourist guides. On the conservatism side for tribal food kill only the old or rouge mammals and MAKE the fee very high to the hunter. Very few permits allowed / permitted per area each season/ year but no trophy, all must go to tribe. Photo only. No airline carry out diseased mammal including private airplanes. Be strict, stop the death greed and witness the BLESSING from God and the money will flow from the ppl as photographers take such great photos for magazines and your NEW laws are known more tourists flow into YOUR country. Advocates give financially as the land becomes sanctuaries for life and not death.