The Lion King remake has revived interest in a magnificent beast that urgently needs protection, writes Brian Jackman
Why have lions held the world in thrall since the dawn of history?
As long ago as the seventh century BC, the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal had his royal palace at Nineveh decorated with magnificent bas-reliefs of lion-hunting scenes. In Ancient Rome, the walls of the Colosseum resonated to the roars of lions as gladiators fought to the death with the king of beasts.
Closer to our own time, Sir Edwin Landseer's four bronze lions were set to guard the statue of Nelson in London's Trafalgar Square, and even in my lifetime I have watched spear-carrying Maasai warriors loping over the savannah to prove their manhood on a ceremonial lion hunt.
They have been celebrated in literature by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen, appeared on the shirts of the England football team and entered our living rooms thanks to the popularity of TV wildlife documentaries such as The Big Cat Diary and Sir David Attenborough's Dynasties series.
But not since Born Free — Joy Adamson's true-life saga of Elsa, the lioness she raised and returned to the wild — has anything gripped the public imagination like The Lion King.
The original Disney production took the world by storm in 1994, becoming the ninth-highest-grossing animated film of all time. Now, following his successful remake of The Jungle Book, director Jon Favreau has created a similarly photorealistic state-of-the-art version for Disney.
In search of authenticity, Disney's writers visited Kenya's lion country, discovering locations such as Borana Ranch on the Laikipia Plateau, whose sweeping views and spectacular granite outcrops provided the inspiration for Pride Rock and the Pride Lands.
Having seen the film, you too may wish to follow in their footsteps to find the real Lion King, in which case Kenya is hard to beat. This is where I saw my first wild lion 40 years ago in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, and the memory is as fresh as if it happened only yesterday.
I'd flown down by light aircraft from Nairobi and even before we touched down on the rough dirt airstrip I knew it would be love at first sight. The kiangazi — the dry season that would tempt the migrating wildebeest to pour in from the Serengeti — was just beginning, and the ripening grasses had not yet been eaten down. Instead they stood tall, rippling in the wind like the waves of the sea towards a horizon so far away it seemed like the edge of the world, heralding a time of plenty for the Mara lions.
We had driven out at first light to find the cats and hadn't gone far when I spotted an adult pride male perched on a termite mound. He was still quite a long way off, so I watched him through my binoculars; a magnificent sight with his mane backlit by the rising sun.
Then he began to roar through half-closed jaws, and with every cavernous groan his breath condensed in the sharp morning air like smoke from a dragon's nostrils. All other sound ceased, as if the whole world was listening, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I thought: who could fail to be hooked on lions after a moment like that?
A few years later, my growing passion for the big cats led to a friendship with George Adamson of Born Free fame and the lions he was returning to the wilds of northern Kenya. In 1982 I had flown to Nairobi to cover the story of Joy Adamson's murder. I met George at the end of the funeral and he invited me to fly up to Kora, where he lived in what resembled an inside-outside zoo, with the people inside the wire and the lions outside. It was an extraordinary place, which he shared with his young assistant Tony Fitzjohn, his cook Hamisi and an odd assortment of wild creatures, including a pair of vultures known as Bourne and Hollingsworth.
It was clear George couldn't wait to be reunited with his lions. For no sooner had we arrived than he threw some camel meat into the back of his Land Rover and we went to look for them. We stopped somewhere beside the Tana river and George got out. "I'd stay put if I were you, old boy," he said, and began to call for Arusha, his pride matriarch, the way you might yell for a lost dog.
And suddenly, there she was, a full-grown lioness with blood on her muzzle from a fresh waterbuck kill, running straight at George. I watched in disbelief as, on reaching him, she rose on her hind legs and draped her huge forepaws over his shoulders. "Arusha, old girl," he said, hugging her like a long-lost friend as she grunted with pleasure at seeing him again.
Since then I have lost count of the lions I have seen and heard, but from that day on they have continued to walk through my life and my dreams. Over the years they have become an obsession. Fellow fanatics will know the feeling. When you've been away from lions for a long time you long for a sight of them, and whenever I return to Africa I lie awake in my tent at night, unable to sleep until I have heard them grunting in the starlight.
Who can fail to be moved by their majestic profiles? Even in repose, lions exude an aura of imminent drama. They are the ultimate predator, their mere presence holding the constant possibility of unimaginable violence. Long since hard-wired by evolution for a life on the savannah, they are the apex predators of a parallel universe far older than ours, and for three years I was a privileged to enter their world, waking each morning to the sound of their thunderous voices and driving out into the red dawn to join them.
That was in the late 1970s when a young wildlife photographer called Jonathan Scott introduced me to a pride of lions whose territory lay around Musiara Marsh in the heart of the Mara. Together we produced a bestseller called The Marsh Lions, a true-life story revolving around Scar, Brando and Mkubwa, the coalition of pride males that ruled Musiara.
In the Mara they translate what the lion is saying into Swahili: Hii nchi ya nani? Hii nchi ya nani? Whose land is this? Whose land is this? Yangu, yangu, yangu! Mine, mine, mine!
And what a land it is. To look out across its rolling ridges from the top of the Oloololo escarpment is to stand at the gates of heaven. I didn't know it then, but what I had stumbled on was the greatest wildlife showcase in Africa. Until 1977, few people had even heard of the Maasai Mara. Serengeti was where you went if you wanted to see lions. Then Kenya and Tanzania fell out. The border was closed and you could no longer drive down to the Serengeti from Nairobi, and that's when the Mara came into its own.
By the time The Marsh Lions was published, Scar and his pride had become as familiar to me as old friends. Sometimes, parked alongside him as he lay in the grass, I would try to imagine what he was feeling. That was what Jonathan and I had tried to capture — the essence of being a lion in the lion's world. Surely the warmth of the sun on his tawny flanks must have been as pleasing to him as it was to me? I watched him raise his head to sniff the breeze and listen to the zebra stallions calling to their mares on the plains beyond. Sights and sounds, the ineluctable smells of the African bush, all these we shared; but what else that went on behind his implacable visage would forever remain a mystery.
In the years that followed I would meet many other lions. Among them, The Earl, as he was known, hunting by moonlight on Busanga Plain in Zambia's Kafue national park. I also remember the handsome Kalahari pride males with their luxuriant black manes; and the daughters of Ntchwaidumela — "He Who Plays with Fire" — padding like ghosts through Savuti's bone-dry grasslands on a Botswana winter morning — all possessing the same innate nobility.
Today, tragically, these glorious carnivores are in decline almost everywhere except in the Serengeti and the private conservancies adjoining the Mara, leaving them with only eight per cent of their former range. In the 25 years since Disney released the original version of The Lion King, Africa's lion population has halved, leaving no more than 20,000, of which perhaps only 3000 are the big adult males everyone wants to photograph.
That is why this latest version of The Lion King could not have come at a better time. Disney has already donated US$1.5 (NZ$2.24) million to lion conservation and now hopes to raise a further US$1.5 million through its Protect the Pride campaign, with an aim of doubling the lion population by 2050.
Not all conservation groups are happy, arguing that US$1.5 million is a mere fraction of The Lion King's billion-dollar franchise profits. But there is no doubt that their contribution is desperately needed.
Climate change, trophy hunting and conflict with the pastoralists who live alongside lions — all have conspired to loosen their grip on the land they once held; but above all it is loss of habitat to the inexorable advance of the modern world that is putting their lives at risk.
Yet, miraculously, lions continue to grace our world, and the magic they exert upon the human psyche remains as strong as ever. "Who will speak up for the lion when my own voice is carried away on the wind?" asked George Adamson. Conservation organisations including The Tusk Trust (tusk.org) play a vital role, as does ecotourism, whose dollars underpin the survival of wild places where lions can still be seen. And this year The Lion King will add its own clarion call, appealing to the future generations on whose shoulders the very survival of the species will rest.
The roar facts
* A lion's roar can be heard 8km away.
* Life for a lion is nasty, brutish and short. Twelve years is a good age for a pride male.
* A lion can run at 80km/h over short distances. In other words, much faster than you, giving rise to the old hunter's saying: "If you run, you're done."
* A lion's life is one of feast and famine. It may go hungry for a week, then put away up to 50kg of meat at a single sitting.
* Lions live in a matriarchal society of family groups known as prides in which most of the females are related and male offspring are forced to leave as 2-year-olds.
* Lions can mate up to 100 times a day, but the act itself only takes a few seconds.
* Every lion can be recognised by the unique pattern of whisker spots on each side of its face.
* Lions have a lazy life, spending up to 20 hours a day at rest.
Telegraph Group Ltd