Kingdom of Sabertooths, Kingdom of Lions –a reflection
As the “World Lion Day” approaches, I feel like indulging in a little philosophical reflection… please bear with me, I promise to be brief!
I take it for granted that followers of this blog share my passion for the big, wild carnivores. But I know that for some people this passion might at times seem strange. And yet our preference is a time-honored one: shamans around the world have chosen the big cats as their totem animals and as guides for exploring the world of the unknown, and the fact that one of the oldest known Paleolithic sculptures features a lion-headed man indicates that such an affinity is deeply rooted.
With the sabertooths being my own “totem beasts” since childhood, I have had plenty of opportunity to wonder, WHY this fascination? I suppose that the ultimate cause must remain a mystery. But my encounters with the modern big carnivores in the wild have given me some food for thought.
My first encounter with a wild apex predator took place well over a quarter of a century ago. I was alone, on foot and unarmed, but there was nothing to fear: it was “only” a wolf; a magnificent Iberian wolf, trotting effortlessly –almost gliding- in the early morning light, among the broom and heather of the remote mountains of Asturias, in Northern Spain. The animal was impressive enough, but looking back I find that the impression it made was inseparable from that of the place. Those mountains became magical for me, as any place that can still sustain its top predators must be.
The magic mountains of the wolf, Asturias, Northern Spain. I took this picture in 1997.
Years later I travelled to the African wilderness in search of the big cats, and the same thing happened: the places where I encountered the big cats became magical, strikingly attractive places for me. The lion may be king of the beasts, but what is a king without a kingdom? Conversely, a landscape depleted of its wildlife may be pretty, but a place where the big predators still rule is far more than pretty: it is a place where the laws of nature are fully at work.
Lions in Samburu National Park, Kenya, 2006.
Similarly, the fascination I felt as a child admiring the illustrations of sabertooths by Rudolph Zallinger had much to do with the way the artist had immersed the beasts in their long lost world. Posing dramatically as it stabbed a mammoth trapped in the tar pits, the sabertooth Smilodon seemed the unquestionable ruler of its legendary kingdom.
Well, I think that our admiration for the big carnivores embodies one of our most basic contradictions. On one hand, we humans somehow feel that nature has to be respected if we want it to keep nurturing us, and the big predators are a sort of guardians and living signs of a balanced system. But as members of human society we also perceive that it is other people who provide or deny what we need, making the balances of Nature seem almost irrelevant. In traditional societies shamans were the intermediaries between “ordinary” people, too immersed in their daily affairs, and the mysterious world of non-human nature. Today, the role of the shamans is mostly lost, but it could not be more necessary. Somebody has to transmit the message of the rulers of the other kingdom -the wild kingdom. Lions, wolves, and from their long lost past, sabertooths, all send the same message to us: “We predators have long ruled the wild Earth while abiding the rules of nature. Under our rule, landscapes remain fertile. Under YOUR rule, nothing lasts long”.
A lost Eden: the environment and fauna in the Lake Turkana Area (Kenya) in the early Pleistocene, with the sabertooth Homotherium as the temporary “King of the Beasts” -the proboscideans permitting!