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Akbar the Lion and other cats

By Mark Nicholson 

I read today that Rupert Murdoch is to be married for the fifth time. While I am not particularly interested in Murdoch, he is often referred to as a ‘mogul’, a word deriving from the Mughals, who ruled vast areas of central and southern Asia for 450 years. By coincidence, in the same week, the most renowned of the Mughals appeared in the news, not as an Emperor but as a lion.  

Einstein once said, “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not sure about the universe”. I thought about that quote when I read about a far-right Hindu group, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) in India, which has contested the naming of a lioness ‘Sita’, who is to cohabit with a lion named Akbar in a Bengal safari park.

The Hindus seem to be triply furious. First, that a lioness should be named after a Hindu goddess of the Earth (the Indian equivalent of Wagner’s Erda, I suppose); secondly, that she should be betrothed to a mortal; and most of all, God forbid, to a Muslim Mughal Emperor. The outcome so far is that the High Court in Kolkata has told the two sides, the Hindus and the zoo owners, to sort it out themselves.   

I suspect that the irony is lost on the far-right Islamophobic nationalists. Akbar was the greatest of the six emperors. He ruled from 1542 (some say 1556) to 1605. His vast empire stretched south into what was known as Hindustan, which he greatly expanded. His most important legacy was his religious tolerance. At a time in England when Edward VI was beheading Roman Catholics and Bloody Mary was burning Protestants, the older and wiser Akbar prohibited Shia-Sunni rivalry, promoted syncretism and transtheism, and encouraged the adoption of numerous teachings from Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Christianity. His beloved fourth wife Mariam-uz-Zamani was a Rajput, and therefore a Hindu. In the India of today, one suspects, he would not last long.

So, apart from the fact that I do not like to see lions in captivity, I would wholeheartedly applaud the marriage between Akbar and Sita (as would Emperor Akbar, no doubt).

My favourite part of India has always been Kashmir, a Muslim stronghold and always a thorn in the side of Prime Minister Modi’s lot. Yes, Kashmiris bait the Hindus by pretending to be pro-Pakistan but every Kashmiri I ever spoke to wanted independence from both and they are fed up with Hindu nationalism.

Of course most people associate India with tigers, not lions. Indian (or Persian) lions are rare but have increased markedly since being almost extirpated over a hundred years ago. They are now confined to the Gir National Park in Gujarat but the lion population has climbed back to well over 500 individuals (but are no longer in Iran). They are regarded as a sub-species of the African lion, being smaller (adult males average 160-190 kg[1]) and having shorter manes and prominent ears.

In Africa there are about 20,000-30,000 lions left compared with over 200,000 a century ago. Over the last few weeks, I have had something of a surfeit of lions. We saw a pride kill a huge giraffe the other day, which always distresses me, as giraffes have always been my favourite animals. Not that they are defenceless: they kick forward with their front legs with devastating effect. In 1998, I was at a small reserve in central Kenya one weekend when one of the guests was killed. A missionary had unwisely stood his ground as a tall male giraffe approached him while protecting its family. The giraffe dispatched the man with one kick to the front of his skull. Much to my annoyance the giraffe was shot.


Lions will attack both buffalo (their favourite food) and young elephants but it is a highly risky enterprise for the lions, which often come off worse. Much easier for them are cattle until they receive the sharp end of a pastoralist’s spear. That remains one source of human-wildlife conflict. Hunting lions with spears is now banned, so sadly, Maasai and others revert to poisoning. The poisoned carcass of a lion is then eaten by hyaenas and vultures, which die as well.

In East Africa, tourists refer to the ‘Big Five’ that everyone wants to see[2]. The three most dangerous wild mammals in Africa are actually hippo, buffalo and elephant. Lions are very rarely dangerous: they view humans as the apex predator and will normally run a mile when approached by a human unless they are being hunted. Leopards, being largely nocturnal, solitary and super crafty are even less dangerous which is why the next story is interesting.

On the second ranch in Laikipia we stayed on last week, the owner told us a gruesome story. A few weeks earlier, a Turkana man turned up looking for work. Apparently, he appeared to have ‘a few roos loose in the top paddock’ to use an Australian phrase. In the evening, he wandered off, possibly for a nap under a tree. The following morning, half of his corpse was found hanging in a nearby tree with leopard pugmarks (much smaller than a lion’s) all around. The police arrived, as usual suspecting murder but the cause of death was unequivocal. That is the first time in my life I have ever heard of a leopard killing and eating a human in East Africa. The only exception is when a wounded leopard is being hunted, and then it has the reputation of being the most dangerous animal on Earth. But it made me slightly more wary wandering off late at night to my guest house a good 200 metres from the main house.

The story reminded me of one of my boyhood heroes. Jim Corbett was the most revered hunter of big cats in India. The first man-eater he hunted was the Champawat tiger that had killed 436 humans. The most famous leopards he shot, were the Panar leopard (400 deaths), and, after months of trying, the Rudraprayag leopard, responsible for 126 victims. Corbett was a phenomenal naturalist as well as a hunter and he frequently described going in ever decreasing circles as the tiger would be hunting him. He claimed that modern and urban humans have lost their ability to sense danger. He called it ‘proximity sense’ and reckoned it saved his life on many occasions. Corbett left India in 1947 and settled in Kenya where he died in 1955.

He reckoned that tigers and leopards became man-eaters for quite different reasons. Tigers became man-eaters when someone stumbled into a sick tiger or a tigress with cubs who would then swipe the intruder and get its first taste of human blood. Leopards on the other hand were often scavengers. During times of epidemics, so many people would die that bodies tended to be dumped unburnt into ravines, and leopards, being scavengers as well as hunters, would get a taste for human flesh.

One evening we set off to see the camel herd of some 150 fully-habituated adults. The camels come in the evening to the boma (stockade) for milking and safety. Lions frequently try their luck but a 2m high fence is an adequate deterrence. Lions, like the stronger tiger and jaguar, can grab a young camel and leap astounding heights over fences.



Camels are milked twice a day, the milk is cooled and transported several hours to the nearest town, which partly explains the high cost. Many claims are made about the superiority of camel milk. The fact that camels browse and cattle graze would suggest that camel’s milk is considerably more interesting because shrubs in dry country are full of unusual aromatic compounds.

Google reports many medicinal benefits of camel milk, which include immune boosters, as well as anti-diabetic, anti-autistic (??), anti-microbial, anti-hypertensive, anti-carcinogenic, anti-cholesterolemic, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, hypoallergenic, hepatoprotective properties. If all that is true, one cannot help wondering why camel keepers ever die at all.

The herders are all northern pastoralists, Turkana, Samburu, Boran, Somali etc. Their housing is simple and might shock westerners. Their circular houses are built using traditional thatch and the one concession to modernity is a covering of plastic to improve waterproofing.  The pastoralists all come from villages sometimes hundreds of kilometres away with identical housing and the only difference is that the herders get a wage on top, so they are have a better lifestyle than most of their tribe.

But here’s the thing: some might look down in dismay at the conditions of these people. I can guarantee that none of them has heard of Ukraine, or Gaza, or Haiti. The outside world is of little interest to them. They are a joyful and a friendly bunch. They work hard; they laugh and joke and I am quite sure no one suffers from depression. Maybe they can teach us a thing or two.      



[1] The largest Kenyan lion weighed in at  272kg

[2] Elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo


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