Moping about Mopane

BY JOHN NASH

Recently, a trophy bow hunter killed a lion on the outskirts of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Apparently, the lion was called “Mopane” and, inevitably, it has created a brouhaha on antisocial media and re-opened the earlier storm over another lion, “Cecil”.

As expected, UK newspapers have jumped on the latest story and stirred up a tsunami of rage, churning out the usual voluminous torrent of fictitious turdage without even the slightest attempt at either truth or balance, just as they did over Cecil, whose true story is soon to be published. Yet again, this is a warning to all UK countryside managers, farmers and field sports participants – unless this gormless nonsense is opposed, public opinion will drive our spineless, click-bait MP’s to hold your feet to the fire, too.

Far from being bad news, this incident is actually good news. Protected inside Hwange National Park, lions breed well, and, as younger, stronger, male lions are born and reach maturity, they either kill or push older male lions out of the park. A procession of older male lions crossing the border and leaving the park is a sign that lions are doing well inside the park, unlike much of Africa, where the lion is slowly disappearing outside reserves.  

Many of these older Hwange lions have already sired cubs in their short reign of perhaps three or four years, and some may have been lucky enough to have had a couple of families. But, inevitably, they grow older and are usurped. It should be remembered that lions, especially male lions, live a life and death of unremitting violence. From the time they are born, they have to fight for survival and dominance. More than half of all lions don’t make it to a year old.

Lions are not the devoted parents depicted in the la-la TV documentaries and Born Free propaganda. A lion is more like a Taliban on a bad beard day. With dominant individuals feeding first, there is often not enough left for juveniles, so they simply starve to death. Hungry lions are also not above a bit of cannibalism. They are known to walk away and leave cubs, and their habits of infanticide are common knowledge. The toughened survivors of this incredibly fierce life are the powerful and magnificent creatures that we admire so much.  

When male lions reach sexual maturity and start sniffing around the females, they are pushed violently out of the pride by the dominant pride males to prevent inbreeding. After a few years of avoiding death whilst growing bigger, they then have to fight for a territory and pride of their own. Many die in the attempt. More than half of all lions are killed by other lions. For those that manage to capture a pride, there is still a continuing threat from other males trying to takeover. After a reign of only a few years, the unavoidable happens and every male is pushed out in turn. Again, it is a process in which many lions die.

For a few survivors, it may be possible to establish another pride for a while in some less desirable territory with poorer hunting prospects, but inevitably, they are pushed out again. In the end, they become lone males, in the case of Hwange, usually pushed to the borders of the park. Without a pride, and forced into poor hunting areas, food becomes a problem for these old warriors, and many starve to death or succumb to injury, disease or other predators as they weaken.

It is hardly surprising that some of these hungry old lions eventually cross the unfenced border out of the park in search of food or to avoid certain death. Inside the park, they were breeding stock, protected and much admired by the public. Outside the park, they are past their sell-by date, become dangerous pests and lose protection. They are still violent lions, however, not guinea pigs. You couldn’t put them in a care home.

Even if they look good (although many, by this time, are skinny, mangy old beasts), they are no longer optimal hunters and may be forced by circumstance take an interest in what appear to be slow-moving fat antelopes – the local farm animals – or worse still, tender and juicy small children. For this reason, the park, like many in Africa, is surrounded by hunting grounds that act as buffer zones. In those buffer zones, these old lions are inevitable killed by poisoning, hunting, snaring or other methods of trapping. None get out alive into the surrounding villages and farms.

The question is often asked in Africa –  what would a UK person do if they looked out of their kitchen window and saw a lion on their lawn, eating their pet dog? Would they admire the creature as the king of the jungle and say to themselves, “Goodness me, what a magnificent animal!”, or would they suffer an immediate post-digestive system evacuation and call the armed police, with an inevitable final chapter for the lion? People in Zimbabwe are no different. They will not tolerate lions loose outside the parks and reserves. Why should they? Because some fat eco-chugger executive, living off donations and the public purse in the UK, wants us all to go ga-ga?

So, we had a doomed old lion called “Mopane” by the press, as big as he ever would be, apparently still in good nick and worthy of a trophy, wandering outside the park. He will have been spotted by locals in the area and no doubt the land owner phoned a hunting outfitter. The outfitter, in turn, told his clients and one immediately flew to Zimbabwe to hunt this lion before someone else did. Wild, legally available trophy lions are not thick on the ground.

The point here is that this lion was, in any case, doomed. It was, to coin a phrase, a walking Norwegian blue lion. It wasn’t resting. It wasn’t pining for the fjords and it soon ceased to be. It was an ex-lion.

It had no future, naturally because of its age, or realistically because it was in the hunting grounds. It made little difference to the lion how he was killed – dead is dead. Fortunately for this lion, death at the hands of a modern, well-equipped trophy hunter is usually far more humane than the alternatives – starvation, poison, a wire snare or being ripped to pieces in an uneven fight to the death with other lions or hyenas. Old animals in Africa don’t get to retire to Cornwall – they die in ways that would give a bunny-hugger the vapours.

At least at the hand of a trophy hunter, the death of this lion brought welcome income and jobs. It seems such a waste of a valuable resource for it to simply disappear.  

And so, it was hunted. In this event, the hunter was a bow hunter, hunting over a bait. As always, there are lurid tales from mischief makers and ignorant non-hunters about the “blood-thirsty cruelty of bow hunting and the unfairness of baiting”, but the reality is that bait brings the lion to a known spot at a known distance from the bow, and thus increases the chance of an unexpected, humane death.  Modern bows and arrows are extremely powerful and efficient weapons in the hands of an expert.  

And yes, it can go wrong and result in a prolonged death, but those are the incidents you hear about. You never hear about the millions of animals that are dispatched with admirable efficiency.  Even then, the end is less traumatic than many of the alternatives, and demonstrably better than dying slowly from the agony of blood poisoning over days or weeks after being shot with an arrow tipped with a nail and smeared with poison, fired from a home-made bow.

After the hunt, as always, the trophy skin and head of the lion were removed with great skill to be sent off to a taxidermist and no doubt the rest of the carcass laid out for the local scavengers and vultures. Again, it is not a case of “callously beheading a lion and discarding its body” –  nothing goes to waste – the smaller scavengers have to eat, too, and it would be easy to sell the skinned lion carcass for “medicine” parts these days.   

So, why is there such a worldwide fuss about this lion? It was a lion. It lived a lion’s admirably violent life and died a violent African death. Neither warp nor weft of the fabric of life was affected in any way. The tsunami of rage was about people’s feelings, not the reality of Africa.

And that, Dear Reader, is a rather more objective, rather less subjective, account of the end of a lion that the UK media call “Mopane”. He died in a good, practical management process that provides the best outcome for all concerned, including the unfortunate lion.  

It should remind you that, while UK countryside managers, game keepers, field sports providers and farmers all strive to produce the best practical outcome, limited by real life, protesters are not limited by objectivity, balance or truth.  

Sadly, there is little room for lions outside reserves in Africa and the human population is expanding rapidly, so there will be even less space for lions in future. There is nowhere else to put lions. Even more sadly, while UK newspapers and our ever-devious, donations-harvesting eco-chuggers and animal rights racketeers poured out miles and miles of heart-rending and deceptive puffery about this lion, three little children in one family were killed by lions in Tanzania. Contemplating the sheer horror of a child being ripped to pieces alive by a lion should remind you why lions are killed outside reserves.  

Perhaps that’s why those three little children didn’t get a single mention (let alone a penny in compensation) from misanthropic cash-cow animal rights NGO’s and charities. 

John Nash grew up in West Cornwall and was a £10 pom to Johannesburg in the early 1960’s. He started well in construction project management, mainly high rise buildings but it wasn’t really Africa, so he went bush, prospecting and trading around the murkier bits of the bottom half of the continent. Now retired back in Cornwall among all the other evil old pirates. His interests are still sustainable resources, wildlife management and the utilitarian needs of rural Africa.