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The Truth About Lions

Monday 4th April 2011

The Truth About Lions

Recently, a programme called “The Truth about Lions” was broadcast by the BBC. The programme host, Jonathan Scott (well known to those who watched early versions of the “Big Cat Diary” and who has written several photographic books on lions in the Masai Mara of Kenya), teamed up with scientist Craig Packer, well-known for his long-term observations of lions in the Serengeti. So far so good.


But actually, the BBC could have done much better than the docudrama or docusoap or soapydoc that was eventually produced. The BBC should have invited a greater diversity of opinion on Packer’s statements to better guide Scott’s wide-eyed commentary. The BBC knows full well that lions are in deep trouble all over Africa, and had a chance to really engage their audience with more than platitudes and pretty pictures and unchallenged statements. By not doing so, they perhaps could have prevented Scott from closing the programme with this fascinating bit of insight: “But the truth about lions is that their biggest threat is no longer other lions, it’s us.”


LionAid requested commentary on the programme, but could not be accommodated as the footage was probably taken some time ago. Too bad really, as we would have differered with Packer on many of his ideas that seem to have become mainstream not because of convincing science but rather due to frequent repetition.


To his credit, Scott attempted to cover a number of aspects of the “Truth”. For example:



Some time is spent discussing the canine distemper outbreaks among lions in the Serengeti, especially the one in 1994, where over one third of the then supposed resident 3000 lions died. Packer sails in and states that canine distemper is a “disease of the nervous system”, related to measles in humans. Actually, the virus has a variety of tissue tropisms. The virus initially replicates in the lymphatic tissue of the respiratory tract, then enters enters the blood stream and can infect the respiratory, gastrointestinal, urogenital, and central nervous systems. As Packer says, canine distemper can be immunosuppressive, leading to secondary infections of the affected lion.


Then, Packer surprisingly states that it was actually babesiosis, a tick borne disease and a secondary infection, that killed the lions. Strange that, as the film clearly shows lions with CNS symptoms such as localized involuntary twitching of muscles, seizures, myoclonus, and eventually grand mal convulsions – all the final stages of a distemper infection. Perhaps the secondary infection allowed distemper to progress more rapidly, but Packer misses another important point – virtually all lions in the Serengeti are already infected with feline immunodeficiency virus that has recently been shown by Packer’s co-workeres to have a significant effect on immune competence. Packer, not a virologist,  has always denied the effect of this disease on lion populations, and thus it did not get mention. Overall, the message should have been that lion populations, by harbouring an endemic immunodeficiency virus, are extremely vulnerable to additive disease threats like canine distemper communicated by domestic dogs and perhaps hyenas and bovine tuberculosis communicated by Kruger Park buffalo and derived from a domestic cattle source. That would have been a good and clear message? Instead, the conclusion by Jonathan is that the Serengeti lions recovered quickly and within 3-4 years all was well again. That sends a dangerous message, for sure.

Trophy hunting


Scott films with the Marsh Lions in this broadcast, animals he has known for several generations and indeed a title of one of his photographic books. Presently, two males have been reproducing in the Masai Mara Marsh Pride – Claude who at 12 is a bit long in the tooth, and Romeo who at 9 is a bit more spry. It is not unusual to see eventual alliances between such males of considerable age difference in Botswana. The oldest cubs are about 3 years, so Romeo was about 6 when he came into the Marsh Pride and Claude 9. Fine so far. To be fair, Jonathan hems and haws a bit about the effectiveness of lion trophy hunting as a conservation tool. But does mention the great areas available to trophy hunters in Tanzania and the necessity for conservation and trophy hunting to work together (and thereby falls into the trap that lions have the exclusive burden to maintain the hunting areas).


Following Packer’s pro-hunting lead, he then surprisingly goes on to discuss Packer’s models (nose colour for aging, computer models for hunting effects) that say male lions in Africa take over prides when they are 4 years old and by six they are post-reproductive and can be shot. Jonathan actually takes out a book of photographs to show how the nose darkens….. but sits there with much older male lions who clearly hold the well-being of reproduction of the Marsh Pride in their control, and thus fall well out of the model boundaries as is likely in many other African lion prides. Explanation….. well, lets just move on and ask Packer some more questions about how black-maned lions are more attractive to females based on puppet experiments.

Be responsible with lions


I can be accused, as I have in the past, of being overly critical. After all, any lion programme on the telly, especially by the BBC, must do some good towards raising overall awareness about the species? I would differ in that interpretation. If you broadcast a programme with the rather boastful title of “The Truth about Lions”, and clearly spend considerable funds to make the film, then make sure it is balanced. That is the first prerequisite of responsible reporting, and the BBC fell at the first hurdle. 



Posted by Pieter Kat at 21:50

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