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2 may 2011

Lions spend most of their time sleeping. Sleep conserves energy, but in addition to its benefits, the reason they sleep so much is because they can. The lion is at the absolute top of the food chain. And since they're the most social of cats, there are always several lions sleeping together. Even a Great White Hunter would be ill-advised to go blazing into the middle of a sleeping lion pride, unless from the seats of a well-armored Land Rover.

Unfortunately, in the latter years of evolutionary history, homo sapiens has, more and more, done exactly that. Hunting, as Deirdre Jackson notes in Lion, is a major reason lion populations have dwindled. More prosaic, of course, is simple habitat degradation. A hundred years ago, Great White Hunters were much in evidence, but the lion had much of Africa, and even some of India, to roam around in, far from places even Africans frequented. Today, the lion can't roam at all. Human habitation and human land use surrounds even the most majestic of preserves. Like the grizzly bear in Yellowstone, the lion in the Serengeti is hemmed into a range that seems vast, but may not be able to support a viable population. Outside of that range, lions compete with humans for food, and usually get the short end of the deal.

Jackson's Lion keenly observes how humans have tested the great cats for dominance throughout history. Sometimes the test has been very direct, as in the craze, ever since the 19th century, for lion-taming shows. Individual lion-tamers very frequently lose life and limb in such contests. But on aggregate, tamers always dominate lions. Even Roman gladiators killed far more lions than lions killed Christians. (Indeed, there's no good evidence that lions ever killed Christians in Roman arenas.)

Trophy hunters of the Theodore Roosevelt or Ernest Hemingway ilk go about testing for dominance in a much less sustainable way than lion-tamers. In a peculiar way, gentler dominators of the lion, like George and Joy Adamson of Born Free fame, have been among the most powerful icons of man/cat struggle. Jackson reprints a curiously sensual picture of Joy Adamson reclining with the famous lioness Elsa. The Adamsons – at least rhetorically – tamed their lions with kindness: they became one with the lion, and like sovereigns of old, drew their power from the über-predator.

We fear, respect, and envy lions – as we do other top-of-the-chain predators like tigers, grizzly and polar bears, and great white sharks. Of course, most of us never see a lion except pacing a zoo enclosure or at the point of a circus tamer's chair. Lions, like so many other beasts, are for the most part imaginary. The tragedy of such creatures is that they are also real, but may not exist very much longer in reality. For that, we can blame our over-active imaginations.

Jackson, Deirdre. Lion. London: Reaktion, 2010.