Sharing Individual Dramas Reveals The Whole Story On World Nature Conservation Day
This may look like a cute and idyllic sighting on safari, but the intensity in this lioness’s stare is a reflection of her desperation to get her cub out of life-threatening danger. Though the connection may not be obvious, the cause of their peril can be traced to climate change and deforestation.
As a wildlife photographer I see first hand the effects human activities are having on many habitats, species and other people, and for World Nature Conservation Day I've been asked to highlight some of their hidden stories.
A lioness rescues her cub from danger ©Trai Anfield
In Kenya over the past few years extremes of weather have had profound effects on the Mara and Talek Rivers, and on the complex web of life they support in the Maasai Mara.
In 2019 an intense dry season, along with increased irrigation demand, saw the Mara River run dry for the first time in memory. Following on from this the rains came and didn’t stop. By March 2020 months of torrential downpours culminated in the rivers washing away over a dozen safari camps, killing at least one person, stranding tourists and placing wildlife like this lioness and her cub in danger.
A safari camp is washed away in Kenya's Maasai Mara ©Roisin Allen
The effects of excessive rainfall were exacerbated by deforestation in the hills upstream. Here swathes of forest were recently felled for farming – hence the increased irrigation demand - but as the trees were lost the soil could no longer hold water, and the full force of the deluge careered downstream.
While the rivers bulged, the grasses on the plains grew higher and more widespread, forcing grazers to seek new areas of refuge – no gazelle, topi, wildebeeste or zebra wants to hang around in grass that’s really long as they can’t see predators approaching.
As a result this cub was born in an area barren of food for his mother. She was forced to take the unusual and risky decision to shift her vulnerable little ones into the hunting grounds of a neighbouring pride.
The journey was long and hard for little legs and the smallest cubs gradually became separated from the rest of the pride, lost in the endless maze of grass that grew well above their little heads. They were stranded alone on the plain for two days, and those of us watching worried that their crying would attract the wrong sort of attention: hyena, leopard and buffalo will all happily kill lion cubs on the ground; martial eagles or vultures will take them from above.
Lionesses will also kill the cubs of rival females if they encroach on their territory, and that is the situation the main image above depicts. Having been discovered poaching scarce game, this lioness is now being forced to flee and rescue her cubs from the lionesses whose territory she has encroached on. Some of those resident females are in close pursuit, intent on killing both mother and baby, while others search for the remaining cubs. The intense stare is the mother calculating whether our vehicle is an ally she can use to shield herself from her attackers, or if we are likely to attack her too.
This is one of countless, but mostly unreported, dramas in our changing natural world: lions’ existence is always fraught with danger, but this lioness and cub would not have been forced into this situation had it not been for extreme weather events, with natural fluctuations intensified by changes in local land use and our global atmosphere.
On World Nature Conservation Day it’s time to share these small individual dramas which, when added together, tell the full story of the life-threatening changes our world is facing. Only then can we grasp the enormity of the threat to wildlife and humans alike, and the need to take positive action now.