Like most Western kids growing up in the 90’s, I experienced the cinematic glory of the Disney film The Lion King when it was released onto the big screen in 1994. Breath-taking wilderness scenes overflowing with magnificent, vibrant wildlife – the full grandeur of this mysterious continent, synonymous with the very best nature documentaries, laid out against a powerful Zulu call and the epic soundtrack of ‘The Circle of Life’. And of course, the lions! The god-like, benevolent rulers of this magnificent nature who were surely loved and admired by all. This was ‘Africa’!
There was just one problem. Amongst all the glory of Africa beautifully captured by the opening scenes of The Lion King and throughout the film, there isn’t a single African person to be seen! The film omits any representation of human presence within this grand landscape (Giddings, 1999, Roth, 2005, Zimmerman, 2014), despite many character names and terms coming from the Kiswahili and Zulu languages of some of the East and South African peoples that commonly – and traditionally – share these landscapes with the animals (Cerniglia and Lynch, 2011, Neumann, 1995).
Imagine my dismay when my first real-life encounter with the majestic lion kings were two animals that had been shot dead by frightened villagers living in sheer terror for months after a young boy and several heads of livestock had been killed by their pride. It wasn’t an isolated event. Man-eating lions and loss of livestock livelihoods are an all-too-common story in Africa (Ikanda, 2009, Kushnir et al., 2010, Packer et al., 2005, Patterson et al., 2004, Yamazaki and Bwalya, 1999, Pickrell, 2004), a story that conflicted heavily with my own social construction of what nature in Africa is.
The Lion King is a stark example of social constructionism applied to nature and wildlife in Africa. We imagine that the grandeur of Africa’s wild places and animals is somehow separate to the similarly socially constructed perception of the human tragedy associated with the continent (Zimmerman, 2014, Wainaina, 2006). We have decided that indigenous African people are “incompatible with nature”, intensifying agriculture in small tracts around national parks that – prior to colonisation – were rotationally grazed alongside wildlife without causing significant harm (Fratkin and Sher-Mei-Wu, 1997, Nelson, 2012). We separate ‘unspoilt’ wilderness scenes from the reality of humble grass-roof huts and shanty villages that represent ‘home’ to Africa’s bush and rural dwelling people. We separate people from lions. Social constructivism of nature suggests that the meanings we attach to words like ‘environment’, ‘nature’, ‘wilderness’, or even ‘lion’ are more relative to our societies and cultures than they are to the reality of what is actually ‘out there’ (Rolston, 1997, Cronon, 1996, Demeritt, 2001). In other words, my truth about lions may be very different to a Maasai pastoralist or a Kalahari bushman, because we are perceiving them through our individual cultural filters. This is important to recognise, because it influences the decisions we make about the natural world – and the people living within it.
In the West, our conceptual construction of lions are as iconic symbols of courage, the kings of the jungle. As a material construction, lions are apex predators, designed to hunt, kill and eat other animal organisms, and thus are part of a complex ecological cycle of predator-prey relationships characteristic of a ‘pristine’ African wilderness. We construct the nature of the lion this way because it suits us as outside observers to do so, it appeals to us and all our culture has taught us about these magnificent animals. But we, as Westerners, don’t have to live alongside this predatory powerhouse, nor do we have to consider that we ourselves may be inclusive with the ‘animal organisms’ upon which the lion feeds.
For the people who do live in this very different, participatory context with lions, the enforcement of Western social constructions of African wildlife can be deeply marginalising (Fratkin and Sher-Mei-Wu, 1997, Hazzah et al., 2009, Maasai Warriors, 2000, Nelson, 2012, Neumann, 1995). From the Western social construction, retaliation killing of lions by villagers is condemned. But from the African social construction, the same action is deeply legitimised by lived experience of the ‘out there’ and tangible benefits to the safety, welfare, and livelihood of human villages whose pastoral practices have come into greater conflict with lions as a result of Western colonialism (AWF, 2009, Hazzah et al., 2009, Fratkin and Sher-Mei-Wu, 1997, Nelson, 2012, Maasai Warriors, 2000).
Many studies on the realities of living with lions have been conducted in the Rufiji district of southern Tanzania. One such study is discussed in this video and the full paper can be found here.
Understanding social constructions of nature opens up pathways to examine how considering our perspectives through different cultural filters may assist in guiding our approaches to conservation in a more mutually beneficial way to all involved. By adopting a more sympathetic approach to the social constructions of nature held by African people – who really do live amongst the African bush and wildlife, even if it wasn’t shown in The Lion King – we may be able to direct conservation and wildlife conflict mitigation from a more compassionate and collaborative perspective with the communities directly impacted.