Deep in a dry storeroom in the Natural History Museum, London, awaiting the ardent researcher, lies a paleontological relic to set the spine a-tingling. For here, extracted from the earth of Ffynnon Bueno cave, rests a small collection of the mortal remains of – whisper it – Lion. Yes; 40,000 years ago Panthera spelaea stalked the Clwydian Hills.
Cave lions, analysis undertaken by ancient DNA researcher Dr. Ross Barnett and others suggests, were a close relative of the modern lion Panthera leo. An incredibly successful species, their bones and teeth have been found at sites across Wales and England, their range extending from southern Spain to the Yukon and Siberia. They went extinct suddenly around 14,000 years ago.
That they are vividly depicted in so many cave paintings and carvings is testament to the enduring and archetypal power of the big cats – which perhaps stems from the fact that they vie with us for the mantle of ‘top predator’. This rivalry is powerfully evident today in the face-offs between the Bushmen and modern lions of the Kalahari in which a line of men strides unblinkingly towards the lion on its kill, looking to drive it off, thereby gaining both kudos and the energy-rich spoils of the carcass.
Intelligent pursuit hunters, lions are unique amongst cats in their capacity to function as a highly co-ordinated team. This somehow makes their innate physical power even more terrifying – and it is perhaps the delicious fear they arouse in us that lies at the heart of their charisma.
In the seminal volume British Pleistocene Mammalia, amidst the most glorious collection of lithographs depicting the bones of the lost megafauna of the Ice Age – including Panthera spelaea – Sir William Boyd Dawkins writes:
‘Man cannot live at peace with the great carnivores. In direct proportion to his increase in number they decrease, being driven from the field in the struggle for life’.
And so it is today; lion numbers in Africa continue their sharp decline – to the extent that we may lose them altogether within a few decades. Here, cattle herders – families, we shouldn’t forget, whose grazing lands have been reduced by drought – lay down bait laced with poison for the lions with whom they are increasingly competing for space. As with the lynx, eco-tourism is proposed as a solution, but running against this is our ingrained, instinctive fear of the hunters – which may ultimately be the agency that sends them into oblivion.
Predators, it has been shown again and again, are integral to healthy ecosystems which, without them, ultimately collapse – to our own detriment.
How will we find space for them?