An encounter with a lion

maddy costa
May 17, 2019 · 14 min read
Image for post
Image for post


The car judders round a bend and there he is: a young lion, striding ahead, purposeful, not quite prowling. We follow a few metres behind, cautiously, then groan with frustration when he suddenly disappears. Quick, lithe, into the scrub and stubby trees; it takes a while to find him again, strolling through higher, more open ground. When he reaches a grassy plain high and open enough that he can survey the landscape across and around he stops, settles. He might lie here now for hours, enjoying the play of the sun on his flanks, indistinguishable at a distance from a termite mound. Zebra and antelope graze just yonder, close enough that he could reach them in a strobe flash. But he doesn’t, he doesn’t need to. Animals take only what they need.


In what feels like an inevitable but comic mental leap, the conversation turns to The Lion Sleeps Tonight. I could tell the family that a partial history of exploitation, cultural appropriation and capitalism is audible in the journey that song took from its birth as Mbube, composed and co-sung by Solomon Linda in the 1930s, through American versions by the Weavers, who turned it into Wimoweh, and the Tokens, who opted for The Lion Sleeps Tonight, to the Eurotrash gaudiness of Tight Fit in 1982, a journey Rachel Mars once described to me as “the sound of money”. But we’re on holiday and I’m not sure anyone is interested. I gaze out of the window and scan the ground for baboons.


The taxi passes a township, corrugated iron shacks standing close like dominoes poised for a toppling game, each dotted with its own satellite dish. There’s still so much to do, says the driver, to build houses for everyone, to build opportunity so that everyone has work. As the city centre looms into view, international standard characterless concrete and glass structures, I think: what might an equal or equitable society actually look like? Because I’m pretty sure it’s not bringing everyone to this.

There’s a familiar cosmopolitanism to the centre of Cape Town. By which I mean, I have experiences here that are much the same as experiences in London or New York. For instance, I see a lot of different skin colours when I’m out and about, but as soon as I go inside a restaurant or art gallery, most of the staff are black and most of the patrons are white. Such are the ways that passive or latent or embedded racism reveals itself: in structures, in institutions, not as policy, going unnamed.

The driver points proudly to the stadium, built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, but barely used now: South Africa is more of a rugby country than a football country. In a bar along the waterfront, a television screen advertising upcoming matches names Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barcelona, but no local teams. You know who played at the stadium last month? the driver asks proudly. Ed Sheeran. Two nights!


The lioness strides a few paces ahead; when the lion gets too close, she makes her disapproval known swift and sharp. When they stop — grassy plain, high and open — she settles first, he curves his body behind hers. They’re alert but not emphatically so. There’s time.

The lion could kill any of the zebra or antelope lurking in the distance, one from each species on watch, wary, the others eating, unruffled. But he won’t, because he knows she will. She will kill what she needs to feed herself and her pride; the lion will eat first and best. This isn’t obscure knowledge: any children’s fact sheet about lions will repeat it. But there’s a particularity here, in this fenced landscape, where ecologists and conservationists are working to give lions, zebras, antelopes, and other animals — giraffes, hippos, rhinos — as close to a natural wild environment as possible, that makes me reconsider what it means that animals take only what they need.


Olivia Rosenthal’s book To Leave with the Reindeer follows the curve of a human life from childhood to womanhood, socialisation to resistance, interweaving close description of her inner landscape with first-person text spoken by people who work with animals: in zoos, in farms, in science labs. I read it in a gasp, startled by the acuity of the parallels Rosenthal draws between domestication and captivity, distilled at points into aphorism, like this:

Caring means finding the remedy to an illness that one has already deliberately introduced.


The car bumps and turns through Eucalyptus Valley, in search of a leopard. We’re feeling lucky, fresh from an encounter with two rhinos lying on their sides in a sandpool, kicking up their feet in delight while we watched from behind the cover of trees, like Victorian porn peepers. High up in a tree hangs the grey-brown carcass of an antelope, dragged there by the leopard and draped so that its horns hang below its hooves. It’s the closest we’ll get to the most elusive creature on the reserve.

Further along the valley, the guide points to a barely visible cleft in the rock face above: doorway to Bushman’s Cave, where a few months ago ancient paintings were found. It’s just down the coast from here, in Blombos Cave, that the oldest known rock drawing was discovered: criss-crossing ochre lines dating back 73,000 years.

Image for post
Image for post


A flicker of brown in the landscape turns out to be a jackal, sniffing out food. Fruit in season. Invertebrates. Scavenged meat bone-picked from the kill left behind by the big cats. A pendulum swings in my head: hierarchy, symbiosis, hierarchy, symbiosis. From each animal according to its ability, to each according to its needs.


The phrase “fat cat” was coined — according to wikipedia — by a Baltimore journalist in the 1920s, to describe “a man of large means and slight political experience who, having reached middle age, and success in business, and finding no further thrill, sense or satisfaction in the mere piling up of more millions, develops a yearning for some sort of public honor, and is willing to pay for it”. Almost a century on and that tenuous connection to public honour is broken: now it’s just anyone — although most likely a man — living in a condition of extreme, obscene wealth.

A key feature in the socialisation of children is teaching them how to share. Chocolate, toys, love. Being equal, being fair. No one accepts the logic of capitalism in the playground, my friend Shiona says. So why do we tolerate it in adults?


Olivia Rosenthal: We can say what we like but there was once a time when wolves and men lived together, so it would surprise me to find that wolves copied humans, it must be that man has copied the wolves, the family, the tribe, all in tune, a pack leader, a clan leader, it’s the same system. For men, man is a wolf.


Researching the evolution of creativity I come across an article by anthropologist Gillian Morriss-Kay that ends with the following question: “Art is a wonderfully enjoyable aspect of human culture but not essential to survival, so why did artistic creativity arise? A key phrase[,] which is commonplace in our description of everyday experience, is ‘the mind’s eye’. In addition to the functional application of this facility in tool-making, it would have had an important survival function in hunting. The long-distance runner Bernt Heinrich, in his book Racing the Antelope, points out that when animals hunt they give up the chase when the prey disappears from view; humans, however, know that an animal that has disappeared over the horizon or behind a group of rocks is still there to be followed. The neural changes that provided our ancestors with the imagination to understand, through logic, the continued existence of something that is no longer visible, together with the anatomical attributes that enabled them to outrun prey over long distances, would have had a genuine evolutionary advantage. Without these survival-enhancing functional origins, it is unlikely that we would have the neural equipment to create art.”


A conversation about the colouring of lions’ manes — affected by melanin, the guide says — turns to the subject of lionesses who grow manes. The guide describes them as effectively intersex: although sexual, they don’t give birth to cubs, and have higher levels of testosterone in their bodies. At home I learn there’s a resistance to the testosterone theory among some animal biologists. I also find this article on BBC Earth that presents a much more nuanced thinking about gender in the animal world than I’ve encountered before. Science is riddled with confirmation bias, it argues:

“Many biologists were seeing what they wanted to believe, and then using the results to justify prevailing cultural norms. ‘You get this back-and-forth: science is reinforcing societal mores, and the mores are reinforcing what the science is saying,” says Zuleyma Tang-Martinez at the University of Missouri — St Louis. The result […] is that scientists have often failed to recognise astonishingly diverse sexual behaviours across the animal kingdom. There are now myriad examples of animals that break the rules entirely — from intersex kangaroo to a fish with four separate ‘genders’.”


Of course, how the “oldest known” art is defined also depends on the definition of art. “We tend to think of these beautiful cave paintings of the big mastodons and wild oryx as art,” says anthropologist Augustín Fuentes in an interview in National Geographic. “But that’s only about 40,000 years old. We know that 85,000 years ago, in southern Africa, our ancestors were carving on ostrich eggshells. Twenty thousand years earlier than that, they were drilling holes in small shells and wearing them around their necks. One hundred thousand years before that, they were crumbling ochre and rubbing it on their bodies. Five hundred thousand years before that, half a million years ago, they were making tools that were incredibly beautiful and more symmetrical and aesthetic than they had to be to do their jobs. Art is very deep in human history.”


There are so many birds I can’t keep up with all their names. When the guide is talking about larks, their spiralling bungee-jump flying habits, I think about the phrase “larking about” and notice myself questioning, why do the birds bother doing that? In that moment it hits me, pow in the stomach, how poisoned I am by the language of value, relevance, purpose, impact, coursing through cultural discourse in the UK. While I’m in South Africa, the Stage publishes a column by Matt Trueman on Arts Council England’s changing priorities. “It will no longer be enough to produce high-quality work,” Matt quotes ACE’s deputy chief executive Simon Mellor as saying. “You will need to be able to demonstrate that you are also facing all of your stakeholders and communities in ways that they value.”

According to my dictionary, the term “lark about” might be related to the birds, or might be the remnant of a now obsolete verb, laik: to exert oneself, move quickly, leap, spring, fight, play, sport, take time off work. This feels like a good word to reintroduce into the language.


It takes a day or so to begin to spot the difference between the antelope from afar. Red hartebeest with their chestnutty coats and horns that end in a defined, heart-base point at their foreheads; blesbuck smaller, browner, with a sugar spill of white down their faces. Waterbuck: white circle around their bums, like they sat on a toilet seat painted white for a prank. Eland more bulky, but more cohesively constructed than the awkward wildebeest. Impala soft as a Disney illustration for Bambi, horns angled like a mid-century lounge chair. Usually when we see them they’re resting or grazing, but sometimes we catch the blesbucks and impala at play, leaping and scattering, all unbound motion, larks on a horizontal axis.

Lions don’t bother trying to catch impala, the guide says. It’s too much effort to chase something so skittish. Animals not only take just what they need, but do just what they need. You could call that a survival tactic. Or, I think, looking at the impala frolicking, the hippos beaming, the rhino kicking its feet in the air with delight, you could call it a healthy approach to living.

Image for post
Image for post


Gillian Morriss-Kay: “Humans living close to wild carnivores, such as the people of the Mongolian grasslands who lived in close proximity to wolf packs, have a sense of awe and respect for the organizational strength, social structure and division of labour that underpins the group’s hunting success; the Mongolian nomads regarded the wolves as their mentors. European lions may have played a similar role for the communities associated with Chauvet. There are 72 drawings of lions in this cave, more than in all of the other French caves combined. Like wolves, lions are successful co-operative hunters and [a group depicted in Chauvet] suggests that the artist identifies with their power, sense of common purpose and concentrated intent.”


Look, I’m not totally naive, ok? The guide at the game reserve tells us that the worst violence he’s ever witnessed is the slaughter of a lioness and five cubs by three male lions protecting their territory. The owner of a cafe on a side road close to the sea tells us that the seemingly adorable baboons carrying babies and chomping on fruit have rejected the older baboon with a damaged back, refusing to slow down or accommodate his needs, abandoning him to fend for himself. But I don’t know what to do with the fact that capitalism is predicated on humans adopting the worst of animal behaviour, not the best. And I don’t understand how a thought as simplistic as believing in the human capacity to do better, to think intellectually about concepts like equity and justice, to use the mind’s eye that has given us tools and technology to imagine how these concepts might become constructs, is a radical position.


The same ranger who tells me that animals take only what they need also tells me how animals self-medicate. Elephants, for instance, know what plants to eat to cure a sick stomach. People once had such knowledge too; many still do.

Over skype my friend Rajni tells me about wanting to learn from the indigenous people of Australia, learn from their knowledge, built up over centuries, of how to live with and care for the natural environment.

The same mind’s eye that understood that an animal that has disappeared over the horizon is still there to be followed is now struggling to understand that the natural world apparently still right in front of us is disappearing as a result of — as described in the Guardian — “suffocating human-caused sameness” on “a planet in which the human footprint is so large it leaves little space for anything else”.


“Africa is not Africa without lions,” says Bernard Kissui, a Tanzanian lion scientist with the African Wildlife Foundation. But “human needs precede the wildlife’s. As the number of people increases, we take the land that would have been available to the wildlife and use it for ourselves. Africa has one billion people now. Think about what that one billion implies in terms of the future of lions. We are heading into a very complicated world.”


Olivia Rosenthal: Applied to animals, a step backwards, reconstruction, restitution, in short, the state of nature, marks progress. The captives’ well-being demands that we do not forget their past.


I’m under no illusion that the game reserve I visit is a compromise. A fair amount of human intervention is required to maintain a natural environment for the animals: clearing the ground of damaging non-indigenous trees planted by the sheep farmers who used to own the land; transporting male elephants to other game reserves — journeys of displacement the animals would once have made on foot, travelling thousands of miles across the continent — to ensure necessary variety in the gene pool. This place is luckier than some: it’s bank-rolled by an American couple, philanthropists who wanted to invest in preserving the natural environment. Persuading society at large of the value of ecology conservation, even for the potential return market benefits of eco-tourism, in a country where so many people experience such harsh poverty, is a struggle, admits the ranger. Everything has a price. Especially animals.

In 2007, 13 rhinos were poached in South Africa; in 2014, more than 1,200. Security measures at this game reserve have been stepped up since a family of its own rhinos were found dead, horns removed: every day a ranger locates and counts every single one of the rhinos who live here. This is a compromise, but it’s at least a compromise in the right direction.


Every so often I think about being in the supermarket with my mum in the mid-1980s, and seeing another child give her mum an avocado to put in the trolley. The mum put it straight back on the shelf and said no, we don’t buy things from South Africa, because of Apartheid. My mum was really distressed by this incident: by the way the other mother had snapped at her child, but also by the other mother’s insistence that the child be aware of social politics. She’s too young, my mum said, it’s not right.

It took me a long time, years, to realise that not talking about politics is also a political position.


South Africa is not a country I ever imagined visiting. Were it not for my in-laws taking me, maybe I wouldn’t have ever. I’ve been changed, I think, by those three days living among lions, antelope, rhinos, and the rest, but also by two days spent driving across a wide dramatic landscape to reach the game reserve, a plateau connecting jagged mountain peaks to left and right, sparsely populated by humans, so high and open that my imagination expanded creatively in a way it hasn’t for years. I don’t know what to do with all the stories that floated into my mind in those hours. Home doesn’t seem to have space for them.

It’s an extraordinary country, but also painful. Painful. Everywhere I go I’m aware of the decades of institutionalised, militarised inequality and abuse of humanity. I’m aware that the only people I see thumbing for a ride are black, that the only people I see in makeshift towns and rubbish-strewn streets are black, that the rangers at the game reserve are white and the domestic staff are black, that in some of the most elegant towns we visit predominately the population is white. I try to understand the mentality that created Apartheid and I can’t. I just don’t understand how humans, with all their imaginative capacity, can conceive and commit such violence.

We’re at lunch with a cousin-in-law and her kids, two boys and an adopted girl. I can’t remember what we’re talking about — sunburn, maybe — and the cousin-in-law describes her daughter’s skin as black. “Not black, mummy,” the girl replies. “Not black.”


We punctuate that two-day drive with a visit to Cango Caves. And of course I could say a bunch of bland stuff about how spectacular its caverns and columns and natural accumulations of limestone are. But what remains with me are the faces, so sculptural I wonder if humans carved them. Faces that drip with sadness, as though the damage done to humans and animals over centuries in this country, through the history of slavery and colonisation to the present day, has seeped into the landscape with the soft drip of rain to settle here in the rocks, a permanent lament.

Image for post
Image for post

**Encounters is a series by the Department of Feminist Conversations in conversation with the work that inspires, nourishes, challenges or provokes us. We welcome contributions from interested readers: your encounter can be with a novel, a poem, a political text, a film, a song, a photograph, a cartoon, an exhibition, a performance, a game — the list goes on and on. To register your interest, please email us at: departmentfc[at]gmail[dot]com

The Department of Feminist Conversations

An open collective exploring feminist modes of gathering…

maddy costa

Written by

trying to change the world through writing about theatre. ridiculous I know. two kids one puppy four websites and a head full of dreams

The Department of Feminist Conversations

An open collective exploring feminist modes of gathering and exchange since 2016. We use publishing, live events, workshops, salons, archives and interventions to mobilise, share knowledge, and reflect together. Facilitated by Maddy Costa, Diana Damian Martin and Mary Paterson.

maddy costa

Written by

trying to change the world through writing about theatre. ridiculous I know. two kids one puppy four websites and a head full of dreams

The Department of Feminist Conversations

An open collective exploring feminist modes of gathering and exchange since 2016. We use publishing, live events, workshops, salons, archives and interventions to mobilise, share knowledge, and reflect together. Facilitated by Maddy Costa, Diana Damian Martin and Mary Paterson.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store