Last night I was sharing a platform with Bill Oddie and some of the great conservationists of the planet to launch World Land Trust big fund-raising putsch which they call the Big Cat Appeal. If they can raise a quarter-million quid, the funds will be matched by generous and secretive donors. They money will go to World Land Trust projects with big cats. Here’s a link: http://www.worldlandtrust.org/project/big-cat-appeal
And here’s the written draft of my speech:
So I was walking across the Luangwa Valley in Zambia with my old friend Bob, the vehicle having been halted by a puncture and Bob, the silly sod, being unable to fix it because he had left the tools in the place where we had been looking for, I think, a red-billed teal — when we walked straight into a lion.
A lioness, to be accurate and lying spark-out on the ground in the shade. So we made an extravagant detour and approached the camp a few hundred yards further on, across the mouth a dry river called the Chamboo. And it was as I was crossing this river when, a cricket-pitch away, there was a localised but still devastating nuclear explosion in a combretum bush and there, standing facing us was the biggest blackest-maned lion you’ve ever seen on your life. And he was extremely pissed off. You could tell that from the snarl.
So here’s how I avoided becoming lunch for two. Here’s the absolutely brilliant thing I did to avoid death and division and consumption. I did absolutely nothing. I froze. No decision from the conscious mind: something older than human language took control of my human frame. It was an instruction from the dawn of humankind: stand bloody still. When facing a lion, don’t think about turning, and don’t even dream about running. Had I run, I would have triggered the chase reflex and he would have knocked me down within a few paces.
But he wasn’t hunting. He wasn’t worried about food. We worked out later that he was sleeping off a lengthy honeymoon with the spark-out lioness and all that truly concerned him was whether or not he was ready for round two… though I should point out here that the great ethologist George Schaller once watched a lion copulate 147 times in 55 hours; maybe this one was grumpy because he could only do it 146 times.
And so, confronted by our stillness, and being in no mood for food or fight, he spun on his haunches and disappeared into the bush. Bob and I walked on and by the time we were back in camp we were giggling like schoolgirls – leaving me to ponder forever on what it’s like to be an early human living on the savannahs of Africa and sharing this world with big cats.
The answer to that pondering is simple enough. We are all protein. Meat. We humans are prey, and have been since the dawn of our species.
In 1898-9, two lions preyed on the humans who were trying the build the Kenya-Uganda railway. It is claimed that they killed 135 people before they were shot. I once read an account of this most unfortunate railway delay under the headline: “The Wrong Kind of Lions.”
That’s one of the reasons why big cats have so much fascination for us: because they can kill us so very easily: and because we are linked with them from the very dawn of our species.. Their quite extraordinary beauty of movement is inextricably linked with their lethal qualities. There is something deeply attractive about these fearsome animals. I have never met anyone who, on seeing a pride of lions sleeping together after a prolonged gorge, all piled one on top of the other, didn’t want to dive in amongst them to share this glorious sense of lazy furry big-pawed camaraderie and roll and roll and roll with the lions.
But my favourite cat is like Victoria Woods’s favourite chocolate: all of them. There are few things quite as lovely as a night-hunting leopard. Catch it in the spotlight and it’s moving as if every joint had been bathed in a gallon of oil and glowing as if lit from within.
John Burton, CEO of the World Land Trst and I once found a tiger in India, which we pursued briefly on elephant-back like the shikari of the Raj. The tiger crouched in the grass and snarled up at us, in the position in which so many of its kind ended up being stuffed. Not this fellow: he fizzed into the high grass like flame. He was fearful all right, symmetrical, too, and he burns bright in my memory to this day.
And then there was the jaguar in Belize. John missed that one because he was forming a tight two-shot with the film star Darryl Hannah – she played the mermaid in Splash, you may remember – and she was planning to do wonderful things for World Land Trust at the time. What’s more beautiful: a jungle-crawling jaguar or Darryl dressed – if that’s quite the mot juste – as a mermaid? I’ll leave that one with you.
But these days, every big cat you see is more beautiful than any big cat ever seen before. And that’s because of their fragility. Once, big cats had the power of life and death over us humans: now the claws are on the other foot. Lions once roamed about Spain and France, Italy and Greece: now they’re confined to a few national parks in Africa and one in India. Others are not even as well off as that, especially tigers. And as we destroy our forests and other wild places, so we lose many, many uncountable and un-price-able things. But the creatures closest to our hearts and minds and our ancient atavistic ancestral guts, the creatures that can make us really understand the notion of love and loss, are the big cats. So I am here to recommend to you all that you step from the vehicle and seek eye-contact with a big cat because it will change
your world forever – and inspire you to look after and safeguard and cherish their world forever.