Journalist mauled by lion: wildlife experts offer their feedback
Posted September 11, 2009on:
After a lion nearly mauled Telegraph journalist Charles Starmer-Smith, we asked wildlife experts to share their thoughts.
British wildlife journalist and author
Bloody hell, Charles is one lucky writer. Thank goodness that lion still has his milk teeth! With adult canines the size of one’s thumbs it would have been a great deal worse. What madness, to invite Charles into the lion’s den. With those two guys crouching over him I suspect the lion felt threatened and reacted in the way he would if scrapping with his litter mates in the wild. As soon as I saw its tail thump I knew there was going to be aggro.
As for being asked to tickle its tummy, how crazy was that? Just try it at home with your own fireside moggy. More often than not you can end up with four paws and lots of sharp claws wrapped around your hand.
Sub-adult male lions are invariably unruly. I was once in the same position at Okonjima, Namibia, and went into a compound with a year-old male lion and its handler, Dave Houghton. He said: “If the lion shows an interest and approaches you [which it did], just stand close behind me [which I did], and I’ll fend it off.” The lion then lost interest in me, but I still felt very uncomfortable and was glad when it was all over.
It was a sub-adult male (Shyman) that nearly did for Tony Fitzjohn at George Adamson’s camp back in the Seventies. It bit him through the throat and nearly killed him. So even an experienced lion handler – someone regarded as a human “pride member” – can be at risk.
Wildlife photographer, zoologist and host of the BBC’s Big Cat Diary
That is a scary bit of footage. Having watched wild lions for more than 30 years I could feel my blood running cold. It was very apparent that the “handler” did not have control of the lion in the first place – not sufficiently to allow the Telegraph’s writer to stay in the enclosure for one extra second once the young male began to show signs of real aggression.
I am very wary of these situations. I have a friend, David Mascal, who has worked hands-on with lions for years at the Nairobi Animal Orphanage. He has routinely gone into enclosures with young cubs and “played” with them. I have seen Dave roughhousing with lions of the kind of age that Charles encountered, but those lions did not show the kind of aggression that young male displayed. In fact, Dave was later seriously mauled by a lioness which tore his hand up. She had been rescued from Nairobi National Park as a one-and-a-half-year-old incapable of fending for herself. Dave was outside the enclosure when the attack occurred, but she grabbed his forearm and started to pull him through the wire mesh! His hand had to be operated on and was a mess.
Young adolescent males are particularly tricky – they are increasingly full of testosterone and routinely test their strength in play-fights with their age mates. Normally these are played out with claws retracted and without biting hard, but every so often these sessions escalate as one or other of the combatants becomes increasingly rough and/or dominant. It is one thing to be a lion in these circumstances; equipped to fight back in time-honoured manner and possessing all the nuances of how to show submission or dominance. But a thin-skinned human is an easy target and cannot just break off the encounter whenever they want to.
Crucially perhaps, too, Charles had entered the lion’s domain, and the lion felt very confident.
Charles did all the right things once the young male started to cut up rough. In fact, he did brilliantly by containing and controlling his fear.
It is easy with hindsight to question what went on, but the “handler” really should have got Charles out of there the minute the lion showed signs of aggression. Instead, it was allowed to escalate progressively making it very difficult to extract Charles from the enclosure. You simply cannot take risks like that.
African wildlife veteran and founder of Great Plains, a conservation and wildlife tourism company
Every time I see footage like this, I get angry – at the people who cage animals and at the people who treat wild animals as adrenalin toys. From the moment the video started rolling you could see the lion was uneasy. I was uncomfortable about every part of that situation: the cage itself, the handler and the journalist – for wanting to go into the cage in the first place, and then for not reading the signs and saying that the moment was not right. He should have backed out long before he did. In the past 50 years, the African lion population has plummeted from 450,000 in the middle of the last century to fewer than 20,000 today. These are animals that should be afforded the highest levels of protection and not considered as play animals. Along with respect will come protection and the start of their conservation. Lions in the wild are in grave danger and this type of behaviour does not bode well for their long-term future.