August 11 2017
Greetings to colleagues near and far,
Elizabeth Nelson and I write you as we conclude a weeklong safari in and around Kruger Park in South Africa, following the IAJS conference in Cape Town. For those of you who attended the conference, you may recall Denise Grobbelaar’s moving presentation on the white lions of the Timbavati as a living symbol of the Self. We wondered if there was some remote chance to glimpse these enchanting animals. Our first day at the Kambaku Lodge, we went out on an evening game drive with our guide Ryno and our tracker Moses. Suddenly the spotlights from the truck illuminated a pair of young male lions, magnificent enormous animals resting in the dark brush without any regard or concern for our presence a mere 10 feet away. Time seemed to stop and a sense of reverence emerged.
Driving away, we encountered a game vehicle from a nearby camp waiting to go in. “Are those the naughty lions?” the other guide asked. “Yes,” said Ryno, “they’re the naughty lions.” He paused, “But lion is lion.” “Yes,” the other guide said with remorse in his voice, “Lion is lion.” As we drove away, I asked Ryno why the lions were naughty. “A few nights ago, that pair of lions killed the last white lion in the East Timbavati.” Elizabeth and I were stunned. Ryno explained that there had been a chaotic and violent fight over a recent kill between two groups of lions, including the “naughty” two. The white female ended up in the middle of the fight, and these two killed her. The community of guides and trackers in the region were all devastated by this event. The white lioness had been, in Ryno’s words, “a kind of holy grail.” Later, an autopsy performed on the lioness revealed she was pregnant with two white cubs.
We asked Ryno what he meant by “lion is lion.” His first answer was that the local guiding community hated those two lions. But tourists keep coming, and tourists want to see lions, so a lion is a lion. Later, in conversation with another guide, his answer was different and, to our ears, deeper. It seemed the phrase, absent any articles, was acknowledging the nature of lion. What is that nature? How do we see it through lion eyes instead of the many human narratives we invent and use unconsciously? We both feel a sense of shock, sadness, and deep loss. Even Ryno admitted to weeping the night the lioness was killed. We wondered how any of us could feel such awe and reverence for lion one moment and such anger the next. And, in light of Denise’s fine and inspiring presentation, the fate of the white lioness of Timbavati and her two white cubs seems like tragedy. These emotions, and the tragic sense of life, are part of human nature. Would lion understand the way we see their story? No. Humanity is the story-telling animal. Lion is lion.
Given the timing of the white lioness’s death, August 1st, the day after the conclusion of the IAJS conference, and given the place of importance the white lions occupied in Denise’s fine presentation, we felt this news was important to share with our community.