The Lion King is breaking box office records worldwide, with $1.335 billion in cumulative global box office receipts, including $472.8 million in the United States, as of last weekend. More importantly, it’s delighting audiences everywhere, which is hardly surprising, given the deep appeal that animals hold for us all, children and adults alike. In the new version, Walt Disney Pictures presents the evocative tale of the lion cub Simba and his friends and family with breathtaking visuals and computer-generated, photo realistic depictions of South African wildlife. Its effects are magical, as the film transports viewers into the dry South African savannah environment that is the lions’ home, bringing its audience close to animals most people would otherwise only encounter in a zoo.
Prior to the movie’s release, Disney worked with stakeholders, including animal protection groups like Humane Society International, to raise awareness about the challenges lions face in the wild, and to strengthen funding for the Wildlife Conservation Network’s Lion Recovery Fund.
The film’s cutting-edge technology makes it a game-changer, too, as it combines conventional animation and live-action film techniques to stunning effect, with no use of real animals in the movie.
We are appreciative of these efforts, and they complement our own global agenda on behalf of lions and other wildlife. While cubs like Simba are much loved on the screen, in real life, lion cubs can face terrible treatment and peril. In South Africa, for example, there is an entire industry built around lion breeding which churns out lions for cub petting facilities, lion walks, canned lion hunting and the skeleton trade to Asia. About 8,000-11,000 lions are bred and held in approximately 300 lion breeding farms across the country.
In South Africa the victimization of lions in grisly canned hunt facilities is also a concern. At these operations, trophy hunters pay for the chance to pick out an animal trapped in an enclosure with nowhere to run. Captive-born cubs are torn from their mothers days after birth and exploited for tourist selfies or opportunities like “walking with lion safaris.” After they grow too big to be snuggled by people, they are often funneled either into the lion bone trade or the canned lion hunt industry.
Sadly, one of these practices, cub petting, has spread to the United States, too.
Humane Society International has worked to give communities living alongside wildlife the non-lethal strategies and tools needed to promote coexistence. A big part of that involves encouraging wildlife watching and photographic tourism as much more substantial, sustainable and viable alternatives to trophy hunting. We’re pressing airlines not to transport the skins and body parts taken as trophies. And we’re working to end the trophy hunting industry worldwide. Finally, we’re educating consumers about which activities to avoid and which options to choose when it comes to tourism opportunities involving animals.
At the public policy level, of course, lions stand high on our agenda. They’re the subject of our work at CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (we have a team at CITES this week), and a focus of our lobbying and litigation efforts in the United States. Stateside, the Humane Society Legislative Fund is supporting legislation to address the role that a few privileged Americans play in sustaining trophy hunting, including canned hunting enterprises in South African countries.
The Lion King reminds us of how and why the presence of wild animals in the world, alive, is so important, for their sake, for our sake, and for the beauty, health and diversity of our planet. Together, we have a real chance right now to reverse some of the damage, confront the most serious threats and guarantee the future of these magnificent wild animals who now stand at the crossroads of survival.