As Beverly and I sit in the darkness in our camp in Duba in Botswana, we can see a shape out in the tall grass not far away. We know it is a lioness because she settled there at sunset and is now fast asleep, quite comfortable just outside of the glow of our small campfire. Sometimes a song will pop into your head at moments like this, songs that just seem appropriate at the time. In some cases, a song stays “alive” and enjoyable for decades, taking on new life for each generation with each rendition of it.
One example is “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which for most people is one of those much-loved songs that survives quite well as it drags memories personal and indicative of its era. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” dates back to the 1920s. when the South African singer Solomon Linda composed it as “Mbube,” a name that in Zulu points to the central spirit of the song over generations: the lion.
The song probably warns that it is a particularly bad idea to wake a sleeping lion near the village. It’s a simple message of caution, but it is also a message of magic and the beauty of nature, the quiet jungle at night, the distant roar (or snore) of a lion.
As I listened to the song recently I started considering the different eras this song spans, for us, for lions, and for those villagers that have to tiptoe around at night.
In 1920 when “Mbube” was written, the confluence of Man and Lion was quite small and unlikely, even though there were probably around a million wild lions in Africa at the time. Flashpoints were few because we numbered less than 120 million people in the whole of Africa.
Forty years later, in 1960, there was an awakening of the song when it was released in a new version: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” It broke out and became the #1 hit song in 1961.
I estimate that there were around 450,000 lions then, but the human population had doubled to about 300 million people as The Tokens’ version and Jay Siegel’s famous falsetto voice belted out the lyrics. The points on the graph, as a young Jay brought the song alive, hinted at a disturbing trend that I started investigating: Each time the human population in Africa doubles, lion populations roughly halve.
In 1994 the song popped up again in The Lion King. At that time we had roughly 200,000 lions–halved again–while the human population had once again doubled, to more than 600 million.
But then the curve suddenly started to accelerate. In the last 20 years, each time our own population goes up by a quarter, lion populations halve.
So it was of great interest to me when a new artist, Beau Davidson, approached us in 2015 after his Emmy nomination for his song “Blessed,” to collaborate on a new version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Beau is very collaborative and his idea was to team up with Jay Siegel, who sang the 1961 version, to re-imagine the song.
A lot has changed in 55 years, not just lion and human population numbers. Today we have the ability to add to music high-quality images and to distribute it all on social media platforms.
More importantly — and this why we agreed to collaborate with this project — proceeds may be generated for conservation of lions. Beau has offered that all the money raised by his venture will be donated to the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative.
Lead producer Jimmy Nichols set up the recording session at Reba McEntire’s Starstuck Studios in Nashville, with African percussion, big brass, and the voices of Davidson and Siegel, managed by Executive Producer Paul Kasofsky of Rainbow Management Talent. Nashville, always a music epicenter, became the hub for this global collaboration.
Just as the process started, the world was struck by the senseless and illegal killing of a male lion in Zimbabwe. The death of Cecil the Lion, as it became known, attracted the attention of millions of people worldwide, and our own efforts to stop lion hunting came into the spotlight once again.
Some years before, we had established the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative to save these iconic animals, and we have seen some success, with over 80 projects funded in 27 countries.
Dr. Palmer, the dentist who shot Cecil, was basically run out of town. Even though the lion was shot in Zimbabwe, President Ian Khama of Botswana, a neighbouring country, issued a PI (Presidential Interdiction, basically a blacklisting) against Palmer, in case he ever considered coming to our country. It was a signal and protest from Botswana against safari hunting killing, and a message that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated in Botswana.
We agreed to help “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” project, and a short film, cut by our editor Candice Odgers, helpd give the song another life, placing it in context with footage of lions.
We are at a tipping point in the world of conservation now, where millions of people protest a lion being shot (at last), presidents weigh in, and artists like Beau and Jay get behind a cause that can steer people to more compassion and caring for the wilderness and for lions.
But as this film and song are released we may now have 20,000 wild lions surviving amongst 1.2 billion people in Africa, and the curve on my graph has a very steep dip in it.
The race to stop this extinction is underway. No one can stop time, and the release of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is not an attempt to stop the clock, but it does give us the opportunity to step up and break the trend of lion population declines since the song was first written and performed by a songwriter who cleaned the studio in Johannesburg during the day, and sang of a village in the darkness at night. I hope that the lyrics “Hush my darling … the lion sleeps tonight” never become words of an anthem a hundred years from now, when the lions of Africa are forever asleep.
Please take a look at the final music video at: https://youtu.be/52chF7DWJcY and if you would like to help our Big Cats Initiative at National Geographic to save lions please visit our www.causeanuproar.org website.
Article by Dereck Joubert
Photographs by Beverly Joubert