CINCINNATI — “The Lion King” remake ruled the box office this past weekend, grossing more than $185 million. But unlike the original movie, the new version comes with a larger agenda.
Disney plans to donate up to $3 million to wildlife organizations and zoos to support The Wildlife Conservation Network’s Lion Recovery Fund, with the goal of doubling the number of lions in the wild by 2050.
Disney funds will help bolster the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s partnership with the South Rift Association of Land Owners (SORALO) in Kenya to help Maasai farmers and lions coexist peacefully, said Cincinnati Zoo head Africa keeper Wendy Rice.
“Since the original ‘Lion King’ came out 25 years ago, the lion population has decreased by half,” Rice said. “So this is an ambitious effort by Disney to support lion conservation and sort of undo what’s been done.”
Local moviegoers inspired by the “Lion King” characters can visit the zoo to see several real-life counterparts, she said, adding that while some of the behaviors by animals in the film are spot on, much of the film would play out differently in the wild.
Rice pointed to the way villainous lion Scar plots Mufasa’s death, then banishes Mufasa’s son Simba; in real life it would be far more brutal with males often fighting to the death to control the pride, she said, adding that cubs then often become casualties in order to coerce females into mating sooner.
“As soon as a male is strong enough to earn that position, it’s not like life gets easier,” she said. “Now you have to fight every single day because there’s always another young male trying to come up and take control.”
Rice said the movie’s love story between Simba and Nala reminds her of the zoo’s lion pair John and Imani.
In the movie, Simba comes of age, sees now-grown lioness Nala and decides to challenge Scar for control of the pride. Rice said when lion John arrived at the Cincinnati Zoo from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, he was timid and afraid of everything. It wasn’t until his mate Imani arrived that John put his fears aside and became a confident cat, Rice said.
“The minute Imani unloaded and walked into the building, instantly John was big man on campus and roaring,” she said. “So you can say similarly, John had this adult awakening moment when a girl showed up and decided he had to get it together. The two are much better together and really in love.”
Fans of “Lion King” character Pumbaa can view the zoo’s own Walter the warthog, said senior Africa keeper Lissa Browning. Like Pumbaa, Walter is filled with personality and is a bit of a loner, she said. But unlike the movie warthog, she said Walter chooses to be alone not because of flatulence. Male warthogs are solitary in the wild, she said, so she initially questioned Pumbaa’s friendship with Timon the meerkat -- that is until she discovered a species of mongoose that hangs out with warthogs.
“They’re not meerkats, but these banded mongooses do have a symbiotic relationship with them that they will come over, climb on top of them and eat the ticks off of them,” she said. “The warthogs love it.”
Then of course there’s the love affair both Pumbaa and Walter share for food, said Africa keeper Mark Tewes. He said regardless of what they offer Walter to eat, he always displays the same excitement and voracious appetite.
“Warthogs are very food motivated,” Tewes said. “That’s not an exaggeration, they’re always searching for grubs in the movie and we constantly see Walter rooting up grass in the yard looking for stuff. And when we give him food he just goes crazy.”
With regard to Pumbaa’s bestie Timon the meerkat, Africa keeper Alexandra Zimmer said it’s not uncommon to see a lone meerkat, but it’s usually a female. As meerkat societies are matriarchal, she said females sometimes get kicked out if they become pregnant as there’s only one designated breeder. She said their group consisting of one female and five males, which ironically actually came from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, is constantly digging, tunneling and keeping watch for predators.
“They’re not lazy like Timon,” she said. “And they don’t like water. In the original movie you’d see them all swimming, but they don’t like that. When it rains they run inside and hide in their tunnels.”
While Disney’s focus for fundraising is targeted toward lions, Rice said all species in the Savannah will benefit from the project as it involves mitigating threats such as hunting, human interaction, loss of habitat and disease.
“I hope this round of the ‘Lion King’ is this big cultural phenomenon,” Rice said. “I hope that people walk away with the message and care more, think about how we affect the environment around us and the ripple effect it has continents away from us. It’s easy to dismiss, 'I can’t help lions; I live in North America.' But everybody can do something.”
How SORALO helps
Cincinnati Zoo head Africa keeper Wendy Rice said in addition to raising awareness to the challenges lions face in the wild, the South Rift Association of Land Owners (SORALO) in Kenya uses GPS trackers to locate lion herds so ranchers can safely move their cattle or goats to avoid the threat of lions killing their livestock.
“Now they have a first response team that arrives if there’s human-lion contact, so the immediate reaction is not to go out and kill every lion or poison a carcass,” Rice said. “They’re finding seasonally the lions move in really predictable ways, so if we learn those movements the ranchers can move their cattle around to avoid conflict.”