In March, a new film hits theaters. It’s a courageous tale of a single mother, forced out of her home and fighting for survival. No, it’s not a little-known indie film or a critics’ darling. In fact, the main characters in the film don’t even speak – well, unless you count roaring as speaking. That’s right; the films’ “actors” are cats, lions to be exact.
The Last Lions, released by National Geographic Movies, follows the journey of lioness Ma di Tau (“Mother of Lions”) as she struggles to survive and care for her cubs after she loses her mate and is cast out by a rival pride. It’s a dramatic and suspenseful story – a story with the aspiration to raise awareness of the declining lion population (from 450,000 to 20,000 during the last 50 years) and to increase support for conservation.
The filmmakers behind The Last Lions, Derek and Beverly Joubert, are conservationists at heart. As noted in their biography, “Filmmaking for them has always been a way to bring the message of conservationism to audiences.” Their previous film Eternal Enemies (about lions and hyenas clashing in overlapping territories) was seen by an estimated 1 billion viewers. That’s 1 billion people learning about animal behavior and biology through film.
Encouraging conservationism and biology education is not a task solely for documentaries. The drama Born Free (1966) follows a couple raising a lioness named Elsa who then release her into the wilds of Kenya. The film, based on a true story, inspired the lead actor (Bill Travers) and lead actress (Virginia McKenna) to become animal activists and helped establish the Born Free Foundation, a conservation and animal rights organization.
Not all films about lions have sparked conservation efforts – but there’s always the possibility and opportunity to inspire. Seeing The Lion King (1994) or Madagascar (2005) might encourage a child to learn about animal behavior or conservationism. There are even a few films about cheetahs similar to the storyline of Born Free. In both Cheetah (1989)and Duma (2005), a family raises an orphaned cheetah and then fights to return it to the wild where it belongs.
These films are heart-warming stories, proof that messages of conservationism and animal biology don’t need to be heavy-handed – they just need to be inside of a good story.