In Conversation with Linda Tucker: White Lions are our living heritage

South Africa’s Heritage Day gives each one of us the perfect opportunity to acknowledge the White Lions as a living heritage in the hearts and minds of humanity. Moreover, it reminds us of our interconnectedness with Nature and our role in handing over the Flame of Life to future generations, as indigenous peoples did for thousands of years before us.

As a journalist who has explored the concept of “Brand South Africa,” I feel compelled to look more closely at what we as South Africans should, in fact, be celebrating on National Heritage Day. Is this public holiday simply an occasion to parade our colourful cultural heritages, or is there a more compelling message that unites us all at this pivotal moment in history?

This is the question that led me to return to interview leading South African conservationist, Linda Tucker, whose legacy hinges on the celebration of both Nature and culture as living heritages.

I first visited Linda Tucker’s frontline non-profit organisation, the Global White Lion Protection Trust, with a team of media professionals in 2016. Although already well-established as a leading conservation organisation at the time, their new-paradigm conservation strategy has advanced significantly since then. Linda Tucker’s work over the past three decades with South Africa’s Xitsonga, Sepedi and Khoisan people, alongside global indigenous leaders, has informed the ethos of the Global White Lion Protection Trust, bringing leading-edge science together with Indigenous Knowledge Systems in addressing today’s climate and biodiversity crises.

Shamin Chibba: Linda, what does Heritage Day mean to you?

Linda Tucker: Nature is our living heritage, inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants. Heritage is not something to be preserved behind glass cases or floating in formaldehyde, separate from the system that birthed it – heritage needs to be honoured, celebrated and integrated into our lived experience – not only on Heritage Day, but every day.

SC: So, how do you protect the White Lions as a living heritage? And how do your strategies     help guide the rest of us?

LT: White Lions are not only woven into the fabric of local and global mythologies – they are also central to the ecologies. The now well-known scientific concept of “trophic cascading” recognises that the thriving of the apex predator population is necessary to support the complex web of life of the whole ecosystem. Lions, the Kings and Queens of Nature, need to be protected – not only as inspirational icons and ideas, but as flourishing living beings within their natural habitat.

Through the ages, Indigenous peoples have lived the truth of this wisdom – and for most of humanity’s time on Earth, balance was upheld through all species working in service of the integrity of the whole system. However, over the course of modern history, many pockets of humanity have lost their indigeneity – adopting a sense of separation and superiority over Nature. This attitude of viewing Nature as a resource to be exploited for human benefit has wreaked havoc on our source of life, and the survival of all species.

Linda Tucker and one of her great mentors, Credo Mutwa, known during his lifetime as the “Library of Africa”. He said White Lions are angelic (winged) beings of enlightenment, or StarLions.

With this in mind, reviving culture alongside conservation has always been a critical part of our strategy for protecting the White Lions – and all of Nature. Over the years, we have hosted several global conferences which brought together scientists and indigenous knowledge holders such as the Worldwide Indigenous Science Network, Global Big Cat Alliance, Alliance for the Sacred Sites of Earth Gaia (ASSEGAIA) Alliance, to establish common ground and collaborate on creative solutions for protecting Nature. Dry, reductionist scientific analysis has its place in supporting arguments for the survival of species, but there’s nothing like the joy of celebrating our living heritage with open hearts and open minds to remind us of our interconnectedness with Mother Earth. It results in a passion for protecting Nature at all costs.

SC: Passion is a crucial driver for change, but I’ve noticed that it can also be wielded blindly – inadvertently resulting in a perpetuation of the very issues that are trying to be solved. Unfortunately, this seems to be the downfall of many activist groups. What seems to set your work apart is that you not only address the problem, you also model the solution. Can you speak into how you have integrated eco-logical intelligence into the fabric of the Global White Lion Protection Trust?

LT: The key is that we honour the sanctity of Nature in every aspect of our organisation’s functioning. We are a pioneering eco-centric organisation, which means that Nature – the lions – have precedence in all our decision-making.

At all levels, our organisation lives and works by the concept of LionHeartedness: that quality of fearlessness, inspired by love and respect for the natural world that enables us to transform our human world. We share this LionHearted Leadership model locally as well as globally – through our regional StarLion Centers (which have been operating since 2004 and presented to Nelson Mandela in 2007), online training available to our global communities, and advanced in-person training which is hosted on-site in the Heartlands. LionHearted Leadership training leaves no room for being cold-hearted or brutally dissociated from our living planet: it is profound and serious, but always filled with vibrant cultural celebration.

LionHearted Leadership™ training, which is founded on love and respect for Nature, has been incorporated into local schools and community centres since 2004. training leaves no room for being cold-hearted or brutally dissociated from our living planet, says Linda.

SC: So, you believe that the celebration of heritage and culture is necessary to achieving the protection and regeneration of our planet?

LT: Absolutely. And to ignite the LionHeart in people from all backgrounds, I’ve discovered that there’s only one thing more powerful than cultural celebration.

SC: What is that?

LT: Cross-cultural celebration! At heart, there is a deep connection that takes us right back to our common roots across all divides. Ancient African record-keeper, Credo Mutwa, shared with me that the White Lions are angelic (winged) beings of enlightenment, or StarLions. This is a profound myth. However, my research as a Cambridge-trained symbolist led me to discover that this myth is, in fact, a cosmic truth embedded in the ancestral memory of all humankind.

Lions have always held a sanctified place in the human psyche and soul. They are revered in cultures across the world and leonine myths through the ages. The elegant-winged lion of Saint Mark in Christian lore is mirrored in the ancient Etruscans depiction of the chimera of Arezzo – with the body and head of a lion – while Lamassu is the luminous leonine being in Mesopotamian myth. Nanana, “a winged one” who was often depicted riding a lioness, was carved into the Sword of Shelumi, which King Solomon once possessed, while the Gryphon of the Late Hittite period around the 10th century BC is the guardian of sacred knowledge and the highest condition of shamanic lion priesthood. So, too, the ancient Hindus worshipped the leonine Narashimha, and the goddess Durga, who rides a lion in some depictions. But perhaps most compelling is Sekhmet in Egyptian mythology, the lion-headed female “goddess” associated with First Time and End Times. Today, it’s true that we are on the brink of system collapse. Yet I don’t call these times, “End Times”. I view this as “The 13th Hour,” a moment in evolutionary history when humankind is faced with a choice, individually and collectively.

SC: From your vantage point, it must be highly relevant that this year’s Heritage Day follows a week-long global march, demanding that the world’s leaders take bold action to address the leading cause of the climate crisis and #EndFossilFuels. You’ve written extensively about how humanity is faced at this time with a choice: to “guard the flame” of the continuity of life as a true living inheritance, or continue to destroy our planet through abuse of fire (the fossil-fuel economy, armaments, seismic blasting etc). Can you further explain what the Lions have to do with this critical choice faced by humanity?

LT: During the course of the decade in which I was researching and writing Mystery of the White Lions, I was uncovering the worst of humanity and the best of humanity: the worst, in the ruthless mafia-syndicates who were forcibly removing White Lions from their endemic ecosystem in cross-border trade, and the best of humanity, in the sacred records of honouring of lions in the shamanic priesthood of ancient peoples around the globe.

Gryphon, guardian of sacred knowledge. The assumption of the lion-man-hawk-serpent identity is the highest condition of shamanic lion priesthood. Late Hittite, dated 10th century BC (Image: Mystery of the White Lions)

These depictions reveal huge reverence for the power of leonine beings, and their luminous ability to impart wisdom to humanity. Many ancient cultures understood them to be enlightenment bearers, bringing knowledge to humankind to assist us in building a true civilization, based on principles and justice. That’s exactly what I understand the White Lions to be: luminaries who show us the principles of good governance, not only in the ecosystem but in human systems too.

There is a truth in these mythologies that lies at the very heart of our global indigeneity, and it holds the key to solving the ecological and psychological crisis in which we find ourselves.

SC: The cross-cultural importance of lions through the ages gives me a deeper understanding of what Maria Ndlovu (Khosa) said to you, which you shared in Mystery of the White Lions: “If you kill a White Lion, you kill the land. If you kill the White Lion, you kill the world.”

LT: Yes – and Maria’s wisdom is echoed around the globe to this day. Whenever I attend international conferences, Indigenous leaders from other territories and countries approach me in support of my work for the survival and flourishing of South Africa’s White Lions. At the last climate conference held in Egypt in November 2022 (COP27), numerous Indigenous knowledge holders offered their signatures calling upon the South African government to have the White Lions protected by law not only as a national heritage, but a global heritage. They understand the White Lions to be climate indicator species – Nature’s enlightened Messengers at a make-or-break juncture for humanity.

If humanity can truly celebrate and honour Nature’s Luminaries as a living heritage, I believe we have a chance to return to grace.

World-renowned artist/sculptor, Andries Botha, has created a “StarLion Mantle” depicting the various images of sacred winged lions from ancient cultures around the globe, as referenced in Linda Tucker’s book, Mystery of the White Lions.

SC: In an age characterised by distraction and separation, what can be done to keep a heritage alive in our hearts and minds?

LT: The living heritage of the White Lion reminds us that passing on the Flame of Life to future generations is key to ensuring the flourishing of all life on Earth. In Indigenous traditions, that Flame remains ignited through the passing on of knowledge and cultural practices that show us what true reverence for Nature looks like. This knowledge transfer was through oral stories, myths, dance, art and other celebratory actions. As you say, much of modern society is dislocated from community, and I believe that reviving and integrating these age-old practices is key to preserving our heritage.

Another crucially important action is the preservation of language, itself. Indigenous language systems hold within their very structure a reverential wisdom and understanding of Nature’s sanctity, which is why maintaining these systems is so important. For many years, the Global White Lion Protection Trust has been actively supporting the preservation of Nluuki, the ancient language of the Khoisan, because we recognise that its continuation is key to grasping Indigenous concepts that can provide important insights for a new conservation paradigm based on ancient wisdom.

Celebration of the White Lions spans across the globe – this performance in Japan took place in 2016.

SC: Presenting with you in Parliament in 2019 was Chief Stephen Fritz, of the National Khoisan Council, who stood up and stated: “Stop killing what is sacred to the Khoi people…because you are killing the Khoisan when you are killing the lion.” It seems to me his words echo Maria’s on the interconnected consequences of wantonly killing the king of animals.

In your moving tribute to Jan Si Ku, a profound Khoisan medicine man, you reflected on the meaning of the Nluuki word, “Tsau!”: “If humans truly understood that lions and the stars are inherently connected, the consumptive and exploitative practices that are currently being perpetuated against these luminaries would be inconceivable.”

What your project effectively illustrates is that applying the knowledge gleaned from this exploration to our daily lives will halt the exploitation of Earth’s resources and put an end to our idea of domination.

What is your closing message for South Africans on this Heritage Day, 24th September 2023?

LT: I say to my fellow South Africans: take a moment for deep reflection, not only on what you regard as your own culture. Consider instead how you could cross cultures, and even return to the original wisdom that is so integral to South Africa’s indigenous cultures. This will bring you closer to your true heart, your LionHeart. It will also open an opportunity to celebrate the White Lion as your own living heritage, alive and well not only now but for future generations. As we remember all our ancestors (both human and more-than-human) and the richness of all that we have inherited from Mother Earth, we can start to embrace our own interconnectedness with the great web of life.

This Heritage Day, and every day, my message to my local and global community – my human Pride! – is the same: Take a deep breath. Close your eyes. Feel your heartbeat, that double pulse of your LionHeart. The first beat from Heaven, the second echoing back from the eco-system. Listen to the distant ROAR of the White Lions. They are alive and well in the cosmos. So are you when you come back into humility and service-based leadership.

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