Beast Film: Fact Versus Fiction

By Kelly Taylor Carton
Lead Integrated Content Strategist

A male lion roaring in Africa
© Christian Sperka

Jaws made waves for sharks in 1975, terrifying generations of beachgoers and creating a harmful portrayal of the species that encourages more lethal mitigation techniques than what is actually necessary. The resulting "Jaws effect" is associated with the devastating decline of shark populations, estimated to be as high as 71% in the last 50 years. Both sharks and lions are classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. With only approximately 20,000 wild lions left, there are concerns that the 2022 film Beast may create undue fear and increase the persecution of these wild cats. 

Beast, the new Universal movie starring Idris Elba, tells the story of a killer lion — a CGI adaptation of the now-extinct barbary lion — who wreaks havoc on an entire village, seeking revenge after poachers decimate his pride. We spoke with Panthera's Conservation Scientist, Kris Everatt, Ph.D., to find out what the Beast movie gets right, and wrong, about lions.

The lion in Beast is lethal — razor-focused on killing humans. Although the movie acknowledges this is abnormal behavior for lions, do you think this portrayal could be harmful? 

Dr. Everatt: This movie is fiction and, hopefully, most people will be able to keep that in mind. However, some viewers might view this fictitious portrayal of lions as overly realistic and harbor negative feelings towards the species, which would be a shame. Hopefully, this movie will not burden the conservation of lions — which is already precarious. 

One of the main characters states that lions don't typically hunt without also consuming their prey. In reality, how common is 'surplus killing' among lions, or hunting more prey than is necessary?

Dr. Everatt: Surplus killing describes when a carnivore kills more than it can immediately eat. This phenomenon does exist for most carnivores, including lions, under very specific and generally rare circumstances. The key to surplus killing is that the carnivore will kill prey that is immediately available and vulnerable, but won't waste energy hunting for more prey than they need. 

For lions, we would see this when a lion enters a pen full of young calves who can't run away. In comparison, we would not see this when a lion is hunting buffalo calves who can run away. The famous man-eating lions of Tsavo (which may have inspired this film) actually did consume the people they killed, and are now understood to have been injured and living in a prey-depleted system. The lion in Beast, who hunts humans without consuming them, is entirely fictional. 

And how about the notion of 'revenge killing'? Has that been documented among lions or other wildlife?

Dr. Everatt: Some suggest revenge killing as a possible explanation for some tiger and elephant attacks on humans. They also attribute it to the dynamics between some carnivores that kill each other, including lions and hyenas. But, revenge is a human invention, and we may be anthropomorphizing an animal's actions that we don't understand. Predators do kill other predators to decrease competition, but it is unlikely that a lion or another predator would waste energy hunting something to fulfill a vendetta. 

In Beast, the lion has essentially wiped out an entire village. What is the actual frequency of lion attacks on humans? To what degree do humans need to be afraid of lions?

Dr. Everatt: Lions are obligate carnivores who must hunt and kill prey for survival, and yes, they do sometimes kill humans. However, lions and humans have co-evolved alongside one another over hundreds of thousands of years — during which time lions probably once did predate on early humans more regularly (there is even an evolutionary hypothesis that speculates predation by lions and leopards on early humans is the reason behind our fear of the dark). 

But, in more recent history, lions have, wisely, developed a general fear of humans — our guns and fire. I have come across many lions over the years, on foot away, far away from a vehicle and more often than not unarmed, and the lions typically run away frightened. 

Regardless, people must recognize lions for what they are and acknowledge the value they bring to their ecosystems. Like all beings, lions are nuanced and, in reality, are neither devilish monsters intent on killing everything in their paths nor innocent furry creatures, like Simba from The Lion King. 

The reality is far more interesting; lions are apex predators and have evolved to fill a niche at the top of the food chain, with few competitors. Being at the top of the food chain means that lions have a disproportionate regulatory influence over the entire ecosystem; they regulate the numbers and behavior of the animals they hunt, which, in turn, influences the landscapes on which they depend. Lions, like all apex predators, are critical to functioning ecosystems. When a lion disappears — whether a victim of poaching or habitat loss and fragmentation — their loss has a cascading effect on their ecosystems, on the entire food chain, ultimately threatening biodiversity collapse. As a result, the diversity of birds, reptiles, small mammals and vegetation communities suffers. 

One thing the movie portrays fairly accurately is the dangers of poachers, who are often after lion hides, teeth, claws and even meat and bones. How many lions are victims of poaching per year? How much of a threat is poaching to lions across Africa?

Dr. Everatt: Unfortunately, lions in Africa are in a conservation crisis. Overall populations have diminished from about 100,000 lions 50 years ago to only approximately 20,000 now. The leading causes of this decline are retaliatory killings by humans after lions hunted livestock and the loss of the lion’s wild prey resulting from overhunting. The killing of lions, either legally as a trophy hunt, or illegally, "poaching," also contributes to the decline of lions and has even become the main cause of the decrease in some lion populations. 

© Christian Sperka

As a Conservation Scientist, what advice would you give to filmmakers making movies and television about dangerous animals?

Dr. Everatt: Rather than creating sensational and largely fictitious portrayals of animals, I would prefer filmmakers to present a more realistic view of animals. Unfortunately, this movie is simply a traditional monster story that could have featured an alien or a mythical creature — but this time, they chose to dress the monster up as a lion. 

What will it take to stop poaching in Africa, so that narratives like the one in Beast will no longer be relevant?

Dr. Everatt: Poaching in Africa (poaching being the illegal hunting of animals) is a complicated and wicked problem that could only ever truly be solved once the injustices and inequities faced by the people of Africa are solved. Poaching is often a means to an end, often to obtain food for sustenance or cash. Without sustainable alternatives, the impetus to poach lions and other wild animals will remain. 

Steps we can take to mitigate poaching include investing in the local communities who live alongside lions, raising awareness about the importance of wildlife within local communities and especially with children, including local communities in wildlife management and providing opportunities and capacity-building skills that favor co-existence with wildlife. 

"We must appreciate and preserve lions for their role as apex predators who maintain biodiversity and ecosystem integrity. Yes, lions can be dangerous animals, and as with many wild animals, care must be taken when working with them or entering their habitat. But that does not diminish their worth."

Kristoffer Everatt, Ph.D.

Conservation Scientist

Learn about the work we are doing to protect lions and mitigate poaching in Senegal. And, read a tiger expert's perspective on Netflix’s docu-series Tiger King.