Lions are introverts, and knowing that could save your life

In India, woodcutters often wear ugly masks with big eyes on the backs of their heads to deter lions.
Lions are introverts, and knowing that could save your life
Lions are introverts, and knowing that could save your life
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By Nury Vittachi

I dreamed that TV wildlife guru David Attenborough was narrating a film about my life: "And for the 49th time, the runt of the group attempts to climb out of the pit but does a dramatic face plant into decomposing warthog poop. Let's see if he gets up this time."

Yet I remain fascinated by animal news stories. A reader just sent me one about a team of Australians who flew to Botswana recently to paint eyes on cows' bottoms. I showed it to an illustrator colleague and she said: "Artists have to take whatever jobs are available, cow bottoms, whatever."

The article said that they were painting pairs of eyes on bovine buttocks to stop lions eating them. The big cats apparently turn away from what they see as ugly "faces", thinking: "She looks like a cow's behind, she's got enough problems without us mauling her."

A similar trick has long been used in India. Woodcutters wear ugly masks with big eyes on the backs of their heads to deter lions. "That poor man's so deformed he's got two faces," the retreating beasts say. "Probably give us indigestion."

The scientific thinking behind this is that lions are known to hate being stared at. Lions are introverts. If you are cornered by a lion in the jungle, quickly offer to take it to a cocktail party where it won't know many people. The lion will back off speedily, mumbling excuses about having to shampoo its mane.

When I mentioned this to a naturalist friend, she told me about the Foureye Butterflyfish, which has two huge fake eyes at one end, and a real face at the other end. Approaching deep-sea predators stop and think: "OMG, that fish is eating with its anus" and are so fascinated/disgusting they forget to attack.

Incidentally, National Geographic writers found a giant sea cucumber which eats with its anus. Where I live, some human fans of colonic irrigation treatments have wheatgrass nutrient drinks inserted from below, wasting the time of the people who toiled to make them taste good.

But returning to fake eyes, many butterflies have evolved quite realistic eyes on their wings, which seem to work, judging by the complete lack of lion-versus-butterfly fighting videos on YouTube.

These tales of smart animals coincided with the arrival on my desk of a travel report containing proof of the astonishing scale of human stupidity. In the US alone, humans left US$765,000 in small change in trays at airport security gates last year, it said.

A colleague has just pointed out that this could be 765,000 travellers each leaving a few coins, or Donald Trump alone forgetting to pick up his pocket change. Whatever. It's still stupidity.

But of course not everyone appreciates the good qualities of animals. I remember going to a zoo in China some years back where the little name plate outside each cage had words like "Evil" and "Edible" on them. This seemed a bit insensitive, especially since humans are very evil and technically edible, too. Especially if unmasked and approached by lions.

Column done, time for a break. And if the office canteen is serving wheatgrass drinks, I think I'll just drink it the old way; so move along, nothing to see here.

(Nury Vittachi is an Asia-based frequent traveller. Send ideas and comments via his Facebook page)

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