ONCE THERE were two lions who lived on a wide Savannah plain. The male lion was red, with a splendid black mane. The female was black, and when she ran she had the speed of a cloud in a hurricane. They ruled everything, and lived in peace with each other. All animals feared them except the elephant, who was too busy eating to play much part in politics. Fox came to them: “Since you are such prolific hunters and such benign rulers, I make petition for your humble servant to be considered when you eat, that perhaps some scraps may fall my way.”
“And what shall we get in return?”
“Your majesties, I am but a humble fox. I have few resources. I can offer only some plover’s eggs or a dainty rat, and scanty pickings of those.”
The lions agreed: “You poor fellow. You must be starving. You may clean the carcasses after we have eaten.”
Fox thanked them prolifically. After a few days, Hunting-dog also came to the lion. “The fox gets fat on your leavings, and we get nothing. Your benign and democratic majesties would be seen to show favour,” and the lion said: “You may also pick the carcasses. See to it that you wait respectfully until we have dined. It is the hunter’s right.”
Soon Crow came by, and Hyena and Meercat and others, and the kill was surrounded by a hungry rabble. As the longeststanding scavenger, the fox became the leader of this pack. He went to see the lions. “Your subjects are hungry and they grow unruly. If your exalted majesties hunted more often, of course, the problem would not arise.” The noble lions redoubled their hunting. They went out twice, even three times in a week. They slew impala relentlessly, cut down zebras like grass. The rabble feasted well and prospered. After several seasons had passed, the lions were going out daily.
The prey became worried. They gathered near a water hole and conferred. After some argument they elected Kudu as their representative and sent him to the court of the lions.
Fox intercepted him. “Where are you going?”
“I’m on my way to see the king and queen with a petition from their subjects.”
“They are busy. You may give the petition to me. I shall pass it on to them. Wait here.”
Kudu gave Fox the petition, which was inscribed by beetles onto elephant’s-ear leaves. Fox trotted off with it and dumped it in a ravine. Then he went to the lions who were returning from the hunt. “My most enormous Lord and greatest of hunters, there is a fine kudu standing in the gully down there. You could have him merely by strolling over and jumping off that rock onto his back. Mind the horns if you do.” And the lion bounded over the rise and leaped onto Kudu and broke his neck with one efficient blow.
The slaughter continued, and again the prey assembled. This time they sent the Eland, and that night the fox’s scavenging followers dined on eland.
As their train of rabble multiplied, the lions continually increased their hunting efforts. They had to range further and run faster to find quarry, but being good rulers they did this willingly. A time came when their efforts were not enough. The hungry scavengers became angry. Fox addressed them. “The lions aren’t bringing us enough meat any more. They grow fat and lazy.” All the animals railed against the lions. Fox saw his moment. Leading this starving mass, they took the lions by surprise, fell upon them and ate them. Fox made sure that he ate the Red Lion’s heart. The animals carried him high. They cheered him as their new king.
Fox told the others that he wished to hunt alone. He trotted off among the bushes until he saw Wildebeest, then dashed towards him, roaring. Wildebeest stepped aside.
“What’s got into you, Fox?” he asked.
Fox said: “I have become King of the beasts, and a great hunter. I have the Red Lion’s heart.”
Wildebeest laughed and carried on eating grass. Fox charged again, and Wildebeest kicked him. Fox slunk off and hid in an abandoned badger’s set. On the way he robbed a quail’s nest and licked some grubs from under a turned fallen log. And that is, of course, why the animals no longer have a king.