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Life, Urban design,

Lion habitat


Original Japanese article on

[Editor’s note] Naho Iguchi, Berlin-based artist, broadens her thought process from urban design to search for the true nature of being. As a "Human Animal," as she coins it, Naho travels to South Africa, which is the lions’ habitat. The knowledge she gains from the savanna steers us the readers to revisit the ecosystem and open the door to our spirit within true nature, which we are otherwise disconnected from in our daily city life.



We human beings are not merely dependent on the other humans. Mankind is but one species belonging to more than 4000 different species of mammals. We share the same, or similar genes and features with these other creatures, which we have never seen (in nature) and most likely never will.


One day, my identity as a human being dissipated. I renamed myself a "Human Animal."


Two years ago I landed on the African continent for the first time in my life. My destination was the Kevin Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary located about 1.5 hours by car in the north of Pretoria in the Republic of South Africa. Because I had moved from Japan to Berlin a few more years back, a rumor spread amongst my friends. “Is she going to move to South Africa?" That was not the case. I’m still based in Berlin and “commute” to the sanctuary every year. I find it meaningful to visit it regularly like a migratory bird, again and again.


"Why South Africa?" is a frequently asked question. The answer relates to my relocation to Berlin. I decided to change my entire life (place, language, culture, profession) and devote myself to become an artist in Berlin, although I had been neither educated nor trained in the artistic field. “Art” simply means an act of expression to me. Art questions the underlying assumptions that our society may take for granted. I elucidate these undercurrents of phenomena, construct a response to them, and act upon them. It was a foundational piece of my art to change my social identity to being a practicing artist. My art theme is “living as a human animal."


How do humans sculpt their identities and find their roles, groups to belong to, purposes, and meaning within society? Here is my hypothesis. Once they reach to a certain age, people define themselves in relation to society. In principle, humans are required to repeatedly gain peer recognition and approval from a psychological perspective. In the modern era, however, external demand for them to prove their value, marketability, and purposes increases so high. They have to to be accepted in society. If you fail to define and sell yourself well, it is recognized as a problem. I think THAT thought process itself is a problem.


Therefore, I decided to act and do the opposite: I stopped claiming my value, occupation and abilities. Instead, I piggybacked on an image that the others saw in me. That was an artist. Despite having no art background, I was frequently described as "an artist." Hence, I took on this role.

Liberation from 'Fear' in Civilized Society


I made up the word “human animal” because of my sense of incongruity to our society. I wanted to deliberately remind that humans were also an animal species. There is no doubt that thousands of years of cultural, industrial, scientific, and informational advancement differentiates humans from the other animal species evolution. It has provided humans with a great deal of safety, security, convenience and wealth (though it isn’t accessible to all of the population on earth. Some people even don’t see a need in it.). On the other hand, I feel something isn’t quite functioning well in society. It seemed to me that our essential sensory faculty on survival was paralyzed. That was, "fear."


A sense of fear is the core survival instinct that enables animals to avoid death. There is dysfunction around it in our social and psychological system. Even if humans are not in a life-threatening situation, the human mind overreacts to, and may mistakenly judge itself to be in danger based on the socially and culturally constructed measurement, thus leading to a feeling of fear. It eventually leads to mental destruction or at worst physical death. I call a cause of the phenomena “Civilized fear.” In contrast, the fear that purely alarms a life threat I would refer to as “Human animal fear.” I believe that many problems in human society occur because human beings who are unable to differentiate between these two fears fall into countless unnecessary fears and make a decision based on them. That’s our current “operating system”.


Other creatures, unlike humans, fulfill their roles, contribute to the ecosystem, and return to the soil. They have no need in asserting who they are and what value and purpose they bring to the world. Why are only human beings desperate to prove themselves and struggle with the system in which they are scared of being judged by the others in order to gain an approval and a qualification to live? Why have they created such a society where largely monetary and materialistic measurements determine what their values are? Can’t it just be that because they were born, they shall exist, survive, thrive, and die?


Given the nature of human beings, the need to seek for an approval and a meaning is inevitable for their existence. Hence, neither do I assert that we should completely eliminate it nor that it is evil in itself. I just feel that it is overkill. I don’t share the belief that humans have to prove themselves as much as the current cultural and social system demands them to.


As a result, I search for a role that "human animals" are to play in relation to other living beings in the ecosystem, instead of chasing after the meaning, purpose, and values that are confined only within the human empire. This defines the role of a “human animal”.


The first step that I took to set off a life of a “human animal” was to let go of my civilized fear one step at a time and to cultivate my own human animal fear. It would have been otherwise meaningless, unless the process of letting go was radically implemented. Therefore, first I tackled my relationship to money, which governed pretty much all aspects of human life from birth to death. I would have to write a whole other article to explain what it is and how it works. To sum it up, I created a system, “a circulation of money, trust, and love.” My friends, colleagues, and clients who mutually cherished love and/or trust with me sent me their money without any expectations, returns, responsibilities, obligations, and duties. Money was purely the givers’ wish for me to be. The system is still on in its sixth year. It is indisputable that money runs the show in our everyday life. Our security is dependent on it. It sways our self-confidence and self-esteem whether we like it or not. But, is it really the only way? Are we not blindly fixed on the idea? Have we ever tried another path? Through the experimental art of money and love, I have been attempting to dissolve the fixed idea as much as possible.


Then, I moved to Berlin. I came to a point where I could say with integrity that I made a living purely by my friends’ love and trust. My heart overflew with satisfaction that I lived up to my philosophy. Soon after, questions popped up in my head, "why do I pass by (almost) only people in town everyday?" “Where on earth are the other animals?”


Humans interact only amongst themselves except with pets, livestock, small wild animals, microorganisms and plants that do not harm them. I found it very bizarre. A sense of incongruity within me got stronger day by day.


Journey to Lioness


The next action that the "human animal" (me) took was to go to see her fellow animals. I wanted to walk by with them in my everyday routine like I passed by other people while commuting or going to school. It wasn’t my intention to fill up Berlin, Barcelona or Tokyo with loads of wild animals. That would be such an artificial idea of humans who have been isolated from the rest of the ecosystem too long. I simply wished to visit a place where habitats of the other animals and humans were kept in close proximity.


The Arusha National Park, the Yellowstone National Park, Patagonia, Tasmania, Tanzania and on and on. Fragile awe-inspiring nature is barely reserved across the globe. Which area allures me most? I searched the internet and watched nature documentaries day and night. In the meantime, I discovered incredibly inspirational documentaries about a man who I would later call embodiment of the "human animal."  He was "The Lion Whisperer," Kevin Richardson.


Kevin has an extraordinary relationship with the most fierce predators on the planet such as lions, hyenas, and leopards (the only animals that he himself brought up). Without dart guns and whips, he interacts with them following their communication protocols instead of his. Just as humans foster relationships with one another, he builds trust with each and every individual lion, hyena, and leopard he encounters.


One lioness is his soul mate. One lion is his brother. One hyena is a flawless leader who he admires. One leopard is a neighbor who he chats with once in a while. Closeness and a comfortable distance to every animal differs. There are ups and downs in their relationships that have already lasted for two decades. He has an anecdote with one of his lions who he once lost friendship with and yet restored it after five years of effort. I was so eager to meet Kevin, a proud “representative” of the human world, and his lions and lionesses. I registered with the volunteer program at his sanctuary. At that time, I conceived a new concept for my art, “Journey to Lioness.”


In the Kevin Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary, volunteers are not allowed to interact directly with the lions and hyenas like Kevin does. It would be a suicidal venture. The instinct of the predators never disappear, although they were born in captivity and raised by humans. Although they may be more accustomed to the presence of humans than their wild cousins. But, that actually makes a situation even trickier, as the captive predators associate humans with food and therefore have less fear towards them. Relationships with these animals must be established before they reach their puberty.


Lions and hyenas are social animals and live as a group called a “pride” and a “clan.” They form a bond with their group members from an early age and stop socializing once they pass their youth. They no longer accept unfamiliar individuals afterwards even among the same species, not to mention humans. When they encounter other lions as adults, a consequence awaits. When an adult lion joins another pride, his life is always at stake. For example, a male lion who enters into his adolescence leaves his pride of birth and sets out to make a new pride of his own. What he does is to charge at an existing pride, kick out or kill the dominant male lion, and take it over. Because of that, outsiders are unwelcomed and considered to be a threat, whether they are another lion or a human. Kevin has known his lions, hyenas, and leopards in the sanctuary since they were born or from a very young age. Moreover, he has been in contact with them everyday for about 20 years. He is accepted as a pride and clan member. No luck for a volunteer to act the same as him.


Give Space to the Others


Volunteers may not take a nap with a lion under the afternoon sun like Kevin. But, by no means do I need to pet, walk, or lay down with the lions to have exceptional moments. Learning gained by getting as close as 20cm over the fence to the lions was immense. New senses came about, as the human animal developed within me while in the volunteer program. One of them specially stands out. It relates to “space” as well as the previously mentioned “civilized fear.” The lions taught me that human beings had lost an ability to take up adequate space for the others. The loss would be fatal in wilderness. Luckily (or sadly), we are out of it now. The lions in the sanctuary didn’t like humans although they were accustomed to be surrounded with them. They got irritated when the volunteers gathered around their enclosures to take pictures and videos. The lions are not mindless killers, but gave a proper warning to them. It started from a subtle gesture. They moved the ears, flapped the tails, and changed slightly the facial expressions and energy level. A dog or a cheetah or a lizard would get the lions’ point regardless of a difference in species- only humans failed to.


The intensity of the warning sign gradually increased and eventually they charged after them, rushing to the fence literally in a breathe. Their incredible snap was frightening. The humans stepped back a few feet, but kept cringing near to the fence and photographing the lions. They didn’t give the lions enough space and took up theirs. The lions repeatedly charged towards them because their message wasn’t received. The staff of the sanctuary instructed them to keep three meters distance away from the fence. Sometimes it was necessary to completely hide behind a vehicle or a pen. Moreover, disappearance from their sight wasn’t always sufficient. Energy level must have been turned down because the lions or any wild animal was able to sense it. Really.


This story illustrates the depth of a behavior of “giving space to someone.” Humans are too obsessed with their own desires, "I want this”.  They are unable to keep an adequate distance between themselves and other beings. This is such an eye-opening realization that I learned from the lions.


This can be translated to human relationships. How much space do we give the others when our relationship with them does not go smoothly but requires space?  Why do we continue to bug them even though our mind intellectually knows that silence and distance is the best cure?


An unpaved road that led to a volunteers’ worksite was covered with red dirt, stones, and rocks. A jeep that transported the volunteers jumped and jolted in every direction. On the way, the jeep passed by with a countless number of animals. Impalas, zebras, wildebeests, jackals, warthogs, kudus, spring bocks, ostriches, rabbits, rhinos, giraffes, guinea fowls. Some stared at us. Others ran away from us. The animals read each other’s cues and gave space, communicating across different species. They interdependently maintained invisible boundaries which were not to be invaded.


It is a sign of respect towards each other. It is an attitude “mind your own business.” Does it mean that the wild animals have intelligence and reason, or is their instinct programmed like this? The cause does not matter. The fact is that they are capable of communicating with respect and sensing what is enough space between each other. On the contrary, humans separate themselves from other living beings in nature and build up the human empire, which is why they have completely forgotten how to give space to another individual. They ignorantly walk into an animal’s intimate space, try to pet or take photos of him/her If they think s/he is cute. Humans behave in exactly in the same manner to domesticate dogs: ignore their communication protocol and impose the human subjective perspective on them.


A Chicken I eat becomes Me


One of the fun volunteer activities was to prepare food for and feed the lions, hyenas, and leopards. I also cultivated the nature of "human animal" through it. Meals of Kevin's animals are provided by nearby farmers free of charge when their cattle, horses, donkeys, and pigs die due to natural causes. For the farms, it incurs expenses to process their dead livestock. Therefore, this is a win-win situation for the both parties. Wild animals that die from storms and lightnings are also an important food source for the sanctuary.


During my first volunteer stay, there were dozens of dead impalas delivered to the sanctuary, because of thunderstorms. The other volunteers and I assisted the staff in disassembly. Even though we didn’t “kill” them, it was extremely sensational to dissect humongous bodies of cows, horses, and donkeys. We sometimes took part in the entire process. Other times the crews butchered the animals’ bodies into large parts such as legs, libs, and shoulders and then we cut them to smaller pieces with machetes and axes. The staff’s flawless technique of slaughter was in fact mesmerizing, while the volunteers awkwardly cut off the thick muscles and tendons. The staff strictly monitored their animals’ diet. All the lions, hyenas, and leopards had names. On a whiteboard at the food preparation area it stated who gets what, weight, a body part, and a kind of animal, was precisely recorded at every meal. The cadavers of a cow or a horse, gradually transformed into “food” that looked similar to meats in a shelf at a supermarket.


A live animal who runs around in savanna triggers lions’ appetite the most. For humans, it is of course different. They don’t say “that looks so delicious!” while seeing a cow in a farm. Unless the appearance of a cow is taken away and its body is chopped up as small as a packaged meat, humans don’t recognize the animal as their food. During the slaughter, I observed a shift in my perception of the dead animals as they lost their original shapes and the flesh was more and more revealed. At a certain point, I actually began to think that the disassembled cattle looked sort of delicious. I was standing on chunks of bone marrow and in a puddle of blood and all kinds of body fluid.


A being that existed as a (dead) horse a few minutes ago became a meat block. The lions gloriously held it in their mouths and walked into a bush to find a safe place for gorging. 30 minutes after their meal, the volunteers picked up bones and cleaned their enclosures. Every bit and piece of flesh was eaten out. The remaining bones had a perfect shape like one in a Disney movie. I collected the bones with amusement. Cows, horses, and Impalas were no longer there. “Where are they now?” They were inside the lions’ stomach. It was an incredibly raw, direct, and drastic transition of their forms, places, and entire existence. And I realized a very simple truth: The cows, horses, and impalas became the lions. This wasn’t a surprising fact at all. Nevertheless, I had not consciously thought that way before. This awareness made me feel a sense of awe. I put the massive bones in a bucket while feeling their weight on my arm. After I repeated the job multiple times during the volunteer program, it changed my perception on processed meat at a shop. When I buy meat, I now imagine how the animals possibly used to live. I vicariously experience that a chicken is becoming me while eating it. I am a chicken, a pig, and a tuna fish. A whole new avenue of my identity opens up.


Return the Lands to the Earth

I mentioned earlier that one of my art projects was to redefine my identity. Without educational and professional art backgrounds, I turned into an artist. I re-defined myself by concept that was completely alien to me at that time. A few years later, my engagement in the Kevin Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary set off. Every night, I fell asleep in a bed at the volunteer accommodation while hearing lion roars. Slowly, my identity began to change yet again. “I am a chicken,” “I am a cow,” “I am a sheep.”  I also identified with a lioness. Why? Honestly, I don’t know.

What does it mean to be me?

What proves that I am who I am?

Is it necessary to prove it?

Is there a difference in lives?

Do I need to cling to what I (want to) believe I’m supposed to be?

The more deeply I realize as a human animal, the weaker my desire to claim what kind of species I am and who I am gets. At the same time, without ambivalence, it becomes clearer to me what role “human animals” should play on this planet for other living creatures.


The biggest negative legacy ever that the human civilization is leaving the other living beings is deprivation of their lands, due to humans’ oblivion of how to give space. People have forgotten a right distance between the other beings and them and become ignorant in the natural world. As a consequence, they cleared the land more and more without any consideration for the other beings. They drove away animals that were by far stronger than them. Excessive fear and greed for “more” drove many species to extinction. Its speed accelerates. Lands for the other living beings are rapidly decreasing. Giving back habitats to them is a way of protecting the natural environment. In the current era, the human empire is equipped with enough scientific knowledge and technology for it. I believe that “human animals” are able to return the lands to the fellow animals.


Kevin launched the Kevin Richardson Foundation in Spring 2018 and began full-scale implementation of his grand mission: to save and return this habitat to wildlife. Wild animals and plants know the law of survival and preservation of species. Fundamentally, there is no need for human intervention in wildlife conservation. If humans are in full conformity with it, nature will recover and prosper. They simply have to give it a space.


Returning the lands to the earth is not limited to the field of natural conservation in which only experts who love wild animals and environmental science engage in the South African savanna or snowy mountains in Yellow Stone. It is a practice that each and every “human animal” should work on, no matter where they are are based.


My team and community initiate an urban design project in Berlin, in pursuit of a new paradigm and methodology of city development. That is, to retrieve nature in the city and give more space to non-human inhabitants who share the same area. Beyond human sovereignty I noticed that knowledge of wildlife conservation, natural resource management, and environmental science is transferable to urban contexts in Kevin's Sanctuary. These academic studies should be more integrated with urban planning and landscape design, because an exchange between the fields isn’t yet common as a whole.


Biology, environmental science, and animal behavior offer us great wisdom with which we can harness our power to coexist with nature. Not only are the studies beneficial in the wilderness, but also urban settings. For nature prevails everywhere, both in a macro and micro form. Cities aren’t an exception.  


In order to return the lands to the other beings, it is necessary to contain the area of human habitats relatively in a more regulated manner. We cannot relentlessly expand geographically. It is good to avoid the hustle and bustle of the city, move to the countryside, and pursue a better quality of life. But considering the quality of life of our fellow living beings, I think we must bring back nature to the city. I am trying to update a methodology for city development and urbanization, so that we will witness more and more “human animals” emerging in livable cities in the near future. Journey to Lioness to be continued and vastly expanded.




Naho Iguchi

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