Before I fell in love with elephants, I went to Africa to see lions. Fed by documentaries and National Geographic, I wanted the excitement of watching lions hunting. I wanted tooth and claw and blood. I wanted my skin to crawl.
So in 1999, near Kruger National Park, I spent a morning following the paw prints of Panthera leo krugeri, afoot in the Sabi Sabi Game Reserve – the name derived from a Tsonga word that means “Danger! Danger!”
Six would-be trackers and two rangers named Syd and Bernardo clumped together and stared at a set of padded marks in the sand. “Which way?” Syd asked. We pointed variously in the same general direction. “Okay, ready?”
We scuffed our feet. We’re sort of ready. Syd hefted the rifle from its rack on the dash of our Land Rover and my eyes followed this motion. I nodded to myself; the clenched spot in my chest relaxed a little. The lions of Kruger actively hunt humans. So far, a bullet into the ground at their feet has proven to be an effective deterrent.
Syd told us it was three years ago that he last fired at a lion. “You cannot believe the paperwork! Every bullet has to be accounted for.”
We followed the tracks into the bush. Bernardo took up the rear.
“I am here to stop you from running,” he said with a small smile.
Eight people marching in a line and stepping on each other’s heels are not easily identifiable as prey to a lion. But if I ran away from our group, I would trigger an instant hunting response: Look! Breakfast! And it’s fat and slow!
I stepped literally in the lions’ tracks. They’re about three-fourths the length of my boots. And so fresh I could see where the claws have sunk into the sand and made deep slash marks at the front of their pads. I took a deep breath and tried to slow my pounding heart.
Slowly we made our way through mixed scrub and across pockets of dry, withered grass, stopping frequently to listen for the calls of francolins and baboons, early-warning radar for lions.
Syd picked up a handful of sand and let it fall through his fingers. A fluttering wind blew from the right direction, into our faces. If warned by our smell, the lions could decide to swing around behind and follow us. Bernardo kept glancing backwards, as do I, the last one but for him in our column. Even though it’s fall and many of the scrub thorns had lost their leaves, we couldn’t see very far behind or ahead. Syd and Bernardo occasionally conferred back and forth in low voices, speaking in Shangaan. I probably didn’t want to know what they were saying.
Just beyond several deep gullies, the lions’ footprints disappeared into a thicket. Syd stopped and listened intently, then swept his arm to the right. We bypassed the thicket, perfect for ambush, and checked for lion prints on the other side.
In an open, grassy area beyond, our line bumped to a halt.
“See them?” Syd asked.
As if on cue, two heads popped up. The back of my brain started freezing. Apparently I had stopped breathing a long time ago. RUUNNNN! my brain yelled to my legs, but they were so far away they couldn’t make out what all the shouting was about.
The lionesses were under trees on the far side of the field. They were lying down, but our invasion made them curious. They stared at us, open-mouthed.
The whir of a camera reminded me that mine was dangling around my neck. Through its telephoto the lions looked less dangerous, more relaxed, squinting at us.
Then, off to the right, another lion roared. Syd’s eyes widened in surprise. A low “Tsssssss,” escaped between his teeth. There were more lions here than we saw tracks for. Everyone’s head, including those of the lionesses, swiveled in the direction of the roar. Even my hair follicles were listening.
Almost simultaneously, a white bakkie, a mini-pickup, bounced into view near the lionesses and stopped. The woman driver surveyed the two with her binoculars and wrote something in a notebook. Bored with it all, the lions laid back down.
Momentarily distracted from the fact that there were lions to the left and lions to the right, we asked Syd, “Who’s that?” Against all training, we’ve condensed into a tight ball around him. Even Bernardo moved up.
Syd still stared in the direction of the roar. “The ecologist,” he said, “she works in the reserve.”
The bakkie left the lions and rattled over the rough ground to us.
“Morning,” the ecologist nodded to each one of us in slow motion. I wondered to myself if the lion that roared was moving in our direction.
She looked at Syd. “There’s a male about a quarter mile up the road. Be careful where you walk.”
“Is it?” he said, “thanks.” Their exchange was so matter-of-fact it sounded as if they were discussing potholes.
“Right then,” she said and the bakkie joggled off. Not even an offer of a lift.
Bernardo and Syd had a short conversation in Shangaan. Then Syd said, “We go back the same as we came. Bernardo goes to get the Rover.”
Bernardo led and Syd provided the rearguard. As soon as we expanded into a column, the lionesses’ heads popped up and followed our exit.
We moved as one, marching in step, our spines expectant of fang and claw. As soon as we are out of view behind clusters of brush, Bernardo trotted off, and I was now in the lead, careful to back-track our own footprints.
Soon we were in the Rover headed back to the clearing. The male hadn’t roared again. One of the lionesses opened her eye as we drove up, then shut it and flattened her ears. We were an annoyance to her afternoon nap but nothing to get excited about; not like whatever that strange beast was that just left.
Syd told us that these sisters were the only survivors of a pride that once ruled this territory. Another pride recently moved in and killed all their relatives. That was the reason they didn’t answer the male lion. We were lucky; if they had answered, he would have come running.
One of the sisters had a wound on her shoulder and hadn’t eaten while healing. Her ribs were showing.
“They do not bring food to each other,” Syd said. “She has to be well enough to hunt.”
We watched the sisters nap. We’ve evolved from being possible prey to compassionate observers, all because we’re caged in a vehicle.
“Will they make it?” one of us asked.
“Do you feel sorry for them?” someone else added.
“Yes,” Syd said, “But that is just my feeling. If they move to another territory, they will be okay.”
The lionesses napped side-by-side. Without opening her eyes the healthy one raised a front paw and draped it over her sister’s neck.
No tooth, no claw, no blood. Funny, how, even in Africa, you always get something different than what you expect.