“Today we track lion on foot,” Syd says. It’s our final test, the one that lets us know whether we’ll graduate or not from our game-ranger course.
Our small band climbs from the Rover and starts surveying the ground. There are lion tracks here, all right.
“Which way?” Syd asks. We point variously in the same general direction. “Okay, ready?”
We scuff our feet and look around. Syd hefts the rifle from its rack on the dash and our eyes follow his motions as he loads it. That clenched spot in my chest relaxes a little.
Syd and Bernardo usher our silent group away from the road and into the bush as we follow the tracks. Bernardo takes up the rear.
“I am here to stop you from running,” he says 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 any single one of us dashing way from the group would trigger a hunting response: “Look! Breakfast! And it’s fat and slow!”
We step literally in the lions’ tracks. They are about three-fourths the length of my boots. They are so fresh we can see where the claws have sunk into the sand and made deep slash marks at the front of their pads.
Slowly we make our way through mixed scrub and across pockets of dry, withered grass, stopping frequently to listen for the calls of francolins and baboons, the early-warning radar for lions.
Syd picks up a handful of sand and lets it fall through his fingers, testing. A fluttering wind blows from the right direction, into our faces. If warned by our smell, the lions might decide to swing around behind and follow us. Bernardo keeps 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 have lost their leaves, we can’t see very far ahead. Syd and Bernardo occasionally confer back and forth in low voices, speaking in Shangaan. We probably don’t really need to know what they are saying.
Just past several gullies gouged into the sand by rain, the tracks disappear into a thicket. Syd stops and listens intently, then sweeps his arm to the right. We bypass the thicket, perfect for ambush, and see if lions have emerged on the other side.
In the open, grassy area beyond, our line bumps to a halt. “See them?” Syd asks.
As if on cue, two heads pop up.
Luckily, even though my heart leaps, my legs do not.
The lionesses are under trees on the far side of the field. They are lying down, but our invasion has made them curious. They stare at us, open-mouthed, little question marks nearly visible above their heads. The whir of a camera reminds me that mine is dangling around my neck. Through its telephoto the lions look less dangerous, more relaxed, squinting at us.
Then, off to the right, another lion roars and Syd’s eyes widen in surprise. A low “Tsssssss,” escapes between his teeth. There are more lions here than we have seen tracks for. Everyone’s head, including those of the lionesses, swivel in the direction of the roar.
Almost simultaneously a white bakkie, a mini-pickup, bounces into view near the lionesses and stops there. The woman driver surveys the two lions with binoculars and writes something in a notebook. Bored with it all, they lie back down.
Momentarily distracted from the fact that there are lions to the left and lions to the right, we ask Syd, “Who’s that?” Against all training, we have condensed into a tight ball behind him. Even Bernardo has moved up.
Syd still stares in the direction of the roar. “The ecologist,” he says, “she works in the reserve.”
The bakkie leaves the lions and rattles over the rough ground to where we are.
“Morning,” the ecologist nods to each one of us in slow motion. I wonder to myself if the lion that roared is moving in our direction.
She looks at Syd. “There’s a male about a quarter mile up the road. Be careful where you walk.”
“Is it?” he says, “thanks.” Their exchange is so matter-of-fact that it sounds as if they’re discussing potholes.
“Right then,” she says and the bakkie joggles off. Not even an offer of a lift.
Bernardo and Syd have a short conversation in Shangaan. Then Syd says, “We go back the same as we came. Bernardo goes to get the Rover.”
Bernardo leads and Syd provides the rearguard. As soon as we move, the lionesses’ heads pop up again and follow our exit. We move as one, marching in step, our spines expectant of fang and claw. Once we’re out of view behind clusters of brush, Bernardo trots off, and I am now in the lead, careful to back track our own footprints.
Soon we’re in the Rover headed again to the clearing. The male has not roared again. One of the lionesses opens her eye as we drive up, then shuts it again and flattens her ears. We are an annoyance to her afternoon nap but nothing to get excited about; not like whatever that strange beast was that just left.
Syd tells us that these sisters are the only survivors of a pride that once ruled this territory. Another pride recently moved in and killed their relatives. That was the reason they did not answer the male lion. We were lucky one more time: if they had answered, he would have come running.
One of the sisters has recently been in a fight. She has a wound on her shoulder and has not eaten while healing. Her ribs are showing.
“They do not bring food to each other,” Syd says. “She has to be well enough to hunt.”
We watch the sisters as they nap. We have evolved from being possible prey to compassionate observers, all because we’re sitting in our trusty Rover.
“Will they make it?” one of us asks.
“Do you feel sorry for them?” someone else adds.
“Yes,” Sid says, “yes. But that is just my feeling. If they move to another territory, they will be okay.”
The lionesses nap side-by-side. Without opening her eyes the healthy one raises a front leg and drapes it over her sister’s neck.
Driving back to camp at dusk, we find a male lion awakening from an afternoon nap. According to Syd this lion is very young, trying to move into a new territory, and challenge the two males who recently took over. He has a black punkish stripe in his still-growing mane and no scratches on his nose. He’s not far from where we found the sisters and might be the lion who roared. He blinks at us sleepily, then looks off into the distance, his yellow eyes still not completely open.
As it gets darker we find the eyes of bushbabies reflecting our spotlight like bright Christmas ornaments in the trees. They are distant cousins of ours, using their quick hands and enormous eyes to forage for fruit, insects and bird eggs at night. Long shaggy tails provide balance as they leap from branch to branch, dodging the quick flicks of light we direct at them. We catch glimpses without blinding them.
Syd stops the Rover by a bush. “See him?” Our heads swivel in all directions. I don’t see anything but bush.
Illuminated by the headlamps on the Rover, Syd climbs out and walks over to a round-leafed teak. He reaches up and suddenly a Flap-necked chameleon comes into focus right by his hand. It is a perfect mimic of the leaves on the teak.
We shake our heads and smile at each other.
Back at camp we’re presented with our certificates of completion for our short three-day course.
“Don’t worry about your job, Syd,” we tell him, “none of us will ever be as good as you are.”
He smiles quickly behind his hand, then kicks at the wood in the fire. “Did I tell you about the leopard that jumped into the Rover last year……….”
The morning air is as smooth and cold as marble. The last birds of the night are the first birds of the morning. They gab and jabber as if they had just newly discovered daylight. Six would-be-trackers and two rangers circle the fire, sticking our toes close to its embers.
I dunk my rusk into a cup of rooibus, red bush tea. Rusks are dry biscuits, resembling biscotti. Softened bits crumble and sink to the bottom of my tin cup. My last gulp of tea is mush.
After breakfast we walk out to the dirt road that leads away from camp and immediately find elephant prints where one sauntered down the road last night. It’s not surprising we didn’t hear him. The thick pads on elephants’ feet support their massive weight and distribute their tonnage. An elephant is a remarkably quiet animal for one so large.
Elephant tracks are easy to recognize – no other animal has a print like the impression of a large pizza-pan. Since their front feet are oval and back feet round, it’s easy to tell in which direction this one went. But when we find him, the bull is immediately agitated, even though we’re upwind.
“He hears us,” Syd says, “but he doesn’t know what we are.”
The bull’s trunk periscopes as he samples the air, trying to smell us. Then he sends a bluff our way, charging several feet, ears extended, a short blat indicating his displeasure. He’s a good hundred yards from us, but we take the hint and back away. An elephant could cover that distance in no time at all. After all, we’re here to study tracks, not get flattened.
The road is full of elephant overlapped elephant tracks. One track has a swipe through it where the elephant dragged his trunk. An impala’s tracks step across the road to the left, the prints of a Kori bustard head right.
Syd stops further on and sits on his heels near the side of the sandy road. “What are these?” he points at some small prints.
“Genet,” someone guesses, since the tracks are small and clawed, and the genet, a spotted cat with an elongated body, is nocturnal.
“Porcupine,” I announce, pointing at the long marks alongside the tracks where quills scored the sand.
Syd stands up and grins at me. “Very good,” he says, and I feel like I’ve momentarily gone to the head of the class.
“Then what are these?” He points to a set of padded prints left smack in the middle of the road, deeply imprinted into the floury sand.
“Too big for hyena,” one of my fellow trainees says, and we all look at each other, thinking as one: lion.
We reluctantly follow Syd as he walks and points out the direction the lion is headed. Same way we are. It’s a quiet class – we’ve all heard the recent stories about the lions of Kruger, the ones right next door, neighbors with no fence between us.
Illegal immigrants from Mozambique try to enter South Africa through Kruger. Lions have learned to hunt them. Several days earlier I had talked to a park ranger at Kruger and he cautioned that twenty “or so” evidence sites had been found. “But that’s just when there’s something left,” he said. “I’ve been stalked. Now I always carry a rifle.”
I swallow hard as we follow the tracks on the road, glad that Syd is also carrying a rifle. “How long ago?” I ask, meaning how long ago did the lion pass.
Syd smiles. “Yesterday.” He shows us where the tracks have degenerated, crumbles of sand filling the depression. “You can’t see the claw marks.” Maybe after a couple of years of following lion paw prints I’d be able to spot that. Or maybe my heart will always leap into my throat when I first see one.
Back at camp, Bernardo has heard that I have pictures of snow. He pores over them, trying to understand how the world could turn so white. I attempt to explain, using my hands as the sun and earth, tilting the earth first one way, then the other, moving it closer and further away from the sun. Bernardo is doubtful; his head has a permanent sideways tilt during my explanations.
Just before dark Syd gives a short class in how to hold and shoot the 45-caliber rifle that is our safety net in case one of us does something really stupid. We pay very close attention.
“How often have you had to use it?” I ask.
“In the last five years, maybe twice.” Ever the instructor, he uses the opportunity to ask, “Which way do you shoot?” We point to the ground, exactly where a warning shot should go. I am surprised we all have so much familiarity with guns.
“Good,” Syd says, “a bullet that goes up . . .” He leaves the sentence dangling, then adds, “It is too much paperwork to kill something.”
In a game reserve such as this one, careful monitoring is done of every nonhuman resident, since each animal is a huge investment. Most reserves are privately run, sometimes by huge corporations. The ability to advertise “Come see the Big Five! Lion! Elephant! Leopard! Buffalo! Rhino!” is an incomparable tourist draw. But wild animals do not behave quite like pets. When you swap lions with another reserve so that they do not inbreed, there’s no guarantee that those lions might not wander back, or off into Kruger, since there is no fence between the park and surrounding reserves.
As the light fades we sit near the fire and trade our full names: Bernardo Mkansi, Sydonea Hlatshwayo, Cheryl Merrill. Syd writes his name down on a piece of paper and shows it to me. “Can you say it?”
“Sure: Huh-lasch-WHY-o.” Syd and Bernardo gape. “Yes! How can you know?”
“I guessed, sort of like Bulawayo, that town in Zimbabwe.”
They both pronounce my name and make it sound like butterflies, each letter bouncy and full. “That’s it! Now teach me how to say it that way,” and they laugh, covering their mouths like schoolchildren. I practice saying my name several times, but I never quite get the hang of it.
The sky turns orange and the clouds turn yellow. Sunsets like this one have hung in galleries for centuries. A slight breeze rises – the lungs of the earth inhaling warmth, exhaling coolness. The breeze brings a faintly watery smell, even though the sun still warms the tops of trees. Beneath the trees, in cool green-black shadows, night begins, spreading a transitory stillness that will soon fill with the Invisibles – hyenas, leopards, lions – beginning their nightly rounds.
No other creatures of the savannah sleep as deeply or as soundly as lions, but after all, lions are the main reason for not sleeping soundly, so this is not surprising. – Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Old Way
We’re in a diesel Land Rover, a lovely old relic of earlier safari days thirty, maybe even forty, years ago. It shudders loudly when we stop. Yet they don’t wake up.
Two male lions sprawl in a cool swath of sand shaded by a thick clump of mopane. Blotches of pale blue rest upon tawny bodies like cloud shadows. It’s late afternoon and the sun is softening into that round light that blurs the edges of things.
After our ears clear of the clatter from the Land Rover, the wary silence whispers in a leaf twitch, in the movement of the sun across the sky. It’s the kind of silence that follows a lion’s roar. Even the birds are hiding.
The lions sleep on their sides. They haven’t eaten lately; their loose hides wrinkle against the ground. Without opening his eyes, the closest rolls onto his back. A small spot of sunlight outlines his high ribcage, deepens his navel.
Odd to think of him as a placental mammal, like humans. Odd to think of our inheritance from the Old Days, when we were afoot with cats. We were armed then with spears and rocks and our ability to make ourselves seem larger than we were, brandishing blazing torches, standing upright together, throwing and screaming.
Lions rarely sleep at night. It is the time of greatest vulnerability for most, and it would be so for us, too, if we were alone, without fire or companionship. But now we are encaged in the old Land Rover, gazing down without fear at two lions asleep on the blue-dappled sand.
There is something else watching. Lying deep in the mopane, camouflaged by leaves, a lioness stares at us. Her eyes are unwavering, ringed in black, with a white patch under each one. Long minutes later she loses interest in us and yawns, revealing the black edges of her gums, a baby-pink tongue, sharp white fangs, and one tooth broken. She looks over at the males.
They sleep on. The closest male has the abandoned flung body of a napping child. No, not a child. Not with hard-muscled shoulders and those ripping claws.
Between splayed legs his balls droop in their bags. We notice a tick crawling across one of them, wild creature upon wild creature. Small attacking large. As the tick tickles his scrotum, the tip of the lion’s penis emerges from its furred sheath, begins to drip. His right hind paw lifts and twitches.
Now we know his dreams.
In support of World Lion Day: my favorite photograph of a lion, keeping one eye on us. Lions are increasingly under threat, mostly from habitat loss, which is a fancy way of saying that the human world is closing in upon them. Here is a link to some absolutely spectacular photos and important websites: World Lion Day
Here is my favorite photograph of a male lion, taken in the Khwai area of Botswana. I think he was hoping, as he hid behind an eroded termite mound, that we couldn’t see him. Of the five subspecies left in the wild, this male is a member of the Southwest African lion, (Panthera leo bleyenbergi), the same species as Cecil, the Zimbabwean lion whose death as created an international uproar. This subspecies, also known as the Katanga lion, is the largest of all lion types and can be found in Namibia, Angola, Zaire, and Zambia, as well as Botswana and Zimbabwe.
There are only 20,000 lions left in the wild. Of the eight original species known in the Holocene, the age of man, one is extinct, 2 are critically endangered, and one lives on in captivity only: the Addis Ababa lion. Of the five remaining species that make up most of their population, I’ve been privileged to observe three: the Masai lion in Kenya and Tanzania; the Southwest African lion in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia; and the Transvaal lion, found in and around Kruger National Park in South Africa. I’ll post a photos of them until World Lion Day.
This Masai lion has a wonderful mane, marking him as an older lion. Male Masai lions have a great range of mane types, from nonexistent to luxurious, from red to black. A Masai male lion grows up to 9 feet long. The Ghost and the Darkness, the famous lions who killed 35 railroad workers in 1848 were Tsavo lions, a maneless variation of the Masai lion with a reputation for aggressiveness.
Although the media world’s attention has been focused on the trophy hunt of Cecil in Zimbabwe, there hasn’t been much attention paid to the dwindling number of lions in the wild – the lions isolated in the pockets of national parks and game reserves. One could argue that those bits of the wild also function as natural zoos, since they are usually far apart. What a dwindling population does mean is that the 20,000 lions left in the wild are also genetically isolated, splintered into populations that do not have contact with each other. Each breeding lion removed from such populations reduces their genetic fingerprint further. There are 8 subspecies of lions. I have seen three. The lifespan of a lion is 10-14 years in the wild. All the lions in my photos, except for the ones I’ll post last, are dead, hopefully of natural causes, since they were all observed in game reserves. But, as the story of Cecil illustrates, lions are not easily lured out of their protected areas.
A female in the flowers, subspecies Masai or E. African lion, photographed in Samburu Game Reserve, Kenya, 2002.
There are only 20,000 lions left in Africa. This watercolor is in honor of Cecil #CecilTheLion
An excerpt from my book-in-progress:
Whenever I leave for Africa I’m always, invariably asked, “Aren’t you afraid?”
“Snakes. Alligators. Lions.”
“Well,” I usually reply, “there are no alligators in Africa. Only crocodiles.”
“So crocodiles, whatever.”
Once, in Tanzania, I saw a submerged crocodile lunge up amid four wildebeest faster than they, or I, could blink. I don’t know how, but he missed all of them as they leapt in four different directions. I’ve never taken a bathing suit to Africa. Didn’t seem like a great idea on my first trip and less so on subsequent ones.
Lions? Well, lions will consider me prey if I act like prey. Look! Breakfast! And it’s fat and slow!
The possibility of actually encountering a lion is pretty rare. There are only about 20,000 lions left in Africa, down from 200,000 in 1975. Until 2007 Botswana allowed 50 lions to be hunted per year. By the time a hunting ban was enacted many of the male trophies were just two or three years old – requiring hair extensions woven into their manes before they were mounted on a hunter’s wall.
Snakes? There are a lot of snakes in Africa. Black mambas. Vipers. Cobras. Pythons. Boomslangs. Puff adders. In the Okavango Delta I could encounter Egyptian cobras or a puff adder or an African rock python or a black mamba or perhaps even a shy boomslang. I could, but I haven’t. In all the times I’ve been to Africa, I’ve never seen a snake. Bad luck, I guess, because each of these snakes, in their own way, is fascinating, and I really wouldn’t mind seeing one of them.
The deadliest animal in Africa is not a snake nor a crocodile nor a lion – it’s the hippo, those oddly comic, rotund herbivores that Walt Disney put in tutus. Hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal: several hundred per year. In contrast, sharks kill only around ten people per year, worldwide.
Hippos don’t even eat the people they kill. They emerge at night from ponds and rivers to spend all night eating grass. Their beady, sherry-colored eyes don’t see well, but their sense of smell is acute. Males defend territory, females their calves. They can outrun you, and you never know what might set them off.
In 2002, I was on a game drive with six people in an open-sided Landcruiser. Laid-back hippo blimps floated in a nearby pond. One of the hippos grunted, burbling like a submerged tuba.
A herd of hippos is known as a “thunder” – possibly a reference to their size, but more likely because of the noises they make. When a group of hippos get going, their combined grunts sound like rolling thunder. But these hippos were relatively quiet. They rose and sank, twirled their ears, exhaled wetly through their nostrils.
It was that magic half-hour before sunset when the light is golden and incredible – perfect for photographs. A short distance away a male grazed on flowers. I raised my camera.
Without warning, the hippo opened his mouth in a threat gesture, displaying his long, razor-sharp canines. A second later, he charged, head swinging side to side like a giant sledgehammer, running directly for us at a surprisingly clip, intent on slamming into our vehicle. Since a hippo’s top speed is around twenty miles per hour, he was closing fast. All I could see through my camera lens were those massive incisors, as the autofocus kept singing out zzzzt zzzt, zzzzzt zzzt.
Luckily, the engine of our vehicle started without a cough and the hippo just missed the back bumper. He continued on into the bush for thirty yards before stopping to wonder where we had gone.