Posted in Lions, Nature, Photography, Travel

Your Daily Elephant is a Female Lion

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.

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill
Posted in Africa, Nature, Travel

A Thunder of Hippos

An excerpt from my book-in-progress:

Whenever I leave for Africa I’m always, invariably asked, “Aren’t you afraid?”

“Of what?”

“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.

B&W male lion

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.

Charging hippo b&w

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.

Posted in Africa, Lions, Uncategorized

Lions, Part Two

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.Image

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.The Sisters b&w

No tooth, no claw, no blood.  Funny, how, even in Africa, you always get something different than what you expect.

Posted in Africa, Doug, Elephants, Jabu, Lions, Morula, Thembi, Travel

Lions, Part One

While standing in the shade of my tent, I look out over a lagoon of bent grass to the trees at its far shoreline.  A few of the stalks shiver and crosshatch in the lagoon as a mouse or grasshopper nibble at their stems.  Otherwise, the grass is motionless.

I stick my hands in my pocket and scuff dust with the toe of my boot.

Something rustles in the underbrush.  My sleepy senses come to full alert.  It’s an ancient world out there  – full of primitive memories storied at the bottom of our brains.  i spot one of the honorary camp staff, a francolin, scratching around a clump of buffalo grass.

We are all afraid of something.  Thembi gets in a tizzy over bees.  (Imagine bees up your nose!)  Eggshells horrify Jabu.  For Morula, it’s the fear of not belonging.

Are elephants afraid of mice?  No, but quick small things moving around their feet startle them.  I consider that a prudent reaction in a world full of snakes.

My fears are primitive, hard-wired into the base of my brain from the time when humans were prey to huge fanged predators – cats as large as grizzlies, bears as large as elephants.  My primitive brain is not comfortable when there are carnivores around, especially when I can’t see them.

Just last night a lion’s roar ripped me awake from a deep sleep: WAAA-AH-UNGHHH   UNGH  UNGH  UNGH  ungh  ungh. . . .It ended with those deep grunts lions cough up from their bellies.

A lion’s roar can be heard for five miles.  This one was incredibly loud and incredibly close, right at the edge of camp.

A cold set of fingers wrapped around my heart.  In the darkness my heart threw itself repeatedly against my ribs, then slowly backed into a corner of my chest.  Wary, it waited there for another roar, which never came.  I knew I was safe – no lion has ever dragged someone out of a zippered tent in Botswana.    But tell that to my primitive brain.

Four days ago, as I waited for Doug to pick me up from Stanley’s Camp, I had enough time before his arrival to join an evening game drive.  A young couple on their first trip to Africa climbed into the tier of seats behind me in the Landcruiser and held hands.  They were on their honeymoon.  John, our driver and guide, explained that two other vehicles from camp had found a pride of lions on the other side of the reserve – but it was too far away for us to join them and be back before dinner.

Kudu horns b&wSo we headed off in the opposite direction.  The young couple happily snapped photographs of zebras and impalas and baboons, giddy with the realization they were in the midst of their dream vacation.  A male kudu with magnificent horns kept us in one place for nearly a half hour as the couple peppered John with questions and marveled over the graceful curl of the kudu’s horns.

At dusk John parked at the top of a knoll.  With open grassland all around us it was safe to descend from the vehicle.  He prepared traditional sundowners – gin and tonics – and handed them around.

As I take my first sip a lion roared in the near distance.  “That’s not very far,” I said and looked at John.

“We could get lucky,” he looked at the couple with us.

They nodded, so we dashed our drinks on the ground, stashed our glasses back in their basket, and scrambled back into the Landcruiser.

Just down the road, where we’d been half an hour earlier, four large males lounged in the tall grass alongside our tracks.  One lifted his chin and roared, loud enough to rattle our hearts:  WAAUNNNNNNGH, UNGH, UNGH, ungh, ungh, ungh.

John sent a radio message to the other vehicles.  They will detour to join us on their way back to Stanley’s.

As we watched the four males, light faded from the sky and disappeared.  Blue became purple, then black.  Stars appeared, each one of them a cold clear diamond.

John switched on a spotlight.   A male sat in front of us, looking to our right, listening.

Spotlight off.  The couple behind me murmured to each other and tried to become small blobs, rather than humans with discernable arms and legs and heads.

Spotlight on.  Another male, on the left, folded into the grass, on his side, with a barely audible ufff.B&W male lion

Spotlight off.

A distant contact roar from one of the lions on the other side of the reserve.

Spotlight on.  The male in front of us headed to a wall of brush and trees, disappeared.

Spotlight off.  Shallow breaths through my open mouth.  A commotion to our left.

Spotlight on.  Another male, who was sitting off to our right, had moved across the road and was now rubbing the side of his face against the lion inert in the grass.  When he couldn’t get his companion to rise, he also slid into the bush.  A fourth lion, just up the road, ghostly in the spotlight’s shadow, followed the first two, disappeared.

Spotlight off.  Silence.

Then a faint roar, in the distance again.

The hair on my arm rose before I even thought about it, as I realized that next to me the grass hissed, hisss zissh, hisss zissh, as something large walked by.

“He’s right beside me,” I whisper without moving my lips.

Spotlight on.

The inert lion was gone.  John twisted his hand over his shoulder and the light caught the back of a lion just passing the front tire on my side of the vehicle.  His great head swung back and forth as he walked hisss zissh, hisss zissh through the tall grass.  The lion had walked around the back end of the vehicle without us hearing him until he was right next to me.  The skin on the back of my neck tried to crawl up to the top of my head.A Lion Walks By b&w

The lion turned his head toward the light.  The pupils in his yellow eyes shrank to pinpoints.

He was that close.  I saw his pupils shrink to pinpoints.

He huffed and swung around to follow his three brothers into the bush.  I exhaled.  Had I been holding my breath that long?

The two other vehicles appeared just in time to catch a glimpse of his back in waist-high grass.  They followed him, bouncing through the brush, their headlights tapping the tops of trees.

John turned in his seat and looked at us.  The spotlight in his lap illuminated his face and glinted from the eyes of the young couple, eyes that were now nearly the size of  their open mouths.

“I think it is enough,” he said.  “Let’s go to the hyena’s den before the others get there.”