Tag Archives: Photography

In a World Full of Angles

We are born. We die. In-between, ah, in-between are all the possibilities in the universe.

What brings it all forth? What have we in common with every living thing? What have we in common with the vine tendril, the bee, the unfolding flower, the cheetah, the salmon, the amoeba?

O each vanishing endangered one upon this earth, the last ones, the least ones, the ones we rarely see, the ones we will never see again. O the sun, the wind, the rain, the mountains, the deserts, the trees, the seas, and all who live around us, despite us – what a spell of life you cast!

In a World Full of Angles

 

Listening to Silence

Sunset

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

A herd of impala browses on low scrub next to my vehicle. Every now and then one glances up, and her huge obsidian eyes reflect the setting sun. The dominant male, a studly impala ram who has won his harem from other males, snorts twice with a spitting sound phaah, phaah. He chases first one female here, then another female there, trying to move them into an open area where they will huddle together through the night, eyes open in all directions – safety in numbers from lions. The sound of munching leaves is oddly comforting as night falls.

At dusk a choir of reed frogs begins: tink…. tink…. tink…. each on the same single note, similar to small bamboo reeds clinked together.

Darkness falls and the stars come out. Orion does a slow cartwheel, his left hand already touching the horizon.  Leo naps on his back, the way most lions sleep.  Scorpio thrusts one claw into the leaves of a fan palm.  A jewel box of stars contains the tiny, tilted Southern Cross. Under the brilliant sash of the Milky Way the large nests of Red-billed Buffalo Weavers hang in silhouette on the west side of an acacia tree. The Big Dipper’s bowl empties north, its handle sunk below the horizon.

Bowls and crosses and nests; way-finders for those who are lost in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

Later in the night a hippo claims the swath of grass in front of my tent with an ear-splitting bellow: UNGHHHH, UNGH, UNGH, ungh, ungh, ungh that would truly wake the dead. He mows the grass one huge chomp at a time – sound and word perfectly matched: chomp, chomp, chomp. I finally fall asleep against it.

Even later a lion’s roar claws into my dreams, WAAUNNNNNNH, UNH, UNH, unh, unh, unhan invisible beginning his nightly rounds with a sound so primal it must issue from the throat of the earth. But he only roars once, and I fall asleep again.

In the middle of the night a huge resounding crash wakes me yet again. I hear a low rumble next to my tent as an elephant drags a branch through the bush, leaves crackling beneath it. Like tires with low air pressure, his cushioned feet smother the sound of his own footfalls. I fall asleep again, as the branch gets further and further away, and the sound of reed frogs swells, as if the wind blows against a million bamboo chimes.

Two days later, on the opposite side of the world, the handle of the Big Dipper is restored, a crescent moon beneath it. Inside my thickly-insulated home on a cul-de-sac, I fall asleep listening to . . . silence. In a night empty of the creatures who once lived here, my neighborhood is eerily quiet. But my dreams are full of rumbles and roars and bellows and tink….tink….tink…..

Hyenas Eat Hot Sauce

Photograph by Cheryl Merrill

This is an updated version of a post I did back in 2014:

During my first visit with Sandi and Doug, I heard about the thieving hyenas of Stanley’s Camp when its manager pointed to the banks of a nearby lagoon. “Hyenas dragged our sofa out there and ripped it apart.”

The leather sofa never had a chance. A pack of hyenas can devour a four- hundred-pound zebra in less than half an hour, eating its bones, skull, hair, even its hooves, leaving only a smear of blood on the ground. With a bite pressure of over a thousand pounds, hyenas pulverize and consume enough bone their scat is chalk-white.

They eat almost anything that moves: wildebeests, warthogs, rodents, hares, snakes, crocodiles, turtles, lizards, birds, caterpillars, termites, and every species of antelope in Africa. They eat things that don’t move – such as dung – or flesh so putrefied and full of maggots it’s the consistency of cottage cheese. They eat anything not locked up: boots, toothpaste, shaving cream, soap, even bottles of hot sauce. What’s glass to a creature that can snack on a zebra’s hoof?

At Stanley’s the hyenas climbed into the dining lounge in the dead of night, shoved aside several tables and chairs, pulled the sofa down a set of wooden steps and tugged it four hundred feet to the banks of the nearby lagoon. They ate its leather and left a gnawed wooden frame.

I asked the manager, “Why the sofa?”

“Just the oil from human hands.” He rubbed a palm across the sofa’s replacement. It was leather, too. Doomed, I thought.

Last night, I remembered the sofa and mentioned it to Sandi, asking her many sofas had been destroyed over the years.

She thought for a moment. “One or two,” she said. “And a couple of chairs.”

Then she told me the story of the hyenas who killed an eleven-year-old American boy at the Xakanaxa Campground, thirty miles to the northeast.

A mother and son on an overland camping safari stopped at Xakanaxa with their guide. The mother allowed her son to sleep by himself, against the guide’s wishes. According to some accounts, the boy left the zipper of his tent open, hoping to photograph the hyenas circling their campsite earlier in the evening. According to others, he may have even brought food into his tent to lure the hyenas closer.

Awakened by shrieks and crazed laughter, the guide saw a huge female hyena dragging the boy into the bush. Men from nearby campsites helped locate his body, drove away the hyenas, and guarded his remains until daylight.

Last night, in the middle of the night, I was awakened by a clatter. Something was rearranging everything in the kitchen shelter. Aluminum chairs scooted across the concrete floor. Silverware rained. A large enamel pot crashed. A long, long silence followed.

I replayed what I’d just heard. Yes, that had to be the enamel pot we cook in, stored near the sink.

I reached under my cot, retrieved my glasses, grabbed my flashlight, rose and tiptoed to the rear end of my tent. Lying flat on my belly, I unzipped the mesh, then the canvas, just enough to allow out a beam of light. The sound of the zippers ripped through the darkness.

The light barely made it to the end of the kitchen shelter. Nothing. I flicked it around as best I could. Nothing. No reflected eyes, no movement, nothing. The silence was deafening.

I zipped the tent shut, went back to my cot, and, oddly enough, fell asleep.

We found the pot today on our morning walk. They tried to eat that, too.

A Tribute to Thembi: Miles per Pound of Trees

On March 13, one of the elephants I who allowed me into her life died unexpectedly of colic and a heart attack.  I’ve written extensively about Thembi and her herd mates.  This is one of the pieces.

 

Diamond on forehead 2

Thembi, she of the evenly matched ears, long-lashed eyes, and diamond-shaped scar on the bridge of her nose, farts as she walks.  Big, burbling farts.

All the trees, grasses and leaves Thembi eats gather in her 10-gallon stomach, which is pretty much just a holding area.  From her stomach, roughage travels into her small intestine and then on into her large intestine.  Joining the two intestines is a junction called a cecum, where digestion actually takes place.  Her cecum is filled with billions of microbes, just like most mammals, including us.  The microbes break down the cellulose of leaves and trees into soluble carbohydrates Thembi can digest, but the process also gives her enough methane gas to power a car 20 miles each day.

I wonder, as I walk behind her, just how one could harness this gassy natural resource.  I live at the edge of a small town.  Twenty miles would more than cover my daily errands.  I imagine exhaust fumes smelling like fermenting grass.  I imagine driving down highways inhaling the scent of mulched trees.

I wonder, as I walk behind her, why I think of such things.

Percolating along, Thembi lifts her tail and farts again.  It’s a stupendous displacement of air.  In this just-right light, I can actually see this fart.  It looks like heat waves blasting from the back of a jet engine.

One advantage of Thembi’s size is food efficiency, miles per pound of trees.  An elephant eats four to seven percent of its body weight each day – four hundred to six hundred pounds of vegetation.  Mice eat a twenty-five percent of their weight daily and hummingbirds two times their own weight, or two hundred percent.  If hummingbirds ate trees, the forests of the world would already be gone.  Pound for pound, Thembi needs far less food than rodents or birds.  And with her size comes another advantage over smaller creatures – a longer life span.

We humans, with our penchant for measurements, have conjured up a precise formula for figuring out things like longer life spans.  The formula is called quarter-power-scaling.  A cat is about 100 times more massive than a mouse.  To calculate the cat’s age, take the square root of 100, which is ten, and then the square root of 10, which is 3.2.  The lifespan of a mouse is around 800 days, or just over two years.  Multiply 800 by 3.2.  The result is 2,560 days, or seven years, the average lifespan of a cat.

However, if a cat’s metabolic rate was 100 times faster than that of the mouse, all cats everywhere would spontaneously combust into feline fireballs.  Oddly enough, heart rate, the engine that drives the cat to chase the mouse, scales to the same formula, but in the opposite direction, to the minus quarter-power.  The resting heart rate for a mouse is 500 beats per minute.  Divide that by 3.2 and you have the average heart rate for a cat, around 156 beats per minute.

An elephant’s resting heart rate is a placid thirty-five beats per minute and a bit higher, around forty, when excited.  While the jittery mouse lives just over two years,  an elephant lives around sixty-five years, certainly long enough to power my car for the rest of my life.

 

Heart Break

I was working on this piece for my writing group when I got the news on March 13th that Thembi (the elephant in the middle of this photograph) had died from colic and a heart attack.   I can’t imagine how their guardians, Doug and Sandi Groves, must be feeling.  Thembi had been a part of their human/elephant family group since she was two years old.  It is hard to lose any family member……

L to R: Jabu, Thembi & Morula, photograph by Cheryl Merrill

 

Heart shapes can be found in nature, if you’re lucky enough to see one. The heart shape on Jabu’s trunk was easy to spot when I first met him – a ridged outline high up, just below the level of his eyes, about a foot tall and half a foot wide. One of his wrinkles pierced the heart, straight as an arrow, from left to right.

Now that he’s an older elephant, his trunk has grown broader, and the heart is harder to find. I can still see the outline of it, but it’s not easy to make out.

The shape of the heart on Jabu’s trunk is a Valentine’s likeness, the kind you see carved into trees. An elephant’s heart has two points at its ventricular apex – which makes it look like an apple, instead of the red caricature on cards we give to each other once a year. You’re unlikely to see an elephant’s heart carved onto a tree.

Jabu’s heart hangs between his breastbone and ribs, a little to the left, like mine does. When I stand near Jabu’s side, our hearts are close to each other, one-point and two-point, Lupp-DUPP, Lupp-DUPP, Lupp-DUPP.

Hearts have the same basic pump-like design – a design that has worked through eons -an ancient blueprint, a master timepiece, a blueprint followed by even the tiniest of creatures. A day or two after fertilization, embryos develop a pinpoint that pales, then brightens, pales, then brightens, the beginnings of a tiny pump emptying, filling, emptying, filling.

Of all the body’s organs, the heart is the only one that doesn’t get cancer. Of all the body’s organs, Egyptians mummified only the heart.

The length of Jabu’s heart is twenty-two inches; its width eighteen. His heart weighs around forty-four pounds, almost the same as a medium-sized dog. Still, it’s less than 1% of his body weight, a common proportion among large mammals and humans. My heart weighs only ten ounces, less than 1% of my body weight.

The human heart is approximately five inches long, three-and-a-half inches wide, and shaped like a pulsing cone. It is the only muscle in my body that acts on its own – it doesn’t need any messages from my brain.

The cells in my heart tissue involuntarily twitch, all together, all at once, over and over, a synchronous soft perpetual-motion machine. Rip my heart from my body, chop it into pieces, immerse the pieces in a saline solution, give them a small jolt of electricity, and the remnants of my cardiac muscle will contract . . . contract . . . contract . . . for several minutes, all on their own, all at the same time. A whole undamaged heart will beat for five to ten minutes before it dies from lack of oxygen, from lack of blood.

It’s built to be strong, our hearts.

Mouse, hummingbird, elephant, human, snakes – we all have roughly two-and-a-half billion heartbeats for our lives. Species with faster heartbeats die sooner, rapidly using up their allotment within their short lives. An elephant’s heartbeat is slower than ours. Like us, elephants may suffer from cardiovascular disease and die of heart attacks and strokes.

Cardiac arrest. When the heart shudders and stops, when the light in the eyes flickers, fades and snuffs. When the heart quits beating, when its resonance

Lupp DUPP     Lupp DUPP     Lupp DUPP

is gone. The gurgle of digestion, all the silky, sturdy, slapping noises, the blood rush, gone – the symphony of the body finished.

For those of us left behind, its silence is almost too much to bear. But somehow we do it. Somehow, the world beckons us back in.

 

Here is their Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/withelephants/?fref=nf&pnref=story

Tails of Africa

yes-right-way

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

Off in the distance zebras nod as they plod past a line of trees.  Yes, this is the right way; Yes, this is the right way.  Several stop to look our way.

They are nature’s bar codes, no two alike.  Quintessential Africa.

In his book, Origin of Species, Darwin speculated on whether a zebra was a white horse with black stripes or a black horse with white stripes.  He compiled examples of the occasional striping on all horses, arguing that a trait from a distant common ancestor, white on black, is brought to full fruition in the zebra.  His examples noted that some zebras are born with white dots and blotches, incomplete stripes on a black background, Morse code instead of bar code, natural proof that a zebra is a black horse with white stripes.  The white is lack of pigmentation.

I think I’ve taken at least 300 photographs of zebras, of their herds, their stripes, their tails.  Tails of Africa: I have a whole album of animals turning their backs just as I press the shutter.  Portraits of elephant butts, giraffe butts, baboon butts (not a pretty sight for those who don’t get an immediate visual image), impala butts, even bird butts.   None of lions, however.  They tend to circle, keep you in sight.  The most butts in that album belong to zebras, notorious for twirling away just when I have a great shot lined up.

The zebra family of striped horses (Equidae) has four members: Plains zebra (Equus burchelli), Mountain zebra (Equus zebra), Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) and Wild ass (Equus africanus).  I’ve never seen a Mountain zebra or a Wild ass (no jokes, please), but I’ve been fortunate enough to add plenty of photographs of the Plains zebra and Grevy’s zebra to Tails of Africa.

grevys-zebra-2

Grevy’s Stallion – photograph by Cheryl Merrill

The Grevy’s zebra is the largest of the family members and looks a lot like a mule, with large rounded ears and a short, thick neck.  Their brush-cut manes are stiffly erect, broom-like, and sometimes extend all the way to the tail.  Stripes on a Grevy’s are narrow, close-set, brownish, and extend to the hooves.  Their bellies and the area around the base of their tail do not have stripes: Grevy’s zebras have white butts.  Foals are born with brown stripes that darken as they grow.  Found in Kenya and Ethiopia, there are only 2,000 Grevy’s left in the wild due to habitat loss.

grevys-zebras-giraffe-legs

Female Grevy’s and a Giraffe – photograph by Cheryl Merrill

Like all zebras, the stripes on a Grevy’s extend up through their manes.  Their muzzles are brown, and so is the whisk at the end of their tails.  Their lips and nostrils are gray.

In contrast, Plains zebras are nearly everywhere, from Ethiopia to East Africa, to Southern Africa, but usually no more than nineteen miles from the nearest water source.  Smallest of the zebras, it has horse-like ears and is thick-bodied with short legs.  Their stripes are vertical on their bellies, but swing more to the horizontal on their hindquarters and make neat collars around their necks.  Adults have black muzzles; foals are born brown and white.  Southern populations also have “shadow stripes,” a brown stripe in between black ones.  Their stripes extend nearly to their hooves.

zebra-mowhawks

Shadow Stripes and Mohawks – photograph by Cheryl Merrill

You might think such a boldly patterned animal is easy to spot.  For humans, yes – we are used to bar codes and are able to string together space between vertical black slashes as part of the whole.  For lions, not so much, because cats can’t see color.  If they did, we would have cats with butts like baboons during mating season, a lovely (to baboons) come-hither red, or cats with blue balls, like those of Vervet monkeys.  (My blue balls are bigger than your blue balls.)Then again, maybe blue balls might work for lions, because they see mostly in blues and greens.

Stripes work to interrupt the outline of a zebra’s body – a lion sees only blobs of a lighter color of blue-green as an unrecognizable pattern – since no two zebras are striped the same it would be impossible to memorize a pattern as zebra!  Black stripes are seen by lions as blank spaces.  Add in a screen of bush and a hungry lion might walk right by an immobile zebra.  And when lions flush a herd of zebra, all those flashing stripes together give the herd a psychedelic pulse that make it difficult for lions to visualize individuals in the herd.

Zebras have thick, tough hides.  Healed scars from attempted lion take-downs often result in misaligned stripes.

misaligned-stripes

Misaligned stripes – photograph by Cheryl Merrill

But for photographers, even the butt end of a zebra is fun to capture – because, for the most part, their tails are striped, too.   And sometimes the light is just too perfect to resist.

tails-of-africa

Tails of Africa – photograph by Cheryl Merrill

 

 

 

 

 

 

Massive Molars

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

 

At birth, elephants have only two or three small cheek teeth. By the age of ten, big tectonic molars began to erupt in the back of their jaws, becoming part of a conveyer belt of teeth. As molars wear down near the front of an elephant’s mouth fragments of them break off in pieces and either fall out or are swallowed. Throughout its lifetime, an elephant will grow twenty-four molars in six sets – but only two tusks.

Each molar looks like a set of dishes drying edgewise on a rack, bonded together by enamel. The vertical ridges function like giant vegetable graters as an elephant’s lower jaw moves forward and back, rather than side-to-side like a cow. Each molar grows up to a foot long, has a maximum of ten ridges, and weighs eleven pounds apiece – perfect for grinding up tree branches.

Like human teeth, elephant teeth consist of cementum, dentine and enamel. Cementum holds the roots of a tooth in place, dentine surrounds the pulp and enamel crowns each tooth with a hard protective layer. Packed with nerves and blood vessels, the pulp cavities of elephant tusks extend two-thirds of the length of each tusk. Their teeth are as sensitive as mine are.

Doug asks Jabu to “Open up.” He curls his trunk back over his head and Doug stretches to his tiptoes, pulls his lower gums wide with his hands.

In his lifetime Jabu will have six sets of molars.  His sixth set will wear down by the time he is sixty.  Only ten percent of aging elephants grow a seventh set of molars.

“Very good, my boy. . . . veerrry good.”

Peering over Doug’s shoulder, I count four molars in his mouth, two on top and two on the bottom.

Doug lets go of Jabu’s lower jaw. “Allllright, Jabu, allllright.”

He drops his trunk but leaves his mouth open. Doug grabs a fistful of treats and slides his arm into Jabu’s mouth, all the way to his elbow. As he lets go of the treats he rubs Jabu’s tongue. He  flaps his ears.

“Elephants use their trunks to rub each other’s tongues. It’s kind of like a handshake,” Doug says.

Storm and Stress: Reaction to the People’s Voice

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

The storm grows throughout the night. Gusts of wind slap and pummel the side of the house with open palms and a horde of fists. It moans around the edges of the front door. The arms of my chair tremble with each blast.

I push the tip of my pen across a piece of paper, try to quiet the storm of voices inside my head. The world is sealed outside, my thoughts sealed within. An ant climbs onto the paper where I’ve written these last few words, bumps into the ink marks, recoils, bumps into them again, recoils again, and gives a wide berth thereafter to ink. I empathize with the ant. None of my words are the right ones. The damp animal scent of fear chases them into the darkness beyond the candle on my desk.

The power is out. The candle is a miniature sun. It creates light the same way the sun creates light, by consuming itself. But a candle burns faster, has a much shorter lifespan. It flickers in the drafts flowing through the house like ghosts.

The rain picks up its tempo and sounds like hundreds of nails thrown against the window behind me. Squalls beat against the glass as if the storm has gone mad. An image forces itself into my imagination – an image of the furious wind taking the house in its hands and shaking it.

I write until the candle gutters and I have just enough of its light to find my bed. I cannot sleep. Words swirl and dive and surface and sink. My useless eyes stare into the dark. My heart beats as if it is marching to its doom. The house shakes and shakes and shakes. Finally, bone-weary sleep overtakes me.

I dream a night-full of quicksilver dreams, of wild-haired crones, potent seers and wisdom that fades with dawn. The absence of wind awakens me. Emerging from the cocoon of sleep, I go outside.

Long fingers of light spread behind the mountains, the palm of the sun still hidden. The few stars left burn out. All that distant, distant past up there – before humans, before dinosaurs, before one-celled lumps of life began wriggling in the sea.

Clouds with gray weighted bottoms float behind the wake of the storm. Their fluffy tops begin to glow. Rooted to one spot like a sunflower, my head turns toward where the sun will rise. And I wait.

Beauty

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

 

When I least expect it, Beauty fells me with a roundhouse right, pummels me with soft fists, dazzles me with her quick feet. Sometimes it’s a glancing blow to the chin; sometimes she doubles me up by a quick swing to the solar plexus.   Right, left, right, left – she’s danced me round and round the ring until I’ve lost my breath. She’s left me in my corner, dazed and gasping. She’s held me in a clinch, face to face, with nothing more to say. To some Beauty is just another heavyweight contender, but in bouts with me she’s always the champ, always the champ.

In the Pawprints of Lions, Part Three

“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.

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

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.”

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

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.

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

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……….”

 

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