August 10th is World Lion Day. In just over 50 years, less than my lifetime, the population has plummeted from approximately 250,000 lions in 1975 to closer to 25,000 today. (1) According to renowned documentarians (The Last Lions) and conservationists Derek and Beverley Joubert, “If you check back, every time we add a billion people to the roster, we lose half of the big cats.” Just as poaching is decimating the elephant and rhino populations, so is it effecting the the big cats. (6,652 lion trophies exported between 2000-2009) Ignorance surrounding the “medical” benefits of animal parts is fueling the black market trade. (2) The remaining lion prides are becoming more isolated and fragmented and their long-term viability is now under serious threat. I would urge you to visit The Big Cat Initiative and learn more about the challenges facing the lion population and how you can help. In honour of World Lion Day, I am giving thanks and celebrating the lions I have been fortunate to photograph, sharing my personal encounters with the largest predator in Africa–panthera leo. I hope it inspires a roar!
You never forget your first…
In 2007 I made my first trip to Africa. When I arrived in Tanzania wide-eyed in wonder, I did not really have lions on my mind. The stars of the safari circuit, number one of the Big 5, did not seem to ignite my imagination the way other animals did. That is, until I saw one! There is absolutely no forgetting your first lion. Mine was fast asleep in a tree, dangling just overhead! Pointing my camera up, his paw filled the frame and fired my imagination. He was so close he could have pee’d on me. Bodily functions are always a professional risk and I tend to ponder these kinds of comical mishaps more than wondering if my meaty thighs might provide a tasty treat.
I have had 31 encounters photographing lions and have been blessed to observe them in 5 of the 6 countries I have visited, eluded only by the desert lion of Namibia, whose paw prints disappeared over the dunes, my imagination trailing behind. I have captured tawny mounds of sleeping cubs, adolescents acting out and feasting prides on moonlit nights. I have spent time with three-legged lions, tree climbing lions, sleeping lions, pooping lions and hunting lions. I have wondered at their scarred noses and fashionable manes. And I have cherished every moment.
During one exceptionally close encounter, a young male walked right through the minimum focusing distance at 70mm, looked directly in my soul and sniffed my boot along the way. The reflection of our Land Rover was captured in his golden eyes as they met the Savute sunset. (These compostions were captured in-camera.)
“The Masai name for lion is olng’atuni but it is seldom uttered aloud lest the mention of its name should tempt the fates and invoke a visit. “ The Marsh Lions. The Story of an African Pride.
My most viceral encounters have happened at night. I have watched lions relax on the sandy river beds, fur tinged pink from a recent meal, with only the beam of a flashlight to expose them. Once, while driving off road, my ranger switched off the ignition as a hunting pride stalked by. The lions split, flanking the open truck, walking softly through the darkness on both sides of me. I could just make out their low rumbles as they advanced, shoulder to hip, reappearing in single file, shadows dancing on the beams of headlights. Your mind has nowhere to wander. On an inky African night, when a lion looks directly in your eyes, the message is very clear. “This is my time. This is my turf.”
It is not only seeing them that excites me. They have a way of arousing all your senses! I have arrived too late for dinner, inhaling the stench of rotting flesh left behind on last nights bones. In bed, listening to the thundering silence of an African night, you are reminded they are near; the unmistakable alarm call of a baboon enlivens your imagination and colours your dreams. And perhaps nudges your heart rate ever so gently! (Take a listen with the volume turned up.)
“You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.” Karen Blixen, Out of Africa
Lions are the only big cats who live in groups and a pride can number anywhere from 3 to 40, averaging around 12 or 13. Each pride is ruled by a dominant male, who could top the scales at close to 250 kg. His job is to protect the territory, which can range 250 square kilometers. The lionesses are the primary hunters, working as a team to feed the family. When a hunt is successful, squabbling ensues. The male eats first, followed by the females, and the cubs get the scraps.
You can spend days trying to find a pride of lions. There are fewer numbers wandering fairly large ranges and they quite easily disappear in the tall grass. Their lazy lifestyles actually pose a challenge for photographers who want to capture action as they can spend twenty hours a day resting under trees or on cool stretches of sand. It can be a long wait before you hit the shutter in burst-mode. Of course there are small rewards; a wayward tail swatting flies or a toothy snarl when a sibling flops down a little too close. Early morning and late in the day are the best times to be out tracking as you might catch them returning from a hunt or arousing themselves from siesta before their evening patrol. Their incredibly expressive faces are portrait-worthy and when a lion smiles, flashing canines the size of human thumbs, it is not hard to imagine the damage that is unleashed by those powerful jaws. There is no mistaking why he is king of the jungle.
Pantera leo evolved in Africa as long as 800,000 years ago. Can it really be that they will perish under our watch? I sincerely hope the tides will turn and humanity will realize the steep price we will pay if we allow these formidable carnivores–the apex predator on the African continent–to disappear.
I will certainly do my best to cause an UPROAR on their behalf.!
“I have just emerged from the depths of the great wide open spaces, from the life of prehistoric times, today just as it was a thousand years ago, from meeting with the great beasts of prey which entrall one, which obsess one, so that one feels that lions are all that one lives for…” Karen Blixen’s Letters from Africa
All photos © NJ Wight
1. As of 2008, the African lion population was roughly estimated to number between 23,000 and 39,000. *CITES
2.The CITES Trade Database lists a total of 6,652 lion trophies exported between 2000-2009, virtually all males. Available records show that between 1999 and 2008, 21,914 wild-sourced African lion parts were traded internationally from twenty range states. *CITES.
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