It was a crisp winter’s morning. The sun had just peaked its golden head over the horizon with its gentle glow made fuzzy by a thin, smoke-like fog that seemed to hang lazily over the dry African bushveld. Today was the day, my first walking trail in a Big 5 area! I had made sure to pack my backpack with everything I could possibly need (and more) the night before. My water bottles were full, my binoculars were clean, camera battery charged and I was finally getting to wear the pair of gators I had bought. To say I was excited was an understatement.
”Did you see the lions last night!?” my friend asked me as we climbed into the game viewer. ”No, but they walked straight through camp!” I replied. Two male lions on a territorial patrol had marched right down the main camp pathway leaving monster sized footprints behined them.
”By the look of the tracks, the one boy walked past within 2 meters of your tent.” Our field guide instructor said to me. ”You should have shone your torch out your tent. You would have gotten a good view of him.” I thought back to the previous night’s events. My heart rate still hadn’t returned to normal yet!
I had crawled into my bright green sleeping bag, inside a small dome tent, at around 10pm. It was only a week into my year long field guide course and I was still trying to get used to the symphony of bush noises that play during night. I had just fallen asleep when I was awoken by the unmistakable sound of a Lion’s roar. And it was close. Maybe 100m away I thought. Now a lion roaring 100m away while you are snug in your sleeping bag is an incredible experience. I was loving life! But then… Came another roar. This time even closer! 30m away? 20m? At that moment it really didnt matter to me how close it was as I was frozen in fear!
In an instant my rugged army-style dome tent felt like nothing more than a flimsy piece of fabric, and that flimsy piece of fabric was the only thing seperating me from a certain gruesome death… Well, thats what it felt like at the time. The shear volume of a male lions roar is overwhelming. It’s almost as if your body vibrates to it! I lay dead still in my sleeping bag. I thought that if i moved it would see me and come investigate. Of course however it didn’t and after what felt like an eternity, I heard another roar. This time farther away. They had moved passed and I was safe!
That was my first lion experience and it instilled in me not only a strong sense of respect for the deepest, darkest continent’s apex predator, but a love for them as well.
Sadly though, the African lion, the most iconic animal on the African continent, is facing extinction. To read the numbers is frightening. According to accounts the wild lion population in Africa has plummeted from over 200000 to under 20000 in the last century alone.
These tawny coloured kings of the African savanna are are on the brink of disappearing from the land they have prowled for so long, unless something substantial is done about their plight.
I was always told that you fear a lion three times. First, when you see its enormous spoor, second, when you hear its bone-chilling roar and third, when you see the mighty beast on foot. I can attest to the truth behind all three of those!
Lions are the only social feline. They form prides which are usually made up of a group of females and young who are defended and protected by either one or more dominant males. Their senses are incredibly acute with night vision being as much as 8x better than ours, their teeth designed for puncturing and ripping apart flesh and a mind numbingly fast charge speed of around 22 meters/second.
230kg of muscle, standing 1.2m at shoulder height and majestically mained, male lions form the crux of lion prides. When you consider the population dynamics of a lion pride, the estimated current total population takes on an even more sobering look. Of the 20000 lions roaming the African continent today, it is thought that less than 8000 are males and even fewer fully grown, dominant males.
The thrill of seeing an African lion in its natural environment, whether a semi relaxed view from the comfort of a game drive vehicle or the adrenaline surge you get when you bump the big cats on foot, is a truely remarkable experience. Something that generations to come may never know.
Through the expation of space needed by the horrendous growth of the human population, the disgusting sport known as canned lion hunting, the growing lion bone trade and to some extent trophy hunting, the African lion, with all its power and raw Savage beauty is slowly fading away.