Saturday, March 31, 2007

The African Lion

I wasn't expecting to fall so in love with lions when I went to Kenya. I wasn't a huge big cat fan, as the lions on Discovery channel always killed something, and I was always rooting for the underdog. I wondered how I'd feel about seeing them kill in the wild, knowing they had to eat to survive. As it turns out, I was in love with their society from the second I saw them in the wild.

Their social network of females caring for young, of males offering protection, and of youngsters of all ages, is a true joy to watch. Whether they are organizing a hunting party, competing for the scant shade of one lone bush on the Serengeti, playing games with sticks, or just lazing around, maybe nursing or cuddling, they hold one's interest. I found myself thrilled every time we came across lions, and I spent hours and hours by their side. I was shocked at how close I could come - within a foot. One pregnant lioness liked the shade of the Land Rover and literally laid right next to my door, within easy touching distance.

I was shocked at the feeling I had the first time a lioness looked into my eyes, crouching in a stretch. Some very primitive alarm went off, letting me know that my body was deeply aware on a primitive level that this animal was higher than me on the food chain. Maybe not today, of course, but way back when...and the program is still there. Of course, I pose no threat to them nor they to me as long as I am not wandering alone in the bush or running from them on foot. They did not seem to mind my presence. One mother was off alone, with very young cubs, and I was thrilled that she let me get close enough to hear and see them nurse several times, but she departed whenever other vehicles came by. I was lucky.

When I saw a pride eating a recent zebra kill, it wasn't gross as I thought it would be. It seemed very natural. While I love zebras too, I could see that the pride of more than 10 lions was getting a much needed meal, and in all probability, the zebra they took down was the weakest in its herd, and it's time had come. It's better than suffering a lingering death; the lions kill swiftly. They are not recreational killers like man; they need the meat, and they make good use of it, as well as provide for a host of scavengers when they are done dining.

I lack words to describe the sensation of being near the lions. Although I can't touch them or communicate with them, I loved just being near them and watching their communications with one another, their interactions, and all the little things, like their battle scars. One old female had a thorn in her side and had lost an eye but she was still tough, still surviving. The cubs could not have been cuter. I had my favorites quickly in each group.

I don't think I will get to see lions in Africa this year, as both of my trips don't focus on predator areas, but I'm hoping I come across some. It seems criminal to go to Africa and not visit lions! In the end they were my favorite animals to watch, with elephants being a close second.