The lions started roaring about half an hour after I crawled into bed. I was just drifting off to sleep when they began. That famous MGM lion, with its wimpy snarl, can’t begin to compare to Serengeti lions. These guys are loud, with resonant, deep-bellied roars that shake your tent poles and rattle dishes. They seem to last for minutes, ending with a series of throaty uuuf, uuuf, uuuf grunts like audible exclamation points added for emphasis.
The first of them came from the north edge of our camp. In a few moments a stereophonic reply boomed from the south side.
“Oohhhoooouuuuuurrrrrrrrrrrrrgh, uuuf, uuuf, uuuf.”
Seemingly surrounded by lions, I sat up to see if I could spot something. Then I remembered that Husseini and I were sleeping in the big dining tent, and the camp staff had lowered the outside flaps over the mosquito mesh windows.
When we had pulled into camp that afternoon, Husseini had met me with a worried look on his face. “Uh, Mzee, we have a small problem.”
For many years my Tanzania friends have called me Mzee (pronounced muh-zay). I’m honored by the title, though I have to admit that when I first looked it up in my Swahili dictionary, I was perplexed, even a little insulted. By strict definition the word means “old man.” However, I soon learned that it is a term of affection here, bestowed on those people who are respected elders.
Hussein Hamisi -- Husseini, to his friends -- and I first met many years ago, when he worked as a driver-guide for a safari company I was using at the time. We became good friends, sharing a common love of the Serengeti and other wild places in Tanzania. In 1990, he and another mutual friend, Ally Msamy, started their own company, Unique Safaris, and I have been running my photo tours in Tanzania with them ever since. Unique is a gratifying success story of local people making good against stiff foreign competition, including some dirty tricks by a well-known American safari company. In a short period of time they have become a respected tour company with a host of international clients. But occasionally things do go awry.
“The staff has forgotten to pack two tents in the lorry, yours and mine. But don’t worry, they will be here tomorrow,” he went on.
“Hamna shida,” I said. No problem. “I’ll sleep in one of the vehicles.”
“Oh no, Mzee,” he said. “After our dinner they will put the mattresses and bedding in the
dining tent for you and me. I hope you don’t mind sleeping on the ground for one night.”
“It’s not a problem. I’ve slept on the ground many times. Just as long as I don’t have to sleep outside with the lions,” I added. The dining tent is very large and spacious. Moreover, it can be zipped up tightly. I was only half joking about the lions.
Our camp was at Naabi Hill, in the eastern Serengeti. Over the years we’ve camped here many times. There’s a resident pride of lions in the vicinity and often, in the past, they have kept us awake at night with their roars.
Lions have been a topic of conversation around African campfires ever since there have been conversations and campfires. Two million years ago our bipedal forebears in this very region stood guard at the mouths of caves or stick shelters, armed with nothing but a pointed stick to defend against the big cats. Lions make me nervous. So maybe it’s just a genetic imprint, but as my friend Ed Abbey once said, “It ain’t really wilderness unless there’s something out there that can eat you.” Sometimes, though, I can do without that adrenaline rush.
That evening after dinner we had sat around the campfire with our group, sipping wine and swapping stories. Campfires here are not only traditional, but very practical as well. At 5,000 feet above sea level, Serengeti nights can be chilly, sometimes downright cold. While we watched the dancing flames, I recounted an incident that had occurred at this very spot a few years earlier. It was an evening like this, equally clear and crisp, and we were gathered around the campfire after dinner. Most everyone was focused on the stars when a low, tremulous rumbling diverted our attention. Thunder? Can’t be -- the sky was clear from horizon to horizon. The sound quickly grew louder. Suddenly a thundering herd of zebras burst into view among the acacia trees and headed straight toward us. A few people dove for their tents. Most remained frozen in their chairs.
Reflexively, I stood up and clapped my hands over my head as loud as I could -- an old bushman’s trick, taught to me years ago by a reformed great white hunter. Would even stop a charging elephant, he had said. When he demonstrated it, we were both on foot in the bush country of the Laikipia Plateau of central Kenya, and a bull elephant was charging straight at me. It worked. And so did my clapping that evening. The lead zebras slowed, then the herd split and flowed around us, a river of stripes kicking up clumps of dirt and grass and filling the still night air with dust. Passing closely in front of the dining tent, they knocked over lanterns before rumbling out of sight and sound.
When I finished my story, the current guests asked what had caused the stampede. Lions, I said. In all probability some lions had tried sneaking up on the herd in the velvet darkness. They may have even nailed one. Zebras are nervous animals, especially at night, and they spooked, making their panicked stampede in our direction. I was happy that the lions didn’t chase after them. I doubted that my hand-clapping trick would work on a charging lioness.
“Do you think there are lions around here now?” someone asked.
“Probably,” I responded. “They like this Naabi Hill area. But don’t worry, we haven’t lost any guests in uh, let’s see, uh, well, weeks.” There was nervous laughter. Later I noticed that when everyone headed back to their tents, a lot of flashlight beams scanned the outlying grasses and acacia trees for glowing eyes. Though they weren’t visible, the lions must have been readying themselves for their chorus.
An hour later, as I sat on the floor of the dining tent staring into blackness, I wanted to know where those damned lions were. Husseini was no help. He was snoring like a cranked up chain saw. I was wide awake, and between the bellowing lions and Husseini’s snoring the prospects of dozing off again were pretty dim. And then another problem arose.
It began, like in my story, as a distant noise, a low rumble. But this was no zebra herd. Soon there were ominous booms, growing in intensity as one of those Serengeti thunderstorms rumbled toward us. Within minutes, flashes of lightning illuminated our sealed tent like multi-megawatt flashbulbs popping. The thunder exploded and reverberated. A few times there was no separation between the blinding flash and the boom. Then came the rain. It pounded on the tent in a drumming calypso cadence, punctuated every few moments by a lion’s roar, accompanied by Husseini’s snores. The variety and intensity of sounds were unbelievable.
And Husseini slept through it all.
The storm lasted half an hour and passed on. Even the lions stopped bellowing. Everything was silent except for Husseini’s snores. I decided that we needed to check on the guests’ tents to be sure guy ropes and tent stakes hadn’t loosened up in the downpour.
“Husseini, wake up.”
It was no use. Anyone who could sleep through the cacophony that had just taken place wasn’t going to respond to my voice. I reached over and shook him. And shook him again. Finally he stirred and opened his eyes.
“Yes, Mzee? Something wrong?”
I couldn’t help myself. I began to laugh. In the light of my flashlight I could see the puzzled look on his face. Why was his crazy friend awakening him in the middle of the night for no apparent reason? When I was over my hysterics, I began to explain.
“Husseini, we just had a big storm come through with a lot of rain, and I think we should go and check on the guests and their tents.” I didn’t mention the roaring lions, crashing thunder, drumming rain, and his snoring, all of which had now ceased. It was profoundly quiet.
“Yes, you are right.” He slipped out of the blankets and pulled on his pants. I did the same, shivering in the cold night air. Already I could hear the rest of his camp staff out there checking on things. Emerging from the dripping tent, I could see the sky had cleared and was riddled with stars. We wandered soggily from tent to tent, checking ropes and stakes. But the staff, in their usual efficiency, had taken care of things. Everyone was fine.
At each tent I reassured the occupants that it appeared there would be no more storms. Storms? Who was worried about storms? It was the lions that were on everyone’s mind. I pointed out that lions never come into camp, and especially not into tents. I didn’t mention the rare occasions when a lion would come to a tent and drink from the washbasin just outside the front flap.
“And besides,” I said, “We haven’t lost anyone to lions in uh, well, months.” There was more nervous laughter; these folks would be boring their friends for years to come with this story. Finally, with all secured, Husseini and I headed back to our dining tent bedroom. Within minutes of rolling up in his blankets, Husseini fired up the chain saw. And then the lions started roaring again.
“Husseini, you hear that?”
“Oohhhoooouuuuuurrrrrrrrrrrrrgh, uuuf, uuuf, uuuf.”
I didn’t sleep much the rest of the night. At least there were no more storms.
All visitors to Serengeti or Ngorongoro Crater are excited by their first encounter with lions, shooting pictures by the hundreds if not thousands. I have to admit that each time I return, that first sighting of a lion is a thrill. And even though I have probably tens of thousands of photos of these big cats in my files, I still shoot my share of pictures.
Lions are the most common of the world’s big cats. Here in Serengeti and in Ngorongoro Crater there seems to be a gathering of tawny bodies alongside any road and atop every island of rock jutting above the grasslands. One doesn’t have to drive far to find simba here. It leads one to believe that of all the big cats, lions are the least likely to become extinct. Unfortunately, that’s not true.
Continent-wide the numbers are shocking. When I first began my travels to the Serengeti ecosystem in the mid-1980s, it was estimated that the lion population across Africa was about 200,000. But scientists at Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit have found that today there are 20,000 or fewer lions in all of Africa. (One researcher cogently observed, “If they were all in your sitting room, 20,000 lions might sound a lot, but we’re talking about an entire continent.”) The reason they cite for this decimation is twofold: sport hunting, and conflicts with farmers over livestock.
As many people have pointed out, sport hunting is a greatly destructive utilization of wildlife resources. Aside from the killing of animals, a more subtle and equally destructive impact of hunting is the removal of the prime animals -- the trophy specimens -- from the ecosystem, which, over time, weakens the whole population. Moreover, in lion populations it is the males in their prime that help propagate the species, so overhunting results in a decline of overall population through diminished mating opportunities (as is the case in many places).
The solution seems simple: eliminate sport hunting. But it’s not that simple. In some places, mostly southern African countries, this hunting brings in huge profits. Along with big money there is widespread graft and corruption and the officials who are beneficiaries of this graft aren’t likely to give it up. Even though more-benign tourism in the form of photo and natural history safaris could bring in as much money, if not more, to these poor countries, the hunting tradition has become ingrained in wildlife management politics. Game watching and photo safaris do not mix at all with hunting safaris, so it’s not possible to have both in the same or even adjacent reserves.
How does this affect lions in the Serengeti ecosystem? Fortunately, Kenya banned hunting many years ago, and in the Masai Mara there has been no hunting since its establishment. In Tanzania, controlled hunting is allowed in certain reserves, some close to and others far from Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Hopefully, as benign tourism continues to increase, hunting will eventually be phased out. For now hunting does not seem to have a significant impact on the Serengeti community.
The other reason for lion population decline, conflict with human population, is more complex and more difficult to solve. It’s also more serious and may, in the long run, bring about the extirpation of lions across a large part of Africa. It may also have ramifications in Serengeti, despite the park’s large size.
The major conflicts involve farming and pastoralism. As farms replace native grasslands and savannas, wild herbivores are driven off or killed or both. With their prey gone, the remaining predators turn to domestic livestock for food and eventually are shot or poisoned by the livestock owners. If the farmlands and livestock grazing take place near protected reserves, there is some severe impact. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the vicinity of the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
As a part of the Serengeti ecosystem, the Mara provides important habitat for the great migratory herds during the time of year when the rains have stopped to the south in Serengeti National Park. But this reserve is small, and in recent decades farms and livestock grazing have moved right up to the very borders and beyond.
During my early travels here in the mid-1980s, we used to stay at the Mara River Camp, located just north of the northwestern boundary of the Mara reserve. This was in an area we called the Aitong Triangle, formed by two roads that intersected at the village of Aitong in the north and where each intersected the northern boundary of the reserve. Game was so abundant in the region that often we spent days outside the reserve photographing lion prides, leopards (the famed Leopard Gorge was located here), cheetahs and, of course, large numbers of grazers. Many television documentaries and films about the Masai Mara were actually filmed, in part, in this triangle outside the reserve.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, it was sparsely populated by a few Maasai bomas and wandering herdsmen. Much of this region north of the Masai Mara reserve was known as the Koyake Group Ranch, later to become the Koyaiki Conservation Area, owned and operated by local Maasai people. Attempts were made to develop tourism in the area, but little was done to control the influx of people and livestock. By 1999, the population of the region had increased by 70 percent, and the land was being subdivided.
Two researchers, writing in the "Journal of Biogeography" in 2004, concluded: “With the rapid increase in human settlement in the Mara, and with imminent land privatization, it is probable that wildlife populations on Koyake will decline significantly in the next 3–5 years … This land privatization may result in increased cultivation and fencing, the exclusion of wildlife and the decline of tourism as a revenue generator. This unique pastoral/wildlife system will shortly be lost unless land holdings can be managed to maintain the free movement of livestock and wildlife.”
Some wildlife may coexist for a while with human settlements, but predators, in particular, do not mix well with humans. Lions, like many predators in this part of the Serengeti ecosystem, may well become a rare species.
South of Naabi Hill and west of Lake Ndutu, there is a shallow stream drainage called Mto Mbalageti. More popularly these days it is called Hidden Valley because, as you approach it after driving for miles across these flat plains, there is no visible clue that it is there until you are upon it. Long after the rains, when the grasslands are drying out, there is often standing water in this intermittent stream basin. The wildebeests and zebras must find water in their westward trek toward the central Serengeti, and thus Hidden Valley is like a magnet. And it is here where lions lie in wait for their prey.
We had found several females, the core of a pride, sprawled out and snoozing in the short grass on the rim of the valley. Beyond, as we drove along the edge, I spotted a pitifully emaciated male lion hanging out with a very healthy looking one -- a brother, perhaps. The reason for his wasted look soon became obvious: he had a broken or dislocated hip. Walking was obviously painful and he dragged one rear leg as he hobbled along to keep up with his brother. His ribs pushed against sallow skin. He wasn’t going to last long.
We circled around so as not to impede their movement. They were heading in the direction of the females. Suddenly the healthy male looked up, alert, and began trotting forward at a brisk pace. The crippled one tried to keep up but very quickly fell behind. We followed the first one, slowly and at a good distance so as not to interfere with anything going on. Approaching the edge of the shallow valley we saw the healthy male chase a female away from a baby zebra she had just killed. He was the honcho here and this was now his kill. Snarling, the lioness retreated to a nearby clump of grass to wait for any leftovers.
But the healthy male was soon interrupted by his crippled brother who, seeing an opportunity to eat (he probably had not eaten in weeks), redoubled his effort and dragged himself with surprising speed and agility toward the kill. He pounced on the dead zebra and a battle ensued, with much growling and snarling. The water in this part of the valley had long since evaporated and left behind powdery alkaline dust. Clouds of it were kicked up as the two brothers fought ferociously over this tiny morsel of food. The crippled one, more desperate in his hunger than the healthier one, fought and tugged at the carcass with surprising strength. This might be his last chance for sustenance because the pride, in following the migrating game to the lower end of the valley, would far outdistance him in the coming days. And the pride does not deliver food to other members of the clan, injured or not.
The struggle lasted for several minutes. There were pauses, with each lion gripping a part of the carcass tightly in his teeth while panting from the heat of the sun and the exertion. Then the fight resumed when one or the other, hoping to wrest the carcass from the other by surprise, yanked violently on the battered zebra. Finally the battle was resolved when the cripple, in one desperate surge of energy, managed to rip apart the little zebra. Now there were two roughly equal halves and each lion fed voraciously, the crippled one with special vigor.
I photographed the whole scene, but of course the pictures are mostly unpublishable. Few want to confront such stark, grisly realities of life -- and death. After a while I put the camera aside, as I often do, and just watched and wondered. This was probably the last meal for the cripple. He was doomed and probably knew it. The hip was never going to heal or get better. Within days, he himself would become food for his most hated of enemies, the hyena. But for the time being he gorged himself and soon would lie down in the grass to sleep and ease his pain.
When he awoke he would be alone. Waiting.