Up close and personal... with big cats

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September 13th 2009
Published: October 8th 2009
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Gabriel arrived at camp looking exhausted, but with adrenalin still clearly pumping. He briefly confirmed what Femke had already radio-ed in. The two of them had spent the night with a newly-identified pride of lion and wanted to collar the “matriarch” lioness as part of their research into large predator interactions. Anne-Lise - somehow, despite the early hour, already bright-eyed and chicly turned out, albeit in a practical bush manner (as you might expect of the French in Africa) - went off to prepare her drug and dart supplies with Louis’s help, while Gabriel made sandwiches for his starving colleague and himself. Meanwhile, Andrew co-ordinated vehicles and personnel; would we like to come along? Pope. Catholic. If I could have bitten his hand off - and if there had been any point - I would. I had never attended a lion collaring; in fact, I know very little about these iconic animals.

I was staying at Wild Dog Camp, just outside Moremi National Park in the Okavango Delta, the bush base for the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, where a friend and erstwhile colleague from Cheetah Conservation Fund days, Andrew Stein, was now research co-ordinator. Although Andrew had been in this role for about fifteen months already and had invited me to visit several times, this was the first chance I had had, given a variety of Namibian red-tape visa hiccups.

The Camp itself is comfortably set up, with individual room-sized canvas tents for each permanent member of the research staff, and a covered communal kitchen/dining/living-room area. Biological necessities are taken care of through the use of a long-drop, any accompanying “fragrance” neutralised through the use of ash from the previous night’s fire, and a generously-proportioned shower area is discreetly located behind a roughly-designed high wooden fence. There is even a concrete bunker to make desk-working during the long hot days of summer a little more bearable. (We were there in what was, effectively, springtime, but the daytime temperature was already reaching the low forties Centigrade.) There is cell-phone reception, though only if you use a certain one of Botswana’s providers, and internet connection is just about possible, though gratingly slow, through a mobile phone. Only two hours from the nearest town, Maun - at least, at this time of year when the slightly shorter route is flooded by the rising waters of the Delta - it feels far more remote, yet is manageably close to “civilisation” for the purposes of provisioning and more reliable communications.

That said, the odd visitor is assured of an even warmer welcome if they come well-stocked… particularly if the camp manager is on vacation. While in Maun visiting friends earlier that day, I was entertained to receive an sms from Andrew: “Bring meat beer chocolate salad veg bread. Please.” We went shopping.

Curiously, we had yet to see much by way of large carnivores on this trip. Spoor we’d seen a-plenty: that of a large male lion only yards from our camp the first night in the Hoanib (Keith showed me where the animal had stopped to smell us a couple of times, before continuing his measured walk past), that of an occasional hyena in Kaokoland, and that of a whole gathering of hyena in our camp in Khaudum the night before we arrived. We’d even heard the unmistakable “whoop” of hyena the first night in Khaudum, but the only large-carnivore sighting we’d had was of a spotted hyena doing its Scottish sheep impression as we left the National Park. Despite our continuing to drive a couple of hundred yards behind it, this animal was not going to get off the track for anyone, continuing its moderated, tireless lollop for a couple of kilometres until it was ready to turn off the track, whereupon it promptly disappeared into thorny undergrowth.

Hopes were high for the carnivore/herbivore balance to be redressed here.

After what seemed like an age that morning, allowing for caffeine levels to be well topped up, we were all ready to go, Gabriel driving one vehicle in his Italian race-driver fashion, quickly disappearing in a cloud of dust, and Andrew driving the other, somewhat more conservatively. We made our way through the Santawani Concession, where the Camp is located, and up to South Gate, Moremi, where we picked up a couple of Park staff as a courtesy. Not far into the Park, we found lion, a large male and a lioness, replete and lazy, close to the road. Tourists were already gathering so we left them to it; these were not our animals. Heading cross-country and away from the tourist vehicles, we found Femke, perched on top of her vehicle, watching the pride. Andrew nearly drove over the target lioness, she was so well-hidden in the long dry grasses. The huge, majestic male was a little way off, under a bush with a couple of young animals. The lions’ behaviour suggested that they had recently fed: these guys weren’t going anywhere in a hurry.

Femke and Gabriel wanted to keep the collaring team to a minimum. No hands-on experience for me this time, but I wasn’t inconsolable. This was a dangerous environment, and I was happy to stay put, a passenger, in one of the two cars being used to drive off other members of the pride who might get just a little too interested in what was going on. With the long dry grass, it was easy to appreciate the lions’ superb camouflage, and very hard to keep track of exactly who was where. The vast, handsome male was relatively amenable to being escorted to a more distant bush, although he caught us unawares when he reappeared later; the younger animals remained more mobile and curious. In our focus on them, I missed most of the action on the ground, vaguely aware of Femke and Anne-Lise crouched over the darted lioness, and then of her tarpaulin-covered body. Keeping a darted animal cool is crucial: I remember working on brown hyena in the field with Andrew when we draped branches and blankets around the re-caged animal to make sure he was kept cool and shaded until he came round and could be released; working on elephants two years’ ago, we poured gallons of water onto their heads, ears and back constantly to make sure they stayed cool. The darted animal’s temperature is taken regularly, and the team must react promptly to any change in its condition. Losing an animal in a darting is not exactly desirable.

We stayed to watch the lioness come round, ready to protect her, if necessary, from the rest of her pride until she was fully conscious. Eventually, she staggered to her feet, eyes glazed, stoned, but awake enough to growl at any youngster coming too close. One of the young male lions found the tarp and was most intrigued, ears pricked forward, pawing it, ready to pounce should it make a move. Slowly the other young lions approached, and the lioness lay down in the shade to snooze with her family. Anne-Lise professed herself happy with the cat’s demeanour and apparent health, and we returned to camp for a much-needed rest ourselves.

I was electrified. I had never spent so much time in the company of lion. We had been with them for three hours. In their terrain. We were not driving within the constraints and illusory safety of well-worn tracks, but following them through the tall grasses, around hillocks and bushes, sometimes blind as to their whereabouts, constantly checking who was where and radio-ing between vehicles to confirm that all cats were accounted for. I wriggled around in the back with my camera like an ignorant kid, and earned myself a justified rebuke: these were open vehicles - not ideal for this kind of work - and a changing silhouette would only attract feline attention. Suddenly I was aware of quite how little I really know about this environment, even after all my time in Africa, and I was subdued and contemplative for the next few hours.

Later that day, it was the turn of another member of the Panthera family, this time, Panthera pardus, the leopard. This time, it was Sarofi who called in. His razor-sharp eyes had spotted a new female near the Camp, and the collaring team was swiftly mustered. Anne-Lise prepared and loaded a dart, while Andrew navigated his way through the scrub to where Sarofi had indicated. However, this cat was not about to play ball. Despite the Batswana’s eagle-eyes, the leopard eluded them, escaping into tall grass where, even if Anne-Lise had landed her dart accurately, it would have been next to impossible to find the fallen animal. We abandoned the project, and went off to see which of the recently-collared leopard we could find, using radio telemetry.

Of the three or four leopard thought to be in the area, Anne-Lise could only find “Asia” - yes, no impersonal alphanumeric nomenclature here, just an ad hoc collection of seemingly random words adopted to name the collared animals… although Andrew vetoed an attempt to call one lioness “Pinky” after the colour of the towel used to keep her cool! And we never did reach a team consensus on the naming of that morning’s lioness. However, once found, “Asia” proved very obliging. We found her lying in the shade of a termite mound - although with the amount of smoke from nearby bush fires in the air, there was precious little pure sunlight permeating down to ground level to create any shade. After
chilled out catchilled out catchilled out cat

Asia up in a tree, clearly not at all bothered by our relative proximity
allowing us to watch her there for a while, she stretched and lazily made her way over to a distant tree. About ten metres up, she found a branch to her satisfaction, and spread herself out. One seriously unstressed cat, this, with her paws hanging down either side of the branch and her head slumped forward. I was enchanted. This oh-so-typical pose for a leopard, that most elusive of the big cats, yet I had never witnessed this in real life. All in all, we spent a couple of hours with this small but pretty and very chilled out animal.

On our way back to Camp in the dying light of the day, a spotted hyena appeared, bemused, in our headlights. Later, a large spotted genet scampered across the road. It had been a very predator-ful day. A no-show from the Camp’s namesake, but you can’t have everything.

Additional photos below
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a symbiotic relationship at worka symbiotic relationship at work
a symbiotic relationship at work

kudu feeds off bush; oxpeckers feed off insects attracted by the kudu

8th October 2009

lovely lions
Such beautiful cats! I wouldn't have know not to move in the vehical to cast a moving shadow either - good advice I'll remember.

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