Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Close encounter - of the feline kind

This beautiful creature, seen walking a dry riverbed in search of a cool place to sleep and digest, is a member of a small pride which hunts a territory within the Timbavati reserve (adjacent to South Africa’s Kruger Park). Her father, who lives away from the pride, occupies the apex of the local food pyramid, being the local alpha male. We came upon him by chance one morning, in the cool light that comes just before those magical African sunrises.

He was walking the track just a few hundred metres from our tents, coming our way. Our guide pulled over to the verge to let him pass (we were riding in an open landrover; think a stretched version of a world war II jeep, right down to the folded-flat windscreen and rifle by the driver's hand). I had an excellent view as he strode past within a couple of yards, protected only by his indifference to me. Big and brutal, he had a surprisingly melancholy mein (but a nice big mane - sorry). Talking to the tracker, we found out why.

At 12 years old, it seems he is "over the hill". Our guide’s assessment of his prospects was bleak; within a year or so, other lions will come to fight him for his territory, and he will lose. If he “doesn’t make too much fuss”, then he might be allowed to live, to shamble off into exile, where he might scratch out a lonely existence for another year or too. I don’t like his odds – he is the last of four brothers, the third being killed within the last 12 months by another pride to the north of his territory. It seems that that even the lion, the “king of beasts” himself, has only a short and precarious existence. Even knowing how the old villain maintains his position, I pitied him. Strange that such brutal animals should be so attractive – but we find them endlessly fascinating, particularly the cubs.

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