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Posted December 21, 2011
Dispatch #15
Famine and Feast

This is one in a series of email dispatches from Africa written this fall by photographer Michael Nichols to his picture editor, Kathy Moran.

Dear Kathy,

We left a land rich in prey and predators, a land of torrential rains, and moved 75 miles south to find a desolate, dusty, empty land.

On the way, we stopped at the lion research center to meet the current team of researchers recruited, funded, and inspired by Craig Packer. This is the 35-year study my photography is based on, and it is certain to bring a new, more intimate look at this great beast that ties the room together in the Serengeti.

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A desperately hungry Vumbi lion pride successfully captures a warthog, and a feeding frenzy ensues.

We were welcomed warmly by field researchers Ingela and Daniel from Sweden, and the newest member of the team, Stan from Tanzania. We shared a day of lion education and discussion about how to track the radio-collared study prides and navigate this holy land of axle-breaking aardvark holes. I asked Daniel about the composition of the prides near our camp on the edge of the study area, which we chose because it put us out of the tourist zone, allowing us to work without disturbing or being disturbed. He mentioned the Vumbi (“dust” in Swahili) pride with five adult females and nine small cubs born in April.

This was the lightbulb moment. Craig and I had discussed the best way to illustrate the “feast and famine” life of the prides, how they worked the plains through the full, and then empty, cycle of the wildebeest migration. We needed to photograph the starving of cubs in the tough time of the dry season.

Daniel took us south into the dust, and taught Nathan how to track as we passed pride territories. We heard the story of the “Killers,” the four males that took over breeding control of four prides by attacking a coalition of two males. Hildur, a male with a strange, wild mane, ran away, and we met him consorting with a female at a kopje (rock outcropping) on the edge of our work area. The male that stood his ground was battered to near death but recovered to control the less desirable territory that would be our base. He is dark-maned and we will meet him someday.

Daniel is a marathon cyclist (north to south in Africa and south to north in South America) and was attacked by machete in southern Tanzania just after passing a sign warning of “lion man-eaters”—a great story of survival and true grit for later.

We weren’t intending to photograph, just tour. My gear was buried to protect it from the dust cloud that enveloped each move. Daniel was intent on finding Vumbi and we headed into a vast empty plain that seemed impossible for anything to live in.

We found the lions hidden, their tan color blending perfectly with the short dry grass. I knew we had found our mission for the next month. The five females were gaunt; the nine cubs were bone-thin, pale, and constantly begging to nurse with each female, rotating constantly. We learned that 14 were born in April, and we saw one who seemed to be the next to die. This situation was a perfect illustration of the tough existence of lions, which must stick to their territory, contrasted with other predators (cheetahs and hyenas) that travel as their prey migrate.

I dug out my cameras and settled into getting the lions used to our presence, careful not to cause them to waste an ounce of precious energy. We thanked Daniel, who had to head home. Vumbi was, in a sense, his special family. They were as new to the study as he was.

As we sat, Reba and I marveled at how a predator could survive in this plain with so many mouths to feed. We occasionally spotted a gazelle or zebra far away. But where was the water? The cubs were crying and begging, struggling to move from one set of teats to another. We are still debating: Did all the females communally suckle or did just the mother feed? For sure the starving cubs were trying to suckle each female. Note that all my comments are simply anecdotal and based on sight, not data. How could they find food? It really seemed like a helpless, desperate situation. I was determined to stay until dark and return as soon as possible. We had no supplies and were ill prepared.

One female rose and headed diligently into the distance, obviously sighting something. One by one, all the adults took off, leaving us with the cubs, who gathered en masse and watched intently. After a few minutes, two females came running back growling and greeting the cubs. Whatever they had seen had passed and the whole line trotted forward to join the hunting females. The grueling sun had subsided, giving way to a pastel transition to evening.

Our new location allowed us to notice several of the females looking into holes—a first clue. Another session of lying low and sleeping in the grass. Then one lion head came up intently looking west and I asked Reba to scan with her binoculars to see if we could see what interested her. It was warthogs running across the plain. They passed and then another group of warthogs to the east brought two lions out of their energy-saving mode to complete attention. There were three warthogs, two adults and one young. We read later (in The Safari Companion by Richard Estes) that they head into territorial dens each day at dusk. They had been spotted and the girls headed fast for the hole and started to dig.

We stayed with the cubs and traveled slowly, realizing this would be a special kind of hunt. The lethargy had vanished; all rushed to the hole but the digging was led by the collared female and one other adult. The cubs moved all around watching intently and learning. It seemed like hours (but I later learned when I checked my image data it was ten minutes) until the large male warthog was dug out of the hole by the collared lioness. I had no real idea of what I saw in the killing frenzy as the camera is actually my witness. The next day I realized there was an incredible moment that the camera lens caught—the adults clamped to the belly of the screaming warthog as the life was pulled out of the animal. It was a ten-second window that revealed so much before it closed into a hidden feeding frenzy. You could see desperate energy and cooperation as the hungry cubs watched intently.

This is one of the most powerful images I have ever made and it came on the first encounter of what would be a year of watching lions. We spoke in awe of what we had seen as we struggled home trying to avoid the holes and to find a camp we had never seen. Reba and I lay in bed discussing and trying to interpret what we had seen. It was not until the download and after a second look that I realized we’d captured a still of what we’d seen and had more than just a good story to tell. The image would live forever and speak volumes about lions.

I will surely never equal or exceed this, but we will keep looking. Famine and feast.

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