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Posted December 22, 2011
Dispatch #16
Dear Craig

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,

Please share the Vumbi warthog journal (previous post) with Craig and forward this update to him.

Craig,

We are elated! All the years of talking and planning with you have paid off beyond my wildest dreams—no luck involved. Choosing this site has been perfect.

The Vumbi pride is perfect for our work. This week they killed an eland in the marsh headwaters of the river and spent two days gorging and letting the cubs strengthen. Even the runt might now survive, though we have constant debates about what’s going on and who is in charge and what a great hunter the collared female is. You will have to suffer our amateur observations. As you predicted, we are seeing exceptional things. We are trying hard to illustrate the science.

We have had another research pride literally in camp for three days; a nomad male is trying to get some love from a lone female only marginally in estrus. We check each day because if they do mate, the cubs will be newborn when we return from our holiday break in January. Today two more pride females joined them. I’m assuming the mating will kick in any day now. So far, though, I just want to stay focused with the Vumbi. Our continuing visits have seemed to relax them.

Because the Vumbi have been so calm, we’ve been able to field-test the photography toys we developed to capture images that illustrate your project data. Last night, using night-vision goggles and infrared light, we were able to shoot literally three meters away from the pride eating the last bits of the eland. The best moment was when a subordinate female grabbed a piece of eland “prime rib,” but saw the dominate female nearby, so froze for nearly five minutes, back to the dominate. When she sensed it was okay to proceed, she dug in.

It is shocking how close we can work in the dark. It is actually kind of crazy; the tolerance distance level shrinks by at least fourfold. We have been very careful to approach slowly, quietly.

That said, the night-vision goggles are pure torture and should be used to punish bad people.

Vumbi seems to cover a lot of ground—easily five miles every night when they move. Reba thinks they are just trying to keep the cubs tired. Nursing the cubs looks like pure titty torture the way they fight, push, and use their claws. They move from one female to another, feeding nonstop. All seems well. We had a huge rain and it looks like the dry season hunger might be passing—a thousand pounds of eland and two warthogs in one week has to help.

We stay with them each day at noon till they start hunting in the evening, not wanting to disturb them until we figure out how to observe without messing them up. Probably impossible, so we will wait until our next trip in February, the time of plenty, when the cubs are out of the woods.

Today we introduced the remote-controlled car with surprising success. We slowly drove it around our vehicle, moving it a few meters every five minutes, and taking an hour to reach them. We ended the day a meter away, with the device still intact. Two of the females approached, smelt it, touched it, whacked it gently, then walked away. When it seemed it was about to be destroyed we tried our emergency tactic—an obnoxious horn—with no effect whatsoever. I imagine that the sound of the horn probably fell on deaf ears when you consider they listen to horrible sounds all the time, like the screaming of pigs being ripped from the den.

We are sure this early version of the remote-controlled car will be destroyed, but it will entertain them and we’ll return with a lion-proof mini-tank. The device has real value. The images we made today are intimate ground-level lion “street scenes.” We hope that as the pride becomes accustomed to and, ultimately, bored with the new object we will capture a unique view of behavior. The opportunity is there. Nathan has dubbed the low-angle images “terra-aerials.” You were right. There’s too much wind so far for the micro-copter. The remote zebra kopjes with lions sitting on them have great potential for aerials.

A great first week. I will keep you posted. Daniel, Stan, and Ingela were really helpful to us. I will gladly coach Daniel on his photography. Glad to see you have a talented documenter on the team. You’ll need the images for fundraising so you and your heirs can spend the next 30 years researching lions at night!

Nick

Nick,

Ha! The worst hours of my life were spent wearing night-vision goggles—maybe that’s why I don’t much care for night-vision photos. Too evocative of past miseries!

But those terra-aerials show fantastic promise. What fun!

And digging up the pig—great how you were able to get such good shots thru the dust—most of my experiences involved waiting for the dust to settle before I could see whether they caught anything.

Definitely the pig is an important part of the plains lions’ story. They couldn’t live out there without the occasional pork chop.

If the mating pair has started getting hot and heavy, I imagine you must have some amazing terra-cam photos looking up at the male’s face while the female snarls at him.

And I’m glad you’ve gotten to know Daniel; he’s amazing. Oh, and as soon as the rains really arrive, you’ll be able to fly your helicopter out there—at least in the morning, anyway.

Craig

Previous Next dispatch: “A Lion’s Roar”

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