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Posted December 23, 2011
Dispatch #17
A Lion’s Roar

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,

It was the third night of following the mating of our resident male. This was our attempt to learn how we could work in the dark with infrared cameras and night-vision goggles to document a hidden world, invisible to normal cameras and lights. We had already learned that lions would allow us to be literally next to them in the dark.

Nathan wears the tortuous goggles. Reba scans with thermal binoculars. I sit with two infrared cameras pointed at the front of the car, which has infrared lights to allow me to photograph anything in front of it.

Nathan drives with the goggles, films, and records sound simultaneously. We started this night tired and cranky and I berated him for a bad driving move, which required me to apologize. Our lion seemed half dead after many days of mating with no food and I was sure this was going to be a painful night with zero result.

We are sitting in an open car feet away from a huge ferocious male while he takes care of the business his title requires. We only see what the technology allows, little windows that blink off and on. Our male is heroic. We learned that he once ruled a better, more fertile landscape with his brother. He was attacked by a coalition of four brothers, the “Killers.” He stood his ground, while his brother ran away. It was thought he had been killed. He healed and resurfaced, taking over the land of the four prides where we are working, a place of feast and famine.

He is a black-maned male, and we are trying to illustrate the science that says females prefer black manes. It must signal strength and stronger genetics, a better chance for cubs to survive with his protection. When Daniel told us the black-maned male was mating with the collared female of the Kibumbu pride, we left our Vumbi cubs to watch. Each night the images got better and our lion switched to a younger female in the pride, demonstrating the synchronized estrus that allows cubs to be born and cared for by the pride at the same time.

When I looked at the images, which didn’t quite have enough energy, I felt we should stay with the situation, despite the torture of trying to work at night. The frame had not come together as it should have, so we kept going.

At 10 p.m. our car batteries were dying (we have to sit silently with the engine off except when we move to reposition). We had just filmed a beautiful copulation with both lions snarling, facing the camera. If the image was sharply focused, we had it.

Ever since I first came to work in Africa 30 years ago, I have heard lions roar in the night. Even kilometers away, it is loud and feels as if it is next door. The black-maned lion started with a whimper, something we had heard the Vumbi females do.

“Is that all you got?” Nathan, who was recording the sound, asked the lion.

I said with expert naiveté that it must be some other signal, not a roar. Turns out he was just clearing his pipes. First he roared away from us, projecting toward our camp miles away. It shook the car and I did not shoot, not wanting to spoil our sound recording. The female joined in, creating a chorus. We all high-fived at our luck in documenting this.

He was alert, sensing something, and he got up, came to the front bumper and let go another round, this time projecting another direction behind the car. I shot blindly, begging the gods for focus and exposure. This shook us as he finished with scratching and scent marking. Then he came to my open side of the car and out of the vision of our infrared lights. Only Reba could see with the thermal and this time he roared into the car. He was in the car, as far as I was concerned. Having made his declaration, he walked away, maybe to find the food that he was smelling—collecting the rent he was due.  (Hear the lions roar)

Reba said it all: “You were like a cartoon character with your hair blown away by the tornado coming from his mouth. The thermal binoculars could see a white hot void and blazing eyes.”

Done and done. A lion’s roar.

Previous Next dispatch: “Naming the Nine Little Cubs”

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