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This is one in a series of email dispatches from Africa written this fall by photographer Michael Nichols to his picture editor, Kathy Moran.
Last night lions called and fought all night, seemingly next to my tent.
My assignment is lions. In the course of three weeks I have photographed them poorly on two short occasions. I knew when I started here that the lions would be shy because this is basically a no-tourism zone with few cars. Still it is prime real estate and I thought I would see simba every day.
I have concentrated on the wildebeest migration crossing the Mara River. They are very shy when crossing and act irrationally. Each day we sit and wait as they gather, stare at the river, and often decide not to cross. Peter Matthiessen has written that they seem to have itchy brains. Reba feels that they are half-made creatures. Mohamed just sighs.
Every day we decide on our strategy and hide in the trees as they gather. Across the river, the tourist cars come, then after a period of no action, they leave—waiting around is too pricey at $1,000 a day.
Yesterday I decided I had better start trying to get to the lions, so when I heard another lion fight in the predawn, I jumped up and without coffee (a big deal for me) mounted a search in half-darkness. I really expected we would immediately find the three males up to something. On the third search, we finally found our black-maned male and two of the females far, far from camp. The females ran away from the truck into the forest, and the male walked slowly away to join them.
In a month I will move to the edge of Craig Packer’s study area and begin working with four lion prides. They are completely habituated and each pride has one female with a radio-tracking collar. Pictures of sleeping lions guaranteed.
So I’m back sitting staring at wildebeests until the cows come home.
The moral of the story will come later if you are still with me.