November 14 – Morning Game Drive – Selinda
Before I start reliving November 14th (which was the penultimate day of the entire trip for us) I hope you will allow me a bit of a retrospective. It has been just over a month since I last posted, and I came up with a ton of excuses for myself behind the delay. In the last few weeks I have been grappling with some challenging news concerning two of my dearest friends and I am trying to get my arms around it all. I went for a long walk in the “tundra” which is what Connecticut feels like in the winter when compared to summer in Botswana. I saw a beautiful red-tail hawk soaring, a very confused blue bird who appeared as frustrated with the cold as I was, and three white-tailed deer loping through the snow. In the midst of all this I found some coyote tracks and had a bit of fun determining that they were at least a day old because last night’s dusting of snow lay on top of the original tracks. Anyway, I laughed that my training with Isaac in the sands of Africa can even be applied in frozen Connecticut. At the end of my walk I wasn’t any closer to overcoming the sadness that I started my walk with, but I know that I had become that much more appreciative of life’s beauty, in all its forms and that includes its fragility… Ironically, our morning game drive on November 14th left me with the same message…
And fyi, there will be no more excuses.
My version of C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is called “The Leopard, the Hyenas, the Baboons and the Lionesses” and while this was not Narnia, I found it just as magical.
We were the first vehicle out, again, at 5:40am. We headed right back to Leopard #3 that we had seen late yesterday. She was only five minutes from camp and we discovered that she had made yet another kill – this time a reedbok. No sooner had we spent some time photographing her, we saw two hyenas racing in our direction (really in the direction of the dead reedbok – they had no interest in us). The leopard took cover in a nearby tree as the hyenas feasted on her fresh kill. I have to admit that I am not an adoring fan of the hyena and have never found them particularly attractive, but I am quite pleased with these head-shots and think I may have captured a bit of their wild beauty.
We spent a bit of time with the hyenas as they devoured the reedbok and then turned our attention once again on the leopard in the dead tree. In the midst of watching her we were surprised by her sudden decision to leave the tree and dive for deep cover. We were a bit disappointed that she was now out of camera range but Isaac told us to keep our eyes open, as she must have seen something that scared her enough to move from the safety of her tree. Remember, she was in a dead tree, so anyone or anything could easily see her from a distance. From our vantage point, this still didn’t make a lot of sense – the leopard is the only big cat who climbs, and leopards usually find safety in trees… but then we heard the baboons! There was a troop of 30-40 baboons heading in our general direction making a lot of noise (and fyi, baboons and leopards are deadly enemies – I have heard guides talk about adult male baboons and adult male leopards each fighting to the death). The baboons settled on another “island” of trees a safe distance from the leopard. Then the baboons started screaming – again, we had no idea the reason, but from their elevated position in the trees they had a much better vantage point to take in the overall surroundings. Isaac quickly drove us to the troop and said again, keep your eyes open, they are sounding the predator alarm.
No sooner had he said this, two lionesses came out of the tall grass and rushed the baboons in the trees, only to be joined by two more lionesses. Between the baboons shrieking and the lionesses communicating with deep guttural roars, it was a mad scene. The baboons were safe in the trees but still were anxious about the lions clawing on the trunks. Evan and Isaac felt certain that with all the bedlam, someone was going to lose their cool and do something stupid and it wasn’t long before three of the baboons decided to “make a run for it”. The three were focused on another set of trees a few hundred yards away. As soon as the lionesses noticed the escapees, a chase pursued and we followed close behind. Two of the three found the nearby treetops, but the third was grabbed as it tried scaling the tree. Did I say three baboons – my mistake, as the third baboon lay dying on the ground, we noticed a little baby (less than a month old) slowly disengaging from its mother’s dying body. Despite its young age, I was amazed to see how instinct so quickly kicked in that it immediately tried to find safety in a tree. Unfortunately it did not know how to do this quickly or quietly. While its instinct was good, it hadn’t yet mastered speed or agility. At this point the lionesses noticed the “little guy”. They were obviously intrigued, but did not go for the “kill” which would have taken less than a nano-second if they had been so inclined. The baby and one of the lionesses engaged in the African version of BIG cat and mouse game which we have watched countless numbers of times with our own domestic cats and their catches of mice, moles and chipmunks. The baby was jumping up and down screaming and hitting the lioness on her nose. The lioness was gently knocking the baby off the trunk of the tree every time it seemed to make a little bit of progress in its vertical attempt of escape. Finally the lioness carried the baby in its mouth (really at that moment she could have swallowed it whole without a blink of an eye) and put it down on the ground in front of her. What happened next blew our minds – the baby, in another instinctual moment, held onto the lioness’ chest and tries to suckle… Evan’s pictures say it all. (As for my pictures, I had pulled a typical amateur move and had forgotten to recheck my settings when this whirlwind of action occurred so a lot of my pics are overexposed until I had a moment of clarity and made the appropriate adjustments.)
I should clarify that while I said the lioness was being “gentle”, she was being as gentle as a 350 pound cat can be with a 3 or 4 pound baby baboon. The baby was showing signs of physical harm and fatigue from the whole ordeal. After allowing the baby to “suckle” for a bit, the lioness again picked the baby up in her mouth – I was in agony watching the baby’s ordeal – and kept on turning off the video option on my camera because I it was hard to record.
Saved by the bell (of sorts)… just at that moment when we thought the baby’s odds were dwindling, the lioness was distracted – this time by two male lions. Enter stage right the two brothers we had photographed the previous morning. We initially thought (as did the lionesses) that the boys were interested in the dead baboon (which no one had paid much attention to since its killing). The big boys made a half-hearted attempt to check out the dead baboon, but we ultimately figured out that they were much more interested in “checking-out” the ladies themselves. Evan caught a couple of great shots where the lionesses made it very clear how they felt about the boys – NOT.
Back to the baby baboon – with the lionesses busy trying to ward off the amorous advances of the brothers, the Big Male Baboon, which had been trying to no avail to rescue the baby all the while, was now able to climb down the tree, grab the baby and then head back up for safety. Unfortunately, he chose a dead tree, so while that was good for our photography, he soon felt the heat of the sun. I was touched by how gently the Father Baboon held this little baby who was in tough shape after its ordeal. The baby’s body appeared limp and we thought it had succumbed. Isaac told us that if that was the case, the Father would most likely still hold the baby for a few days before finally letting go. After watching these human-like emotions and actions, it’s pretty hard to doubt Mr. Darwin and his theories.
With the heat of the morning sun getting stronger by the minute, the Father Baboon had to make a move. Holding the baby, in all sorts of contorted positions, he tried numerous times to climb down the tree. He tested the lionesses’ interest with each descent. Finally, the combination of daring courage and the lionesses own desire to take cover in some shade allowed him to find safety and a little peace in the shade of a neighboring tree.
And what happened to the baby? I like to think that the little guy survived with the help of his troop. He was alive and safe in his father’s arms when we left and that’s how I like to remember it. No matter what, he remains an inspiration to me – and a reminder, that life is fragile and no matter how much I fight to control its outcome, I am at the mercy of the universe. All we can do is live in the moment.
And all of this happened in two and a half hours….