Three sightings of lions

The afternoon’s drive seemed to be dedicated to lions. There are less than a hundred lions in the Mara triangle, and we must have seen around ten of them in a few hours. The most interesting one was this lonely adult male which had managed to kill a wildebeest just before we saw it. It was in the bush next to where we’d parked the previous evening when a mess of tourists gathered to see a wildebeest crossing. From its short and very blonde mane, we concluded that it was young and stressed, so we left it to eat in peace and went on.

Later in the evening, we swung by to the same spot. The lion had had its fill, and it sat by the Mara and gazed contentedly at the scene in front of it. Do we exist only because we think? Animals teach us that this Cartesian notion is false. Without romanticizing, I believe, from all the accounts that I have read from hunters, that animals have a sense of self and absolutely definitely strive to live. Lions will hunt to eat when they feel hungry, growl when they feel threatened, walk away when they are disturbed. After they have eaten their fill, why would they not sit down in content and look out at their surroundings with a quiet sense of satisfaction? This one glanced around to see the noisy things which had crept up behind it, and then went back to gazing ahead. I took a photo of its face as it turned. It was stained dark with the blood of its kill. A lion has a sense of its own life, but not of the life of its food.

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After we’d left the lion to its kill and driven ahead, we came on a pair of lionesses sitting in a little hollow in some rocks, near a trickle of water. They also looked content. There was a minor gathering of Landrovers, full of people taking photos. We joined them, and watching the lionesses lying at ease I realized that tourists have changed their behaviour. These wild creatures now accept smelly and noisy Landrovers as something harmless. If the game wardens were to disappear one day, how many lions would be killed before they became wary again?

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Finally, just as the horizon came level with the sun, we came back to the group which had been defeated by Cape buffaloes earlier in the day. The lions seemed asleep, but the lionesses were just beginning to wake. As we watched, they opened their eyes. One by one they got up and stretched, and then walked into the grass. The three buffaloes had been grazing here all afternoon, and, by their looks, were ready to settle down for the night. But as the lionesses walked past them, one of them got up and chased after the trio (you can just about see the tawny lionesses behind the tall grass in front of the buffalo, and to its left). As the three lionesses ran away, the buffalo still stood, making sure they were going. This was the last sight we saw as darkness fell. An African day was over.

Winter of the Lion

We were on the open grassland and watching the stately progress of about a dozen Masai giraffe across the landscape when Stephen said, “Look on the other side.” We turned to see a lion emerge from behind a thicket of bushes. This lions’s mane shaded from golden to brown to black, indicating that it was well-fed and stress free. But it didn’t walk like it was free of stress.

As it sat down, another lion emerged behind it, looking quite as stressed out as its companion. This wasn’t far from where we had seen the trio of males at night. Since there are less than a thousand lions in the Maasai Mara reserve, their home ranges are unlikely to overlap. This had to be one of the lions we’d already seen; so maybe they were just tired from keeping such long hours?

No. When the third lion emerged, limping, it was clear that something was wrong. The reason wasn’t hard to guess when three cape buffalos emerged from the trees and took up positions around the field. It is a modern convention of writing about wildlife that one does not ascribe human feelings to them. But as we find more about the biochemistry, evolution, and behaviour, we have come to realize that there is not so much of difference between us and other mammals. So using language which describes human behaviour for animals, as writers did until the beginning of the 20th century, is probably appropriate. The best description of this scene that came to my mind was that the lions looked defeated, and the buffaloes seemed determined not to let them out of sight.

The buffaloes stopped at the edge of the field, and the limping lion came past its two companions. It seemed to want to get far away from the buffaloes before it sat down. We seemed to have come across the end of a hunt that ended badly for the lions. I’d read about the how the Cape buffaloes’ bad temper got it into hunters’ lists of the big five, and seen videos of buffaloes successfully fighting off lions. Now I seemed to have come across the aftermath of one such encounter.

Why did the injured lion not go further? As I looked forward I got the answer to my question. Three lionesses were resting at the edge of the field. Now they got up and looked around. Sound carries a long distance over the grassland, and I’m sure they had a good idea of what had happened. They assessed the situation for a few seconds.

And then they walked away from the stressed out males: almost like a teenager pretending that they had nothing at all to do with an embarrassing older person. The injured lion looked at them until they were out of sight, and settled in to pant and feel sorry for itself.

Lioness at home

A lioness never disappoints. Our attention was drawn to this individual when she stood up from rest in tall grass. The sun had not yet risen, but the sky was pretty light. We watched her as she sniffed the air, moved a few paces, and coughed once.

The Family was watching her through binoculars; I had my camera. As we watched, she moved a little and looked around. Was she restless? Was something going to happen? I looked at Stephen, our guide. He was relaxed at the wheel of the Landrover.

The queen preferred to conserve her energy. She sat down, but she wasn’t gping to rest. Her head poked clear of the grass around her. “She can sit like this for a long time,” Stephen told us.

I zoomed back. It was a beautiful sunrise. The sky was still pink. It would be a while before the horizon dipped below the sun. Meanwhile the lioness was completely at home, relaxed but alert. We watched for a while, and then moved on.

Shaky sunrise

The sun rose soon after our encounter with the trio of lions. The sky brightened through a series of colours, and the darkness around us could soon be resolved into grass and road. Strangely shaped peaks rose out of the horizon.

Zebras had begun grazing already. Zebras tend to eat all parts of grass, leaves, sheath, and stem, but their stomachs are not designed to digest the sheath and stem completely. A foal stood on the road and looked intently at us. The light was still so low that I had to use a long exposure. I liked the fact that it allowed me to capture the motion of the foal’s head as it tried to assess us. Its legs were planted firmly on the ground, so it had no intention of running, but the movement of its head showed that it was curious about us.

In the semi-light at the edge of the road we spotted a spectacularly spotted bird. The legs were long, was it a courser? No, its knees gave it away. A thick-knee. Its identification gave me a little trouble later. It can be nothing but the Spotted Thick-knee (Burhinus capensis), although its eyes look dark in this photo, and not yellow. I put that down to the bad light we saw it in. It is a common bird, found right across sub-Saharan Africa all the way down to the cape, which inhabits all ecologies except the forests of the Congo region.

It had already turned out to be an interesting morning. And now, as the sky brightened, we spotted a lioness in the distance, near the horizon. We noticed the movement as it rose from where it had been sitting. I nursed a secret hope of seeing a chase or a kill. But no. It sat down again. It remained alert, with head poking out of the grass. It certainly looked like it wanted to eat, but we decided to move on.

Lion night

Sound carries a long way at night, I reassured myself as I lay in bed studying a field guide to East African birds, listening to the roar of lions. I was tired, and we had planned a game drive before sunrise. I fell asleep quickly in spite of unidentified blood curdling squeaks and the deep roars and coughs of lions. The Family had fallen asleep long before the grasslands came alive with their inhuman song. We woke up to an alarm, and got ready to leave. Stephen was ready with the Landrover, but we seemed to be the only people awake. We drove out as someone opened the gates of the lodge. Birds had been waking in the trees near the gate, but the rest of the grassland was silent. Barely five minutes from the lodge something came at us from out of the darkness.

Stephen has spotted it already and come to a halt. A full-grown male lion walked towards us along the track. I was up with my camera. “Can I open the window?” The Family whispered. Stephen said that it was okay. The lion walked past the open window at a distance where The Family could have reached out and touched it. But ahead, another lion was coming our way. And behind it, a third. In complete silence we saw them walk slowly past our purring Landrover. There was no one else around. Only the three of us had seen these three male lions walk past us in the darkness, close enough to touch.

Half a day in the Mara triangle

A bend in the river Mara lay a little way down from the hotel that we were in. This part of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve was called the Mara Triangle, and lay pretty far from the main entrance to the reserve. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon, and left for a game drive soon after lunch.

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Although we spent a long time waiting for wildebeest to cross the river, an iconic sight, we managed to see quite a variety of wildlife that afternoon. The slideshow above has a selection of what we saw: from butterflies to lions.

First lions, reprise

We’d seen two lionesses near a kill, and watched until one crossed the road in front of us and disappeared into the thicket on one side, while the other disappeared into the low palm forest on the other. The show was over, we concluded. Several vehicles left. Anthony took us in a little circle, trying to spot whether there were any other members of the pride nearby. There weren’t. As we were trying to leave, FONT said “She’s back.” “What’s that in her mouth?” The Family asked. In moments it was clear: a cub. We spotted two more in the grass. The mother carried one in her mouth and urged the others along, to cross back to the kill.

“How old do you think the cubs are?” I asked Anthony. He said “Maybe two or three months old.” I didn’t know that cubs are not introduced to the pride till they are several months old. The two cubs which were following the mother lost confidence once they were out of the grass, and started mewling. The mother came back and carried them across the road one by one in her mouth. In the period before the cubs join the pride, the mother moves them frequently from one den to another so that predators do not get to locate them. This looked like part of such a move.

After crossing the road, the mother again picked up one of the cubs and then beckoned the others to follow her by many backward glances as she moved forward. The other two cubs followed for a while, mewling all the time. They hadn’t quite got back their confidence, so the mother had to rotate the cub that she carried. With much divided attention and cajoling, she managed to lead the cubs towards the kill. The other lioness had come back in the meanwhile. She’d clearly been to drink water, because her muzzle was no longer bloody.

The mother let go of the cubs just as she reached the hummock which guarded the kill from the road, and nudged all three cubs forward with her nose. If these cubs were indeed just two or three months old, then they were not yet weaned. While the family crossed the road I’d noticed that the mother was still lactating. The cubs did not seem to be interested in the kill as the two lionesses greeted each other, and then settled down to finish their meal. The kill was fresh; there was no smell. So these two lionesses, one pregnant, the other lactating, had eaten a whole zebra in a reasonably short while.

First lions

Strangely, the first time I saw a lion there was no sense of excitement. Later, when I thought back to it, it wasn’t boredom as much as the sense that this had happened to me a hundred times. The trouble wasn’t with the scene, but my mental focus. After all, there are less than 40,000 lions left in the world, and the IUCN red list calls them vulnerable. This means that unless we are successful in protecting them, they will slide down to extinction soon enough. No, the problem is TV. You cannot escape the numerous documentaries showing lions chasing buffalos or antelope and bringing them down, thereby giving you the false impression that, first, lions are common, and second, that the most interesting thing about them is the chase and kill. Now, when I look at this photo of the first lion I ever saw, standing with a bloodied muzzle over the zebra it had killed, looking at the distance with cloudy yellow eyes, I wonder why I wasn’t as excited as The Family.

After skirting Lake Amboseli I was still looking at birds, but Anthony, and, very soon, The Family, realized that there was a cluster of vehicles looking at something up ahead. Father of Niece Tatu was suddenly animated. As we neared the area, The Family was already saying “Lion.” It took me a few moments to find where she was looking. FONT and MONT had already spotted the kill by the time I saw the red ribs of a partly eaten zebra sticking up behind a slight rise. Lion? It was hunkered down, and a little bit of looking was needed to see movement, and a tawny hide. Now and then it would shift its weight as it gnawed. A single lioness with a whole zebra? Slowly the oddness struck me. Doesn’t the pride usually hunt together? Where were the rest? When the lioness stood up Anthony pointed out that she was pregnant.

As I was thinking this, MONT suddenly said “Another one.” Indeed, out of the thicket of palms another lioness had emerged. She walked steadily across the little patch of grass which separated the vehicles from the kill, crossed the road near us, and disappeared into the thicket on the other side of the path. I read later that in the dry season very often a pair of lionesses will hunt together. Systematic observations showed that their intake of food was smaller when they hunted individually or in larger groups. So perhaps this pair of lionesses had hunted together because at least one of them needed a lot of food.

The Lions of Orissa

East of India every temple is guarded by fearsome giants carrying terrifying weapons. In Odisha, just two lions are enough. As you can see in the featured photo, these are no ordinary lions. They have a awesome black mustache in addition to the mane that you can see on any other lion. The bottle of water between their legs backs up the statement that the mustache makes. The dwarpala which you see above stands outside the Kedar Gauri temple in Bhubaneshwar. There’s a matched lion on the other side of the entrance gate, but at the time I took this photo, it wasn’t backed by a wise Brahmin who could give you the opportunity to earn merit.

Guardians of a roadside shrine near Rajnagar, Odisha

Driving through Odisha you see pairs of lions every now and then. In the photo above you see a pair of ferocious lions bristling at those who pass by the sacred spot between them. I saw this pair far to the east, near a small town called Rajnagar on the banks of the Brahman river. They lack the mustache that you see in the Bhubaneshwar-Cuttack-Puri region; maybe that is a regional speciality. I also saw horses and elephants guarding entrances to temples in this region, so the nature of dwarpalas changes across Odisha. I need to travel more widely in the state to find out how temple guardians change from place to place.

The Zoology of Dragons

Dragons figure very prominently in Chinese culture. They are clearly the champion amongst animals, and may even beat humans. Emperors liked to associate themselves with dragons to make it clear to lesser forms of humans that they are superior. Chinese dragons do not seem to have wings. They are said to be creatures of water, although they are also associated with fire, as in the image above (from the nine-dragon screen in the Forbidden City).

pisou

The Pisou is a different kind of a dragon. It eats money and gives out nothing. So if you believe in Fengshui then you would like to keep a couple of them in the house, but make sure that they face outwards. Then they will bring in money. Never make the mistake of having them facing inwards, because then they eat up your money. You can recognize them in temples because people stuff money into their mouths. The fine and well-fed specimen shown above comes from the Confucius Temple (Kong Miao) near Yong He Gang.

bixi

The Bixi must be a gentle creature. A hybrid of a turtle and a dragon, it performs a turtle’s job of holding up pillars. But since it is also a dragon, it only holds up pillars with imperial edicts. This uncomplaining individual holds up a pillar inside the Kong Miao temple celebrating an emperor’s bloody victory in a war.

qiyin

Guardian lion in the forbidden cityHybridisation reaches an ultimate with the Kylin, which has a dragon’s head, a lion’s tail, the hooves of an ox, antlers of a deer and fish-scales all over its body. This magical animal is a powerful protector with its ability to repel evil and punish wickedness. The lion is an important beast, of course. A pair of them protects many of the gates in the Forbidden City, but it is a lesser creature. Low enough in the hierarchy that they can be seen alongside entrances to the fancier shops and restaurants all over the city.

Although the tiger is an important beast, it is hardly seen in decorations. The phoenix is the symbol of the empress, and although nearly as powerful as the dragon, is seen much less often. The heron figures prominently in imperial settings, symbolising patience and long life. The turtle, almost as important as the dragon, holds up pillars and heavy things, but also symbolises long life. So much so that turtle soup is supposed to be very good for you even today.