University of Texas at Austin

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

In the jungle, lions roam at night

Geographer Kelley Crews had the opportunity to follow a pair of lions on a moonlight walk, from the safety of a vehicle, of course.For researchers in the field in places like Botswana, being close to wildlife, such as lions, is one of the thrilling parts of the job. It also can be dangerous if precautions aren’t taken.

Kelley Crews, associate professor in the Department of Geography and Environment, recounted a closer-than-usual encounter she and a colleague had with two lions one night in the Botswana bush:

We were preparing dinner after dark in our campsite and one of my colleagues spotted a lion. (This is why you don’t go far from the tent or car after dark!)

We saw what appeared to be either a female or a young male (it had no mane) walk down the track that takes you to the campsite. Once it was past us and it was safe to move, we hopped into our Cruiser and very quietly and slowly went in the direction we saw the lion move.

Lions, like people, like to walk on dirt roads or paths because they are easier to move on. They spring off the path once prey is sighted.

The sand there reflects light very well, and there was, happily, a full moon.

We found them only 150 meters past our campsite still walking down the track, prowling around. They are a little freaked out by headlights, so with the full moon and the reflective sand, we were able to see them extremely well without headlights.

We approached very slowly, lights off, and let them get used to us. It was early in the night so they were just starting to hunt and seemed quite relaxed—so much so that they sat down in the dirt track to rest and listen.

We waited and slowly crept up until we were about 1.5 meters away. One of the lions was just outside my front passenger door—and I realized that the window was down.

That was great because the view was wonderful, but was frankly a mite intimidating (this is the “don’t try this at home, kids” part!).

They turned out to be a pair of beautiful adult lionesses, and what struck me once I was able to breathe again, was the sheer magnitude of their necks. They really look to be all muscle.

We watched them for a while and after around five minutes they stood and ambled off.

We went back to our campsite and cooked dinner, mindful of — as always working in such places – frequently panning the darkness with a flashlight beam to scan for eye reflections (which are much easier to see than the actual animal, especially from a distance).

The next morning we went out to examine the paw prints and took photos of them. They’re a good reminder that we saw these critters by sheer luck. In the bush, it’s typically what you don’t see that is more dangerous than what you do see, of course.

That remains the most [literally] breathtaking wildlife experience of not only my work in Botswana but in my life.

Of course, that being said my favorite bush animal is still the honey badger. It’s small, fluffy and tougher than any cat there is.

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