Everything was going too smoothly. The lions were tranquillised, and the radio collar was nearly on. Then, suddenly, it all went pear-shaped.
“An angry lion will drop into a crouch, flatten its ears and give vent to grows and grunts, meanwhile flicking the tail-tip rapidly from side to side. Just prior to a charge, the tail is usually jerked up and down”, informs my field guide. Much to my chagrin, this was an all-too-accurate description of how the fully grown lioness now facing me was behaving. What my field guide had not gone on to say was what I was supposed to do if such a situation ever arose. My head flooded with flashbacks of all the other nights when everything had gone so smoothly.
I was working with rangers in South Africa’s Hluhluwe-Umfolozi National Park (HUP) in Zululand. other reserves in South Africa had reported high numbers of lions with ‘cat Aids’ (the feline equivalent of HIV, feared to cause mass mortalities), and the rangers were extremely worried about the health of the lions in HUP. One of the first things they could do was to find and dart them, giving them a medical, and collar one member to make it easier to find the pride the next time. That seemed straightforward enough. At the time, there were 90 lions in the park spread between five main prides. already, prominent members of most of the prides had been collared. But no one had managed to collar a member of the Bridge Pride Five, an elusive satellite group consisting of a fabulous, black-maned male, three lionesses and a male cub. Finding them had now become something of an issue.
That morning, following a tip-off from one of the game guards who had seen the Bridge Pride Five a few hours earlier, Byron, my fellow researcher, and I found ourselves bumping down to an area of the park known as the ‘wilderness zone’. This was it, we told each other. Perhaps, finally, we would be able to collar a lion in this group. We stopped in a small clearing, parking the tuck under the shade of a perfectly flattened ‘umbrella’ tree. The smell of Africa filled the air, a sticky vapour of rhino dung and fermenting marula fruit.
The first thing we had to do was to collect dead branches and build a semicircular fence around the umbrella tree in such a way that the lions wouldn’t be able to drag the impala buck bait behind the tree (we wanted them to stay within shot). After dark, and from the safety of our truck, we played a tape of the distress calls of a cottontail rabbit to attract the lions, although on other nights they had shown an appetite for Chopin blasted out at Megadeath decibels. The saying of curiosity and cats isn’t limited to your domestic moggy. But all that effort had tired us humans out, and before I knew it, sleep had drowned out the dinner-time broadcast, and the snores of my recumbent partner became lion’s breath in my dreams.
“Hey, wake up, it’s them” Byron whispered, nudging me in the ribs. Peering into the darkness, I could see that it wasn’t the whole Bridge Pride, only the big male with one female and the cub. Even through the darkness, we could tell that he was certainly a fine and dandy specimen. Enough admiration. We knew what we had come here to do. Phut, phut, phut. The lions were engrossed with eating the impala, hardly noticing the tranquilliser darts that we shot into their skin. Shielding our torches with our hands, we watched as, within minutes, they went down, slumping one-by-one onto the ground. It would be about an hour before they came round. Plenty of time for us to put a radio-collar on the male and take a semen sample, and to take blood samples from all three lions. We set to work. I started to patch up thorn tree abrasions on the lionesses flank. Working that close to her was amazing. I got quite carried away dabbing every scratch with antiseptic. Time must have been ticking away faster than we thought because, when we had swung the male into position and taken a semen sample, using a stimulator electrode, the female was waking up. She had swung her head around in order to get one eye on the proceedings and was grumbling, unhappy about what she could see: me ramming a metal tube up her mate’s bum. But however much this displeased her, we knew she would be down for another 10 minutes, just long enough to finish. All that remained was to collar the male.
I held the lion’s head clear of the ground, while Byron struggled with the nuts and bolts. Then, ping! A nut flew over Byron’s shoulder and landed – along with my heart – somewhere near my left boot. There was no way we were going to find it in the pitch black with only a couple of torch beams. “You’d better go get another one”, Byron said, all too calmly. This had not been in the plan. The route back to the truck was a shadowy assault course strewn with grass tussocks, fallen branches and a wall of incisors belonging to an ever more conscious, ever more irate, tail-jerking lioness. I was quickly losing my image of her as a helpless cat needing tender loving care. By now, she was crouched on all fours only a few metres away from me and watching my every move. I tried to step cautiously past her. She responded with a loud, stomach-churning growl and lunged towards me. I yelped and leapt backwards. The lioness crumpled to the ground in front of me. The tranquilliser was still working, but only just. This was my only chance. I gave her a wide berth and gained the sanctuary of the truck, grabbed some nuts and bolts and rushed back to help Byron fix the collar on the male. We soon had it fastened in place, but now had to get back to safety. We edged away. She crawled closer. We edged farther towards the truck, facing her all the time. Then, for a fleeting moment, she turned to her mate, nuzzling his neck. We legged it. While we baby-sat the drowsy Bridge Pride Lions until they fully regained consciousness, we tried to think of names. We baptised the male ‘Nuts’ which served well to remind us of both the radio-collaring and the semen sampling. And her? Well, after our hasty retreat, her name just had to be ‘Bolts’.