"Big Cats, No Guns" — by Laurie McAndish King

Here is an excerpt from Laurie McAndish King‘s charming story “Big Cats, No Guns,” which won the Silver Award in the “Best Travel Article or Essay for Planet Earth” in BATW’s 2010 Planet Earth Awards.  Congratulations, again, Laurie.

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The first time I tracked lions, it was from the relative safety of a large Land Rover, with a loaded rifle situated handily next to the driver. At that time our guide had assured us that as long as we didn’t wear brightly colored clothes, make noise or stand up, the animals would perceive us to be part of the vehicle, and therefore not worth eating.

But this safari was different. We were going on foot, and the strict policy at Camp Okavango was no guns.  Adding to my trepidation, our guides, Robert and Rodgers, explained that if we saw lions this morning, they would be hungry, because big cats usually hunt at night. If they were still out stalking prey in the morning, it meant they hadn’t found anything to eat the night before. A crazy thought wriggled into my mind: the guides were using us as lion bait.

This was no Sunday stroll: the tall brown grasses hid treacherous obstacles. Elephants had eaten the relatively tender bark and roots of trees, leaving dead branches and uprooted stumps scattered everywhere. Aardvarks had dug large holes in the ground. Thorns caught on our clothing, and greedy vines grabbed at our legs. And the dung! Everywhere we had to step over dung—all kinds of it, large and small, round and elongated, fresh and dry, in varying stages of decomposition.

I could tell the difference between rhino middens and elephant dung, and was learning to differentiate buffalo from giraffe. Then I saw a new kind of dung: smaller, rounder, fresher—glistening, in fact. Was it lions’? I wondered just how far away the lions actually were, and how close we intended to get. Checking my field guide, I found that lion droppings “are similar to that of the leopard, but larger.” This was only marginally more helpful than the entry for elephants, which read, “A good way of testing the freshness of dung is to thrust your hand into the centre of it. If the dung is fresh, it will be warm inside.”

Robert reminded us to walk in single file, always staying together. If we fell back or got out of line, he warned, we would look smaller and be “on the menu.” Most important, Robert said: if a lion did come towards us, “Don’t run! Stand your ground!”

Stand my ground? In the face of a charging lion? What kind of instruction was that? I stayed near the front of the line, just behind Maureen, a psychiatric nurse from Pittsburgh. Maureen took each step slowly and deliberately, and shaded her eyes as she scanned the distance. I thought she looked like a professional tracker, except for her bright white Asics Gel running shoes and hot pink windbreaker. I had chosen my place carefully: surely the hot-pink-windbreaker variety of meal would be most tempting. If a lion charged, I would simply maintain my position behind the primary bait.

“Listen!”  Rodgers and Robert both heard the lions; all I heard was a faint rumbling sound. “It’s the lions! Yes, and they are chasing buffalo!” The rumbling, our guides explained excitedly, was the sound of a thousand hooves. We proceeded, still in line, straining to get a glimpse through the trees of a buffalo or a lion.

Suddenly Robert hurried back into our midst, eyes wide and round, and bulging so the whites showed around their whole circumference. “They are coming this way!” he shouted hoarsely. “We are too close! Go back! Go back!” A herd of several hundred Cape Buffalo came stampeding coming towards us.

We had been told to stand our ground in the face of a charging lion, but what was the protocol for a buffalo attack? There was no time to ask. Our careful, single-file line disintegrated into chaos as we ran back—hats, cameras and binoculars flying. Several of our group turned out to be talented sprinters, and I personally tested the freshness of five or six piles of dung in the space of twenty seconds.

As suddenly as the stampede began, it was over. It’s interesting, what goes through one’s mind at a time like this. As soon as “Escape, escape!” had run its course, I was overwhelmed with the perfection of Nature’s Grand Plan: elephants knock down trees, allowing grasslands to develop, which attracts grazing animals, which provide food for the lions. The aardvark holes create natural traps for the lions’ prey; the elephants’ monumental, nutrient-rich droppings fertilize the tall grasses…. Lost in the beauty of the Grand Plan, it was several minutes before I remembered Maureen. Did she stand, or did she run? Had she been trampled by stampeding buffalo, or eaten by a hungry lion?

I came to my senses, surveyed the scene, and saw Maureen’s hot pink jacket halfway up a small tree, with Maureen still inside it. Apparently it had not provoked the lions. We began to regroup, and everyone seemed to have survived. The Cape Buffalo had also survived, and were now milling about restlessly. They kept their eyes on us and on the lions, which—conveniently—made it easy for us to observe the five adult lions that were now in our immediate vicinity.

Make that five hungry adult lions. . . .

Laurie McAndish King

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