Couldn’t take the photo
While preparing images for the photography workshop I teach at Colorado Mountain College, I happened across a photograph that triggered a memory from a trip my wife, Bobbi, and I took to Kenya several years ago.
Bobbi and I were on an evening game drive when we came across the local pride of lions (the Enkoyeni pride) comprising two big males, eight females and 10 sub-adults. Our guide Pingua (Ping) told us the pride hadn’t eaten in a few days and were very hungry, which bode well for us witnessing the pride on a hunt. Watching the big cats stalk their prey is always a thrill. It’s the kill we don’t like watching.
It was shortly before sunset and we were watching the pride focus its attention on a herd of wildebeests grazing nearby. The lions were taking up ambush positions when Ping suddenly became extremely agitated and shouted, “They’re going to die; they’re all doing to die!”
Ping spoke English, but he was Massai and Swahili was his native tongue making it difficult to understand him at times, especially when he became excited, which he surely was. Ping then pointed to two nomadic lionesses and their three cubs that had wandered between the wildebeests and the stalking Enkoyeni pride.
The two nomadic lionesses were well known in the area as “scrappers,” having had many violent encounters with other lions and hyenas in the area. The Massai named them N’gurro (Short Tail in Swahili) and Mama Kali (Fierce Mother.) No one really knew which of the three cubs belonged to which lioness, but in lion prides, sisters will often assist in raising each other’s cubs.
Part of N’gurro’s tail had been bitten off (hence the name Short Tail) in a fight with other lions some time back and she was known not to back down from a fight. But on this evening, the odds were 18 against two.
When the Enkoyeni pride spotted the two interlopers and their cubs we knew there would be no hunt. The big pride immediately changed direction and began moving toward the intruders when an amazing thing happened.
Instead of running to escape from the Enkoyeni pride’s territory, N’gurro and Mama Kali turned and attacked the 18 Enkoyeni lions. Ping later surmised that N’gurro and Mama Kali knew that if they ran, then their cubs wouldn’t be able to keep pace and would surely be killed by the pursuing Enkoyeni pride.
The battle was horrific and terrifying, something Bobbi and I will never forget. Mama Kali took on 12 of the rival pride while N’gurro charged the rest. The fight was over within minutes, and when it ended, Mama Kali was mauled and would never leave the spot where she lay. But N’gurro and the three cubs escaped into the brush of the adjoining territory belonging to another pride of lions, the Moniko pride.
Being caught between the territories of rival prides placed the two nomadic lionesses, and their cubs, in great jeopardy — lions do not tolerate other predators in their territory. And without a pride male to protect them, the two lionesses and their cubs were always at risk.
In this instance, however, being so close to Moniko pride’s territory was a blessing because as much as the Enkoyeni lions wanted to tear N’gurro and the three cubs to shreds, they weren’t about to cross the imaginary line and encroach upon another pride’s territory.
It was absolutely surreal as we watched about a half-dozen Enkoyeni lions chase N’gurro and the three cubs up to an imaginary line and suddenly “put on the brakes” and practically skid to a stop. There were no special trees or rocks or any other features marking the terminus of the Enkoyeni pride’s territory, but even a big pride such as the Enkoyeni wasn’t about to cross into the Moniko pride’s territory.
Words cannot express the emotion we felt after witnessing the almost unimaginable savagery of the encounter, and we returned to camp visibly shaken. At one point during the battle Mama Kali, a massive 350-pound lioness, must have been thrown eight feet into the air.
Ping would take us no closer than about 30 yards, but even at that distance the sights and sounds of that encounter were absolutely terrifying. The images we see on NatGeo TV were a mere shadow of the ferociousness we witnessed that evening — we were emotionally drained.
Whenever I relate the story people invariably ask if I managed to get any photographs of the action, to which I always respond, “There’s no way on earth I could have lifted that camera and started taking photographs of a magnificent creature being mauled to death.”
The African bush is filled with wonderment. At the same time it can be raw and primal, and while wildlife photography is a passion of mine, on this occasion I thought it best to leave my Canon at my side and experience the spectacle in front of us. To this day, that remains the best photo I never took.
Quote of the day: “If you can visit but two continents in a lifetime, go to Africa twice.” — Unknown
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