Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Serenghetti II

               A lion in hand is a most amazing experience:

  Nubian vultures hung in the blue sky, looking for death on the blonde ocean of grass. We tried to find this kill, without success except for the one crucial lesson I had learned about Africa: nothing lasts for long after it hits the ground.

A stiff east wind curdled the clouds above Naabi hill, the nickname for the largest of the kopjes - "kopies" - rocky up-thrusts on the Serengeti where acacia and Sodom apple trees grow. This part of Africa has been compared to a submerged mountain range of great age, the kopies geologic elbows protruding from the thin fabric of soil, ethereal points of reference on the otherwise uniform plain that provide havens for big cats and other living things.
On the east slope of Naabi, a lioness appeared. Something in her manner alerted our driver, Lawrence. He parked under an acacia to wait while she crossed the road to join a group of lions we hadn't noticed, a tawny feline puddle including a male and two more females. She rubbed faces all round, the leisureliness of the group attesting to full stomachs. The car wouldn't bother them as long as we remained inside.   

The lioness returned to the kopie, and moments later two cubs emerged, tentative at first, then bounding ahead of their mother and throwing themselves onto the other lions. Only months old, compact, muscular, they were wary of the male - but not enough to avoid attacking the black tip of his tail. They fight one another, too, rolling in the grass, exposing white bellies.
I took the mike from the dashboard and reported the news to camp. The voice of Hugo, the director, came crackling back across the airwaves: "You've brought us luck."
Soon his van was bumping across the plain, rooster-tailing dust, specially adapted for filming, with a picture window that could be removed in the rain and hydraulic lifts for stabilizing in high wind. On top, a rack contained a collapsible "hide" of canvas for filming surreptitiously, or for sleeping; inside, there were two camera mounts, a swivel chair, and curtains to eliminate silhouettes. The van stopped fifty yards from the lions, and Lawrence and I withdrew, for lions often will not accept the presence of two vehicles.
Depth perception was difficult in all this space and light, the landscape alive but elusive. West of Naabi, a distant elephant turned into a wildebeest, its demonic head magnified by thermals; a rampant lion became a jackal with its forepaws on a rock; the black golf balls on undulating tees were really ostriches, the slashed heads of mythical beasts the rumps of grazing zebras, stripes evolutionary slights of hand that can cause a moment's hesitation in a charging lion and therefore make the different between life and death.      
Our luck held, and I spotted a cheetah; Lawrence, peering through his binoculars, asked, "And who is this?" Two cubs appeared, about 16 weeks old, while their mother watched the herds of Thomson's ("tommies") and Grant's gazelles drifting across the plain, her small head and elongated body built for speed. The fleetest of all mammals, cheetahs are capable of 60 miles an hour in the initial dash that enables them to swat a fleeing tommy to the ground before throttling it, as the lion suffocated the giraffe. But as often as not, a lion or a hyena will deprive the cheetah of its spectacular kill before it gets even a mouthful of protein.            

Hugo and Mat, done with the lions, came now to film the cheetahs; I joined them in the van and sat on the wooden crate full of water bottles while they got into position. Hugo was using a smaller French Aaton camera, quiet compared to the .35 millimeter "nail bucket" between Mat's knees, capable of slow motion and of exposing 120 frames per second, when a chase was on. "Then it sounds like a machine gun," said Hugo.
The cheetahs were not cooperating. The mother lay down, big ears extended, flipping off flies, and so did the cubs. The tommies moved maddeningly in the wrong direction, and she did not pursue them. "Not very adventurous," said Mat.
   The lithe predator in his lens seemed to feel threatened, and not by us. Hugo's earlier film, Innocent Killers, showed the dark side of a band of male cheetahs that attacked a female. This one was doubly vulnerable because lions will kill cheetah cubs whenever they can.
We moved twice, about 40 feet each time. The minutes turned into an hour, the hour into two. This was the common state of the wildlife photographer, elaborately prepared inertia. The waiting was helped along by a small library of natural history, a stack of magazines, and two kokapes full of canned sardines, cookies, Ali's bacon pancakes, marmalade, tea, coffee, and antacid tablets.
A dust devil mesmerized; the incremental drift of the gazelles was matched by the massive shift of alternating green and golden islands, cloud spawned. Hugo's driver, Andrea, kept up a sporadic conversation with camp by radio phone. "How many elephants in the marsh?" he asked. "... Are the hornbills fighting?" Wildlife was opportunity in all its guises.          
This landscape had not changed in an eon, home of early hominids and some of the most interesting animals on earth, their complex relationships developed over the immense span of time. Wasps bumped against the windows of the Land-Rover, looking to eat; a secretary bird stalked snakes through the wind-blown grass like a miniature, feathered dinosaur. It occured to me that we all predate here - the cheetah on the tommies, Hugo and Mat on the cheetah, me on the filmmakers.
Meanwhile the light was going, the Gol kopies turning purple; the filmmakers' quarries threw long shadows. "Plenty of sun left," said Andrea, to which Hugo responded, "You're an optimist."
   He badly needed a shot of a functional cheetah family; at last the mother got up and approached her off-spring. The Aaton and the nail-bucket begin to roll as the cheetah lowered her head, sniffed, and licked a cub.
"Bingo," said the director.            
Lawrence, Penny and I traveled to Seronera, where the biologists studying canine distemper were being assisted by American veterinarian, Melony Roelke-Parker, who worked for the park service. A friendly, capable woman, she lived in a stone house with a hippo jaw in the front yard but spent most of her time in her four-by-four. Her duties included putting wild lions to sleep with sedatives, so blood and tissue samples could be taken.
Melody was interested in our observation of the lion pride on Naabi hill, which she had studied in the past; we made plans to meet there in a few days, and then Lawrence and I got out to look for leopards in the korongas, low-lying, overgrown creases in the landscape that offered the best opportunity.
   Secretive, difficult to spot in the long grass, leopards hang out there - literally - in "sausage" trees, named for their dangling seed pods. We checked the trees carefully, without success, and then he asked, "And who is this?"
   The leopard, a female, was not in a sausage tree but perched on a termite mound. Her engorged teats signified that she had cubs nearby. With elaborate unconcern she stretched to watch a herd of grazing tommies, the classic profile, head raised in a cloud of white butterflies; the only movement about this darkly spotted, supreme felinity was her luxuriant tail. 
The leopard glided into the grass. We could see only her tail, a dark scimitar, and then only its white tip. The tommies knew she was hunting them, but not exactly where she was, and neither did we now. The gazelles moved in long segmented strings, skittish, dashing and freezing while others took the lead. Their convex eyes were adapted for wrap-around vision, to better protect themselves; they could out-run a leopard on the straight-away, but they had to see her.
The tommies moved in single file toward the spot where we thought the leopard waited. They snatched mouthfuls of grass, a show of sang froid, or stupidity? "I think something is going to happen," said Lawrence, and my neck muscles tensed. I imagined the leopard leaping up to seize a throat, the brief, furious struggle that would follow. "There!" I said, as a tommy bounded in panic, but there was no leopard.
She emerged elsewhere and passed within ten feet of the car, intent on the boiling, escaping herd. "She's nervous because of the elephants," said Lawrence, and I saw the line of hulking silhouettes above the blonde savannah, etched into the rose-tinted evening sky. One by one the elephants crossed the road ahead of us, unhurried, alert, some of the putty-gray babies so small they disappeared again in the grass.      
The last elephant, a towering female, turned in the road to face us; she lifted her trunk. The leopard was elsewhere, but not her scent, mixed with ours. "Go on, mama," whispered Lawrence, easing the Land-Rover into reverse. If we were charged, it would be extremely unpleasant at best. Our vulnerability was palpable, the gorgeousness of the scene enhanced by the modicum of danger, the old African trade-off.
Finally the elephant turned and followed the others, and we ate dust all the way back to Ndutu, through the darkness of a thousand eyes.

"They're all here," said Melody, of the lions on Naabi hill. She had names for them: "Lupine is the collared one. There's Lilac, Lily, and Lychee, the mother."
They were stretched out near the waterhole in the early morning sunlight, the cubs noticeably larger after only 10 days, the adults only vaguely interested in our cars. Melody's contained her young son, Seth, another vet from the Tanzanian agricultural ministry and his assistant, a French photographer, and lots of equipment, including a Talenject, an 8-inch dart with a red feathered tail, in a plastic sleeve, and an air gun. "It's really slick," she said, "when it works."
She drove to within a few yards of the pride. Lupine was her target, her blood sampled just two weeks before having proved positive for antibodies to the canine distemper virus. Two other lions checked at the time were negative.
Melody aimed the gun and fired, and the lions leapt away, Lupine with a red feather in her flank. One of the other females pulled it out with her teeth, a poignant reminder of the cooperative habits of lions, rare in nature, but the air pocket behind the plunger has already collapsed, pumping a drug called Telazol into Lupine.
   She settled down again and within minutes her head drooped; soon she was unconscious, her eyes still open. The other female remained beside her, seemingly out of sympathy, but fled as we approached. Shielded by the cars from the rest of the pride, Melody put on rubber gloves and went to work: checking Lupine's temperature and respiration, feeling her groin for blood pressure, examining her mouth, recording her girth with a tape measure, talking all the while into a tape recorder.
  The other vet and his assistant plucked ticks off Lupine and put them in plastic vial; they took a hair sample from the tail. "She's not nursing, but she might be pregnant," said Melody, feeling her stomach. "It's hard to find the babies in these big-bodied lions."
She took a blood sample, and one from a lymph node. I felt Lupine's coat, so silky, the muscles and tendons in her back leg a concentration of awesome power, and yet there was something distinctly sensuous about her. The big yellow eyes seem to watch me, flecked with brown: beautiful, implacable, vulnerable. Melody put salve into them "because I can't blink for her."
I wanted Lupine to be cured, but the answers were not as easy as all this prognostic science in the wilderness suggested. The biologists knew canine distemper was picked up from the thousands of un-inoculated domestic dogs on the park's periphery, the latest incursion of civilization. But isolating the virus and coming up with an antidote involved thousands of variables; it was by no means assured. And the political pressure of encroaching homo sapiens was even more daunting.                 

Suddenly Lupine reared up, scattering her human tormentors like flies. She rolled over. I was acutely aware of blue starlings flashing in the morning sunlight, and of standing unprotected on the sprawling plain.
   (For the first Serengeti installment go to:
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1 comment:

  1. Great story of wildlife far away, and great people too-
    Meanwhile an all too "successful" wolf hunt threatens wild American ecosystem integrity in northern Wisconsin....