Encountering the king of the jungle

2008-01-31 00:00

It all started as we were about to move on after we had spent a few minutes in the car discussing their symbiotic relationship. A fellow traveller decided that we had spent enough time on the roadside discussing the relationship between baboon troops and impala herds and alighted from the vehicle to get something to drink from the cooler box. The African sun had come out in its punishingly beautiful splendour.

The moment our friend stepped out, a young male baboon barked in warning and immediately both the troop and the herd moved away from the road, deeper into the foliage — just in case we were dangerous. With our objects of observation and conversation having moved to safety, my friend continued with his important task of getting thirst quenchers. While the eyes of the sentinel who had earlier barked the warning monitored our friend and our car, the rest of the group continued grazing peacefully.

Then, like lightning, we saw one of the impala rams bounding swiftly in the direction of our vehicle. We immediately realised that something was drastically wrong. The very same animals that had given our vehicle a wide berth were running in our direction. Despite being urban slouches, our survival instincts were awakened by the sudden change in our environment.

Then we saw the cause of the commotion. A more majestic sight one will never see. The muscles on the side of her lithe physique rippled in concert as she bounded towards the confused allies (read baboon troop and impala herd). Often, when recounting an unbelievable incident, people will say that time froze, that everything happened in slow motion. But, in my case, things really happened in slow motion. I was able to see that she made three purposeful bounds and was among the buck. Within a few seconds, the peace that had existed was replaced by the panicky barking of baboons and the fretful bleating of the impala. The allies fled in all directions, confused.

The lionness disappeared into a shallow ditch, probably a watercourse that had gone dry. A cloud of dust exploded. The struggle between life and death, I surmised, was on in earnest in the ditch. It lasted hardly 30 seconds and then she appeared again, walking gracefully with the limp body of a male baboon firmly clenched in her powerful jaws. It had been a mismatch whose end was decided even before the tussle started. With her prey dangling from her mouth, she glided into the thicket from whence she had emerged. The baboons and impala were still running, not even aware what they were running away from. That is how swift she was.

I had just, for the first time in my life, seen a live lion. And, as if making up for the more than three decades I had spent in the country of my birth without seeing a live lion, the gods had conspired to give me the rare blessing of witnessing a lion kill.

Particularly because I was not carrying a camera to capture the moment, I feel I am able to savour this experience even more because it will remain forever etched in my mind. There will be no technology to tell me, in the comfort of my lounge, that I was mistaken, that it was not three leaps, but four, that the lioness took before she caught the baboon.

After the excitement, we saw three more of the big five — rhino, buffalo and elephant — but nothing came close to my encounter with the lion. Perhaps it was because I had seen the others before and the king of the jungle had always eluded me.

My encounter also brought into sharp focus one of the issues I had relegated to the scrapyard of my personal crusades — the fact that in our own country there are children, nay adults, who have never seen a live lion or zebra or elephant. Surely in a country of the lion, it is anomalous that the supposed custodians of this heritage do not have free access to it?

These days, there is talk about the threat of global warming and the need for all of us to safeguard our natural resources because failure to do this puts the future of the world at great risk. Surely it is up to us as custodians of our world to ensure that we raise generations that understand the importance of looking after it?

If my encounter has reminded me of anything, it is that there are many of us who talk passionately about our country, its culture and heritage, but who do not do enough to ensure that the blackout around our heritage and culture is lifted, particularly among children. We cannot fully claim to know ourselves unless we know our environment and that which makes us unique.

Let us make sure that our children do not have to wait until they reach the other side of 30 before they see a live lion; that would just be plain irresponsible.

• Harry Mchunu is a former journalist and is a government communications manager. He writes in his personal capacity.

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