I send you greetings from the lions that have kept me awake all night. Every time I began a new dream, they began their strange and hollow growls and unsettling calls. I thought by midnight they would taper off—but no, they would just not shut up. If there are any typos or bad grammar in this letter, please blame it on the lions.
The world is very small but I write to you from one of its largest places—Ruaha National Park, in Tanzania. How large is it? (As big as New Jersey.) And how small is our world? So small that right here in Ruaha, I ran into National Geographic Explorer Amy Dickman, who you know and work with at the Big Cats Initiative.
You see, I think that most or our readers/viewers imagine National Geographic as this intimate family of cousins, of which all employees/grantees are on a first-name basis with one another. The inside reality is that National Geographic is like a vast country in which we all hold similar passports, yet remain in our fixed corrals with noses fixed in our fixed work and interests.
I am sure that at some point, I have unknowingly touched shoulders with the Jouberts at the salad bar of the National Geographic cafeteria, and yet it took me leaving the office and traveling more than 8,000 miles to Ruaha National Park before I ever visited your website. Shame on me.
Travel breaks the veil of fiction and shows you the reality of life—and here in Ruaha, I have been amazed both by the challenges facing big cats and the efforts of people like Amy to keep them alive.
Did you know that Amy and I went to graduate school together? Neither did we. Again, once upon a time in England we were in the very same building at the same time but it took a decade and me traveling to remotest Tanzania before I actually met Amy in person.
She looks exactly like someone who spends their life working with lions, leopards and cheetahs: blonde, tan and very happy. I know that her job is not always happy—she spent much of the time explaining to me how a big part of her current job is working with the very reclusive (and feared) Barabaig tribe whose tradition includes young men killing a lion as a right of passage. For a very long time she struggled to connect with them, but found that after they installed a solar charger at their site, the Barabaig began to come requesting to charge their cell phones. This was her breakthrough in connecting with them.
I always find it somewhat ironic that all the conservationists I know got into conservation to follow their dream of working with animals, yet in the end, they spend most of their time working with people. No matter the species or the place, it seems that humans are the primary threat to their survival.
Here in Tanzania I have learned that lions and I share something in common—we both spend a lot of time at the airport.
They never show this on NatGeoWild—they only show lions running through knee-high grass, chasing some poor doomed gazelle into the ground. I have yet to witness this in person. The fact is, most of my lion sightings have been on or near the airstrips of Tanzanian national parks. I’m sure there’s a logical explanation for this, but every time I hear the crackled shout of “Simba!” from the jeep radio, it is always followed by, “ . . . by the airstrip.”
Thus we rumble over and see the pride of lions roaming about, resembling tired passengers during an extended layover at Dallas Fort-Worth, except they often have blood on their chins.
And I have another bone to pick regarding the portrayal of lions on wildlife television. For once I would love to watch an honest lion documentary—more like a reality TV series that depicts the reality of day in a lion’s life. It would be a very long TV show and it would be very, very boring because the lions would be sleeping under a tree for about twenty of those twenty-four hours.
This is what I have seen of lions. I have not seen them take down a wildebeest or some great male shaking his mane and roaring. No—I have seen them panting like pussy cats under a tree, closing their eyes from the bright sun and whisking flies away with their tails.
But I do not fault the lion documentaries—we need them to educate people. In fact, Amy Dickman shows all of these documentaries to local villages to help teach them about why we need to save lions.
“We need to get these wildlife documentaries translated into Swahili and the local tribal languages,” she explained to me, “Because these are the people with the biggest effect on lion conservation.”
It’s a good point. Most of the Tanzanians who live near Ruaha grew up with lions always present and always perceived as pests that killed one’s cattle or goats. On the flip side, the rest of us grew up with stuffed toy lions and imagining this faraway place called Africa that was knee-deep in lions. Neither perception is accurate.
As I learned from your website, lions have disappeared from 90% of their former territory and there are fewer lions left in the world than there are people in the very small Midwestern town I grew up in.
I asked Amy how I could help and she asked me to give her all my big cat pictures from Ruaha (which I did). As a scientist, Amy uses photographs of lions and cheetah to identify certain individuals by their respective whisker lines and spots, which helps her determine where big cats are living and how they move around Ruaha.
Ruaha is such a vast area it is hard to keep track of all the cats, though Amy is trying.
“There are over 70 scientific papers written about lions in the Serengeti and none here in Ruaha,” she explained woefully, “Yet we have more lions here than anywhere else in the world.”
One-tenth of the world’s lions live right here in Ruaha (mostly by the airstrip—just kidding) and so visiting the park you are almost guaranteed to see one. I was lucky enough to see three different cheetahs and about ten lions.
Staring into a lion’s glowing yellow eyes, listening to their heavy panting breath, and watching them move so purposefully, with every muscle showing under their golden fur—well, it is spectacular. I found myself staring through my zoom lens and not even breathing, watching the lions. Then suddenly, one of them got up from the shade and became a big yellow blur—that’s when I stepped away from my camera and saw that lion with my own eyes—walking about five feet below my vulnerable perch in the safari jeep, not paying me any mind, but scaring me back a few feet.
It is the closest I have ever been to a wild lion, and it was a magnificent experience.
So anyway, I wanted to write and tell you that I have finally met Amy, that she is doing remarkable work with the Ruaha Carnivore Project and that I am now following you on Twitter. I have sent my photos to Amy, have donated to your cause and intend, per your instruction, to cause an uproar about lions.
I hope that you might also help put Ruaha on the map, as travelers visiting the park are an integral part of supporting big cat conservation. Please tell them how many lions we have out here and please do not tell them what Amy just told me: how this morning she found a black mamba in her bathroom.
Otherwise, I hope one day we can meet—either out here among the lions, or in person, shoulder to shoulder at the salad bar of the National Geographic cafeteria. Until then, I wish you, or as they say in Swahili, Nakutakia siku njema—have a nice day!
P.S. Amy was very jealous of my National Geographic backpack. I told her you could probably send her one just like mine, and that it would help her save more lions.