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Caught in the lion’s lair

The dormant Ngorongoro volcano and the wilderness that surrounds it are full of surprises. This is where I had one of my most dangerous encounters, writes Mike Pandey.

health and fitness Updated: Feb 22, 2010 20:46 IST
Mike Pandey

The dormant Ngorongoro volcano and the wilderness that surrounds it are full of surprises. This is where I had one of my most dangerous encounters.

The Ngorongoro crater is home to the world’s most ferocious lions. These magnificent, black-maned lions are powerfully built, and look more formidable than their cousins on the Serengeti plains. There are over 130 lions in this small area — the highest density of predators found anywhere in the world. They make their presence felt; thunderous roars reverberate through the crater every now and then.

That morning, we were trying to film a newborn elephant. Zobe, my Jeep driver, and friend of many years, is an expert tracker. He had seen the mother elephant in the last stages of labour. We found her near a clump of acacia trees surrounded by thick savanna grass.

Aware of the power of a protective mother elephant, we stopped a safe distance away. She was tending to the newborn, who was struggling to stand up. The cow went down on her knees and gently used her tusks and trunk to support the calf. Wary of our presence, she mock charged us twice but soon realised we didn’t pose a threat.

Suddenly, a group of impalas shot out of the thick grass. One female was bleeding heavily. Our forest guard looked through his binoculars. He wondered if a leopard was around and even spotted some movement in the grass.

We could hear little bleats. Zobe said it was probably a baby impala, dropped by its frightened mother while running away from the leopard. The herd had disappeared; there was no chance of the mother returning and the abandoned newborn had no chance of survival. We waited for an hour, but nothing stirred. By now, the elephant calf was standing and the mother was happily nursing it. Apart from the weak bleats of the baby impala the crater floor was silent.

The forest guard decided to rescue the impala baby. Zobe and he screened the area and proceeded on foot. I also got off the Jeep, but they signalled to me to stay close.

Zobe was five metres from the fawn when we heard a shrill trumpet from the elephant. We saw the mother sniffing the air with her trunk held high and ears forward.

Zobe once again scrutinised the area with his binoculars. Nothing moved in the grass. He took another step forward and then all hell broke loose. Suddenly, there was a bloodcurdling growl and the golden savanna came alive with a huge charging form. Out came a lion in full charge, with blazing yellow eyes and flattened ears.

The lion had been biding his time to get to the impala baby and we knew nothing could stop its charge or keep it from protecting its territory. We were intruders, no matter what our intentions.

Suddenly I was struck from behind and flung aside. I saw the mother elephant go past me with an earth-shattering trumpet and toss the lion into the air. It somersaulted and dropped to the ground. Fearing for the safety of her baby, she had attacked the lion.

Zobe came out of his transfixed state and rushed to the Jeep. The alert mother had saved the day for us all. We watched with gratitude as she melted into the evening mist with her calf. The lion also disappeared into the grass. We picked up the fawn, wrapped it up in a warm jacket and drove back to camp.

We had learnt a hard lesson — never enter a lion’s lair, never leave your Jeep, and never trust your eyes. The master predator is also a master of camouflage. Compassion is important, but the jungle has its own rules that need to be respected.