This is one of two places on earth where lions climb trees and I’m here to ask questions. We are in the Ishasha Wilderness in the southwest section of the 2000 square kilometre Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda, bordering on the Democratic Republic of Congo.
See that thing with a black tip switching in the tall grasses? That is a tail. The lions are waking up. It is five o’clock. The sun, a giant red ball in the mist, is sinking into the horizon. There are 20,000 African kob in Queen Elizabeth Park and it looks like they’ve all come to this spot. A few warthog families skitter around, thousands of savannah buffalo are on the perimeter, and the elephants are down by the river with the hippos.
Switch, switch, now two lions tails wave around in the tall grass.
One lion head pops up and looks around. In a few minutes the animal moves into a long slow stretch (you know it – the yoga Marjariasana pose or Cat pose.) Eventually she steels her way through the tall grasses to where another large head appears. This is the male. A beautiful, thick, dark mane outlines his face. He yawns and roars. The lion couple preen and socialize while their cub plays, and eventually they all get up and pad, with a purpose, to a gigantic Ficus tree. They climb it and settle down on its long, strong branches.
If the lions could talk would they tell me that they climb trees because they need to lie in the cool air above the hot grassland? (After all they have been sleeping and resting for twenty hours in the grass as the day gets hotter and hotter.) Or would they say they can no longer stand being bitten by the miserable tsetse flies that live in the grasses?
Maybe they would simply say they need to get a better view of their dinner.
The lion family we see is especially small – a large male, a female and their cub. Life has been difficult for them. Originally there were two cubs. The female lion, like other lionesses, in human terms is known to be a poor, indifferent mother, who leaves her cubs alone and prey to danger for long periods.
The big male, from his branch, scours the grassland to target kills, usually a weakling, in the hundreds of animals below the tree. The female, who is faster and more agile than the male, takes hunting orders from her man and sneaks down into the grassland. The male and his cub watch. When the kill is made, the male will take over and eat first. Then the female and other large animals will move in, and, at last, the young cub will have dinner. If he is lucky.
But it is not easy to take down a kob or buffalo. Yesterday we saw a young lion dragging his hind legs behind him as he crawled through the grass. Would he survive? Was his back broken by a buffalo? Would the park rangers and veterinarian be able to help him?
The lion, the world’s largest cat after the tiger, is in danger. In the past twenty years, hunting wild game and wars have added to precarious nature of life on the savannah and the lion population in Uganda has decreased by thirty to fifty per cent.
Tonight it is peaceful in Ishasha, Queen Elizabeth National Park. The wildlife in is protected; there is no hunting; the wars are finished. I’m thrilled to be here, to let nature be my guide, and to think about how we can live and work sustainably to protect nature.
“Look deep into nature then you will better understand everything.” Albert Einstein