Panthera has gathered stories from our scientists, researchers, and partners to document their favorite encounters with big cats in the wild. This story, by Panthera Executive Director, Luke Hunter, is the sixth in our series of seven.
The radio-collar beacon had been immobile for three days. I was torn. The frequency belonged to my favourite lioness, an old female I'd been studying for two years. She had disappeared here before, a dense wall of spiny num-num thicket where it was impossible to follow in my truck. But, without fail, she had always emerged after a night -- a moment I welcomed with relief.
The num-num was close to a large Zulu village and was notorious for wire snares. On the fourth morning, I decided I had to check on her. If she was in a snare, it was already too late, but there was only one way to find out. I abandoned the truck and plunged into the thicket on foot. From the intense sun of the African savanna, I was suddenly submerged in thorn-cloaked gloom. Moving in a clumsy stooping shuffle, I called loudly to my unseen lioness, an absurd monologue to let her know I was coming. If she was alive, I didn't want to surprise her at close quarters.
Every few steps I took, the signal strength grew. So too did the dark barrier of thorns. I had no choice but to get on all fours. The signal was booming: she could not be more than fifty metres away, but I could not see a thing. I dropped to my belly and shuffled deeper on my elbows. Suddenly, a soft grunt. I froze. Flat on my belly, surrounded by thorns.
Through the maze of branches, the silhouette of my lioness abruptly resolved. Ten metres away. She watched me with absolute stillness. She grunted again, and I suddenly saw why. Cubs! Two little lions, a few weeks old, rested between her front legs. It was my cue to leave. She had been astonishingly tolerant but I had asked more of her than I deserved. Her gaze tracked me as I inched back out. As the thorns closed back in around her, she dipped her head to groom her sleeping cubs, my fleeting intrusion forgotten.
Dr. Luke Hunter is the Executive Director at Panthera, the leading global nonprofit organization devoted to saving the world's wild cat species from the diminutive black-footed cat of southern Africa to the massive tiger of Asia. Hunter has conducted fieldwork on large cats in Africa since 1992. His current projects include assessing the effects of sport hunting and illegal persecution on leopards outside protected areas, developing a conservation strategy for lions across their African range, and the first intensive study of Persian leopards and the last surviving Asiatic cheetahs in Iran.