Travel Essay: The first morning in the Serengeti camp, we drove out for the dawn photo drive. I said to the driver “Let’s see leopards today.” Within minutes, he pointed out leopard tails hanging from tree branches. Soon we also photographed a leopard passing through the grass. The driver did this magic act several mornings in a row – locating “on demand” cheetahs, lions, Grévy’s zebras, gerenuk antelope, wildebeest, lilac-breasted roller birds, and more. The only request he never satisfied: “Let’s see Cheetah babies today.”
One evening we witnessed a tableau even our driver of 30 years experience had not seen; he was as thrilled as his riders! Two cheetahs were hiding in tall grass carefully watching a small herd of grazing antelope. One inched forward on his belly, then as we watched, burst forward towards the herd. This was not unusual, but the events that followed were.
Then we noticed, but the cheetah did not, that a lioness crouched in the grass on the other side of the small herd, biding her time in a strategic location. She appeared to have very clever tactical plans: when the cheetah chases the antelope, the herd will run directly to her! She had planned it perfectly because as we watched, she seized and brought down an adult antelope. The cheetah grabbed a baby antelope and waited in the grasses with it dangling from his jaws.
As amazing as this plan was for the lion, she’d failed to consider one problem: she could not drag her adult antelope to her cubs. Meanwhile, the cheetah held his catch and waited to see what the lioness wanted; clearly her choice! She was much bigger and stronger than a cheetah, and he couldn’t outrun her carrying a baby antelope. She trotted menacingly towards him, and he got the message: that one is mine too. He dropped his prize and slinked away empty as the lion grabbed the baby antelope. We followed at a discrete distance as the lion carried the antelope for almost a mile before reaching her cubs, who greeted Mom enthusiastically.
The cheetahs did all of the work! We hoped they would get part of the adult antelope the lioness had left, but we didn’t realize the far-reaching power she wielded in her territory. Later that night, she brought her cubs to the adult antelope and their dinner party continued. No one had touched it; somehow every animal in the savannah knew and respected who owned that meal.
We returned to camp that night with deeply conflicted feelings. I had seen something the others had not noticed. As the antelope herd disappeared, the mother lingered behind and turned for a last search for her calf. I will always picture her standing there with fear and grief in her sad gaze. I feel the sadness I imagine for her. I also picture the cheetahs and their babies going hungry that night because their meal was “stolen” by a smart lion. My fellow safari travelers and I console each other by focusing on the lion cubs, who are sleeping tonight with full bellies.
BIO: Kim McNealy Sosin enjoys travel and photography of nature and landscapes, and has recently published both photography and poetry. Until her retirement, she was a professor of economics at the University of Nebraska Omaha. More information about Kim Sosin’s work is found on her website: https://www.sosin.us.
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