Heavy winds swept across the footsteps of the king, burying his tracks. The Ju/’Hoansi bushmen of Namibia’s Nyae Nyae Conservancy and I searched tirelessly yet found no fresh lion sign. Living alone and working alongside these ancestors of man, I’d completed the first predator survey this forgotten section of Namibia had seen in 20 years. My final aim was to find a male lion and attach a GPS collar to monitor his movements – crowning the king.
Time was against us. After hearing word of fresh lion tracks at a nearby waterhole we rushed there, arriving at twilight. Whilst elephant approached like silent caravans in the darkness we hoisted up a speaker onto the roof of the truck; playing different animal sounds lure in lions like politicians to false promises.
For 20 minutes the blood-curdling sound of a blue-wildebeest in distress pierced through the cold night air. Nothing. The deep bellow of a male lion defending his territory reverberated through our chests for another 20 minutes. Nothing. It’d always been a dream of mine to collar a male lion, so I wasn’t going to give up easily. We repeated our efforts at another waterhole. Nothing. With the inquisitive eyes of spotted hyaena eroding the darkness around us it was time to setup a tent and call it a night.
The following morning, we pressed North into Khaudum National Park – Namibia’s forgotten wilderness. Nyae Nyae and Khaudum form an integral section of the world’s largest transfrontier conservation area, the Kavango-Zambezi; a grand vision to protect wildlife across 5 African countries. Reminding myself of the importance of tracking lions through this crucial region, and with Justin Bieber on the car radio, we continued our search through Khaudums’ unforgiving landscape.
Despite the bushmen’s world-renowned and ancient tracking knowledge, the king continued to elude us. Our last day to attach the collar and we’d seen no signs in the entire southern section of Khaudum. A lost cause.
However, during our pursuit we’d noticed that the overflow of one of the waterholes was blocked, preventing wildlife from accessing a huge body of water. One of us had to wade into the waterhole to unblock the pipe whilst the other kept elephants away; being in flip-flops, I had the honour of sorting the pipe. Emerging from the water with an elephant poo leg tan and a broken dream of collaring this lion, we decided to call it a day and wander to the nearby hide to relax/question our life decisions.
As the sunset stained the sky blood-red, huge herds of thirsty elephant came to drink from the overflow water we’d just provided. A beautiful and rewarding moment. It was all worth it. And who cares about collaring the lion now….
“Holy S***, is that a lion?!!!!!”
Out of nowhere, as if in slow motion, a magnificent male lion emerged from the bushes to the east of the waterhole, his gaze fixed on us from 300m away. His dark golden mane flowed in the wind as the scene of Simba walking up Pride Rock at the end of Lion King played in my head. No words could express my excitement. Through the portal of my binoculars, we locked eyes.
Karma for fixing the waterhole? Potentially. I think he could probably just smell a tasty British meal! My colleague drove back to camp for the tranquilisation equipment while I maintained my gaze for 15 minutes straight; I didn’t even blink. Suddenly, a pack of 7 African wild dogs arrive at the overflow! The pups jostle mischievously with their parents as their unique markings are complemented strikingly by the sunset. Only 39 sub-populations of this magnificent and endangered species are left and I’m watching them play around a water point – what a privilege.
Hold on, where’s the lion gone?! F***!!! You had one job, Josh…
Darkness descends and the wild dogs leave. My colleague returns: “Where’s the lion gone?”.
To which I lie: “He just went around the corner, let’s go”.
So, following my fictitious directions, we turn on the red-filtered spotlight and search for our male… again. The relief I felt when his eyes returned the light of our spotlight was immeasurable – he really was just around the corner.
The milky-way lit the sky above us as we darted the king. The sound of scores of elephants drinking from the overflow filled the air. I slid my hand under the lions’ thick coarse mane and lifted his head to fit the collar. Predators like lions are killed by negative interactions with farmers worldwide, so monitoring efforts such as this provide critical information for us to help protect them and improve situations for farmers through mitigation and conservation efforts.
We crowned our king – a dream come true.
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