THE LIONS OF NGORONGORO
It was 6:30 am.
The magical African dawn was breaking on the
horizon – we were on the rim of the
Ngorongoro crater where we had halted
briefly, before descending to the floor.
Standing on the
edge and looking down inside the rim of the
crater, the teeming wildlife dissolved in a
misty haze was a spectacular and
unforgettable sight. The diffused light and
dancing mist inside the caldera were
Crater is amongst the most spectacular
destinations on Earth, born over two million
years ago. It is the largest extinct volcano
on the planet. With a diameter of about
22kms it is the worlds largest Caldera. It
is also the home of some of the world’s most
exotic wildlife which include the big five
of Africa and some rare species of birds.
spectacular crater is also home to the
world’s most ferocious and powerful lions.
The crater lions are different from all
other lions I’ve seen (in the Serengeti or
savanna plains). Numbering over a hundred
these animals have been living on the floor
of the extinct volcano for hundreds of
years. The floor descends over 600 meters
from the rim of the crater. The animals and
lions of the crater do not migrate and these
‘captive’ population of lions are, according
to some scientists and environmentalists,
believed to have developed aberrations and
other features that scientists attribute to
inbreeding. And if so, one of these could be
their aggressive and explosive behavior, far
from the lazy sleepy lions of Africa.
These are the
magnificent black-maned lions – thick maned
and powerfully built these handsome lions
look larger and more formidable than their
cousins on the Serengeti plains. There are
over 130 lions in this small area – the
highest density of predators to be found
territorial the lions move in prides –
thunderous roars re-verberating the
Ngorngoro caldera shatter the silence at
short intervals throughout the day –
indicating that one pride has inadvertently
run into another.
We witnessed two
such small skirmishes on our way to the
elephant point where we were headed.
To me the
Ngorongoro crater also holds one of the most
bloodcurdling and awesome experience of my
Zobe, my Jeep
driver and friend of many years is also one
of the finest trackers I have known. That
morning we were looking to film a newly born
baby elephant. The 670m descent down to the
crater floor surrounded by the walls of the
caldera is like climbing down to the center
of the earth.
The crater floor
has Impala, Antilope and roughly over 30-40
thousand animals. Zebra and wilderbeest
dominate. The other species include the
leopard, cheetah, hartebeest, hyena, elands
and many others including the rare black
rhinos and hippos and many hundreds of
species of birds unique to the crater and
found nowhere in the Serengeti. The lakes
also support a large population of
Soon we were
trvelling off road, our battered land
cruiser ploughing a path through the golden
grasslands and scrubs, heading towards a
cluster of Acacia trees. It was here that
Zobe had seen the mother elephant in labour
24 hours before standing in a clearing.
Fully aware of
the power of a nervous and protective
elephant we stopped a safe distance away.
The mother elephant was tending to its newly
born which was making efforts to stand up.
The cow on its knees was attempting to raise
it, using its tusks and trunk in the
gentlest way. It was an emotional experience
for all of us.
Wary of our
presence the mother elephant mock charged us
twice but soon settled down when it realized
that we were no threat and ignored us.
Having acquired this confidence we moved a
little closer to the Acacia trees and
Suddenly a group
of Impalas disturbed by some movement shot
into the clearing across our jeep and headed
for the Acacia thicket. Our forest guard
‘Askari’ looked through his binoculars
traceing back the path of Impalas.
He spotted some
movement (30 metres away) in the grass along
the path the impala had taken.
like little bleats could be heard. Zobe said
it was probably a mother in the little group
of Impalas that had prematurely dropped a
baby while running away in shock frightened
by the movement. The Impala herd had
disappeared and was nowhere to be seen.
There was no chance of the mother returning.
far from help the new born had no chance of
survival. We waited. For one hour nothing
happened, nothing stirred. The elephant baby
was up on its wobbly feet and the mother was
happily nursing it. The crater floor was
silent only the bleat of the baby Impala now
weakening reached our ears.
were running through my head. Zobe was the
first to break the silence and decided with
the forest ranger that they should rescue
the Impala baby.
hesitation and after screening the area and
clumps of grass, Zobe and the Askari moved
on foot to retrieve the newly born. I too
had got off the Jeep and they beckoned me to
stay closer to the Jeep in case I was needed
Zobe was about 5
metres from the baby when we heard a shrill
trumpet from the elephant. We turned around
and saw the young mother elephant, both its
ears held forward and its trunk held high
sniffing the air, but it was looking beyond
us. We turned around confident that the
elephant was not disturbed by us.
Zobe once again
scrutinized the area with his binoculars.
The grass was still and nothing moved. With
momentary hesitation he took another step
forward… and all hell broke loose. Suddenly
the most powerful and bloodcurdling growl
shattered the stillness of the crater floor.
The clump of golden savanna grass in front
of us transformed into a sight that I will
never forget… it shook and came alive
morphing into a huge living charging form –
a vision I shall remember forever. The
crater lion in full charge, the anger in his
eyes the bristling mane and flattened ears
and the cannonball speed. It looked larger
than any lion I had seen.
It was a lion
and he too was bidding time to get to the
Impala baby. It was this stalking lion that
had disturbed the herd of Impalas. It was
the lion that the elephant had smelt.
deep throated growl that never seemed to end
followed the charging lion. Time and space
froze… we knew nothing on earth could stop
the charge of the most powerful predator
defending his territory and food… we were
the intruders - whatever our intentions.
happened in slow motion and lasted only a
few seconds. But a dozen parallel thoughts
ran through my mind in those few seconds.
All my life, past and present had replayed
itself. It’s amazing how the mind escapes. I
could actually anticipate and see myself
going down under the force of the charging
lion but there was no fear. Perhaps the
power of that low frequency growl which
rumbled through the forest had deadened and
numbed all our senses. Only the eyes were
registering the unfolding scenario.
Suddenly I was
pushed from behind and nudged aside. As I
regained my balance I saw the large bulk of
the mother elephant go past followed by the
most earth shattering trumpet. I saw the
lion drop… and turn, halted in its track.
Fearing for the safety of its baby and
assuming the lion was charging its baby, the
mother elephant had charged to meet the
from his transfixed state and rushed to the
Jeep. I was already at the wheel. We backed
off. No words were spoken.
The alert young
mother had saved the day for us all. We
watched with deep gratitude in our hearts as
she moved away and melted into the mist with
her calf. The lion too had disappeared into
the grass. We drove close to the newly born
fawn… picked it up and wrapped it up in a
warm jacket. We drove in silence to the game
We had learnt a
lesson…. perhaps the hardest way… never
trespass on the territory of the super
predator, never leave your jeep and never
trust your eyes, especially when you are in
the territory of the most powerful charging
beast on earth – The Lion! Master predator
and master of camouflage. Such is the
supremacy of nature’s most powerfully
The crater lions
are faster, more powerful and more ferocious
looking then all other lions.
Compassion is a
part of our lives, but the jungle has its
own rules and when in the wild that has to
is a must if you are in that part of the
world. It is spectacular, awesome and a
world with its own secrets and adventures
but don’t try for an experience like mine!