Lioness in the Maasai Mara

Cathleen Giannetta

Runner-up 2022 Animal Story
© Copyright 2021 by Cathleen Giannetta

Photo by the author.
                                                       Photo by the author.

My husband and I traveled to Amboseli and the Maasai Mara in Kenya in October 2019, just before the recognition of the
COVID-19 pandemic.  This story is one of many amazing experiences we had with the help of experienced guides.

Not far from the dirt road, in the shade of a sausage tree, the lioness sat perfectly still with an air of calm, but also with a sense of command that perhaps resulted from the tension in her muscles that gave an impression of high alert. She was magnificent, but in the jeep truck, my husband and I, as well as our guide, were disappointed. The Kenyan guide, Jacob Otete, had driven the jeep here on a tip from his safari tourist-pleasing network in Kenya’s Maasai Mara that a lioness was here, having given birth to cubs a few weeks ago, but the lioness was alone.

Lions, Jacob Otete had told us, were very discreet and moved away from the pride to “do toilet,” to mate, and to give birth, so there was nothing unusual about a mother and new cubs being separated from the pride. There also was nothing unusual about a solitary lioness out to hunt with rests in between—that was her usual job. But Jacob Otete saw immediately that it was unusual. The lioness, he pointed out in the hushed tones we now knew to expect on game drive stops, had swollen mammary glands, evidence that she was nursing, but he puzzled over the absence of cubs.

Jacob Otete had expertly positioned the jeep directly in front of the lioness and turned off the engine. The lioness sat quietly in the jeep’s presence for several minutes assessing the situation and considering her options, as later became obvious. The minutes were silent, save for some bird calls and the occasional click of my camera shutter. Jacob Otete suddenly whispered with urgency, “Can you hear it?” as the lioness let out a long, weird, guttural call in a register so low we easily could have missed it were it not for the guide.

A small lion cub, and then a second, scrambled out of a gulley in front of the lioness that seemed to run parallel to the road, deep enough to hide the cubs and narrow enough to be camouflaged by the long savannah grass. The two assaulted their mother with tumbling dives onto her unflappable self. She began to lick them clean as a third cub struggled out.

Jacob Otete had by then had recognized the lioness’s dilemma and, in low tones, set the stage for us, useless but attentive, to observe the unfolding drama. To the right of the lions, as viewed from the jeep, were outcroppings of rock and a stand of higher brush that separated the lions from two cape buffalo, animals too enormous for the lioness to challenge. Jacob Otete told us that it would take five lionesses to bring down even an elderly cape buffalo. He also said a cape buffalo unquestionably would kill a young lion cub not for food, but out of malice. From the point of view of cape buffalo, the world would be a better place with one less lion in it.

For my husband and I in the jeep, it was like looking into a giant dollhouse at two giant rooms with occupants who could not see each other: the enormous but still oblivious buffalo on the right, and the fiercely maternal and highly aware lioness with her cubs on the left. Compounding the situation was a precipice to the left of the lions, too dangerous for the cubs to negotiate.

And so her problem was clear. There was no way to move her cubs to safety without crossing in front of the cape buffalo. And even if successful, across the road was open savannah with very little cover. The occasional acacia tree dotted the grasslands, but the roots of these trees exude a poison to “discourage” other acacia trees from growing nearby, including those from their own seeds, making for wide open spaces between trees. Only a short time ago, when these events occurred, this seemed like aggression on the part of the trees, but now maybe seems like social distancing. The result, in any event, was an unforgivingly open landscape for the lioness to try to herd her cubs to safety. Interestingly, in a few more weeks, according to Jacob Otete, such safety concerns would be moot because the cubs would take on the strong smell of lion and they would be given deference by any other animal.

The lioness went into motion. We watched with awe and deep concern (at least on the part of myself and my husband) as she nudged the cubs back into the gulley and disappeared into it herself after them. We three scanned the scene for sight of the lions, my husband and I more anxiously than Jacob Otete whose knowledge of the interactions among the local species gave him a broader perspective. Finally, all the way to the right of the jeep where the gulley widened and was visible from the road, and directly in front of the cape buffalo, the three cubs variously scrambled or popped out (as if tossed) onto the grass, their mother behind and vigilant. She looked toward the perilously close buffalo who were faced in other directions munching, and then quickly led her cubs across the road, doubling back behind the jeep. Jacob Otete silently put a finger to his lips, and we carefully turned to the opposite side of the truck with the realization that the lioness was using the truck as cover so she could at least get a head start with her cubs and get far enough away so that the cape buffalo would not even bother to pursue.

The lioness scanned one last time for danger behind her and then turned her attention to the jeep, giving a fierce warning look to my camera, making it crystal clear that we were not to blow her cover by leaving too soon or do anything else to foil her plans. (See photo!)

Jacob Otete and my husband and I, his amazed charges, happily sat for a while watching the lions move across the savannah and up a hill, the small cubs struggling to make it to and over the crest, as if climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

I live in a suburb of NYC with my husband.  I have two adult sons.  I work as a trial attorney and I am a partner at a national law firm.  I also volunteer for the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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