By Rob Reid, African Parks
It doesn’t matter how much you know about lions, or what you think you know about them, how many scientific publications you’ve read, nor how much time you’ve spent with them. They will always surprise you. None more so than a very beautiful lady that I’ve known for the last three years. I met Lady in mid-2014 at Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia and was privileged to witness just a small piece of the puzzle that made up one of the world’s most famous lionesses.
While driving through Liuwa and its massive open landscape, you can literally almost see the curvature of the earth. The lions you can generally see from a kilometer or so away; the small bump on the horizon is the giveaway in the vast open landscape. As you meander slowly over the crisp earth towards them you can always recognise Lady from a distance: the way she cocks her head to the side, waiting for you, expecting you, that’ll be Lady.
And it was true; she didn’t look at you like a lion — there was none of that bone-chilling stare, head held high, alert “through you” sort of look. She would give you a sort of gentle titled head view, a relaxed and familiar pose. A look that had seen it all, and been through thousands of nights of loneliness. But that look, the sharing of space, with you, an outsider. There was that.
There are very few photos I have of her where she wasn’t either playfully rolling on her back, playing with her “adopted” cubs, or gazing at you in that titled pose. Regal in fact. Age sometimes highlights regality, and with Lady it was no exception. She was close on 17 years, and had somehow made it through so much.
Everyone that has had time with Lady, from the local villagers living in the park, to filmmakers, scouts and visitors, we all have a story about her. Something special, something unusual, something that cuts straight across the pure science of fact. The fact is sometimes simply something that becomes diminished by black and white type, brought to us in an in box full of noise. There are too many stories I’ve heard from the camp attendants, the nearby villages where fact, and for that matter fiction, simply doesn’t make sense.
I could write multiple stories; I tried to, but to be honest none of them brings to life the memory of what I have of Lady. There is a book by Malcolm Gladwell, called Outliers, and if he ever wrote an updated version, I’d ask him to include Lady Liuwa’s story. She was an anomaly, an orphan that had somehow survived the odds of the harshness of the African bush, and although her entire pride had been wiped out by illegal hunting, she found friendship in humanity, and later with an adopted pride. She was a bridge perhaps between what should have been in our Eden and what we see so much around us today.
It’s hard for me, as a wildlife manager, to become relaxed in discussing matters of anthropomorphism. We often have to separate ourselves from the harsh reality of managing huge natural systems, where animals don’t have names, and not allow our personal desires to step in the way of management decisions. Most of the time we refer to these beasts by numbers. Generally the allocated no of the VHF telemetry collar that they’re wearing – Cheetah 179, Li-252, and so on.
The last year or so we’ve pondered what would happen when she got old: would she resort to livestock killing, would humans be in danger? My, how we completely missed the mark. Perhaps that’s why on my VHF receiver her title is not Li-148 as it should be; quite simply, it’s just “Lady”.
I last saw her on July 15. She was looking magnificent: old, tired certainly, and perhaps a bit blind. She entertained us for a while with her “adopted” nephews in an attempt to dig out an aardvark from a burrow, and then she and her adopted family, including two rambunctious cubs, moved off. I said goodbye to her that day, not even remotely guessing that a few weeks later we’d all be saying goodbye.
We’ll never know what went on in those last few days, but what we do know is that her story of survival, of restoration and of unity will echo the personal stories so many of us have of her.
African Parks is a nonprofit conservation organization that takes on the complete responsibility for the rehabilitation and long-term management of national parks in partnership with governments and local communities. With the largest counter-poaching force and the most amount of area under protection for any one NGO in Africa, African Parks manages 11 national parks and protected areas in eight countries covering six and a half million hectares in Malawi, Benin, Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Zambia. Visit www.africanparks.org to learn more. Follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.