Port Elizabeth - The lions were so close to us that we could hear them breathing. Three imperious specimens – two black-maned males and a huge female – snoozed in the shade of our vehicle near River Bend Lodge in Addo Elephant National Park.
At times they’d look up and scan the surrounds, or gaze at us, before their eyelids became too heavy and they dropped their huge heads back to the dusty ground.
When a lion stares at you, the feline’s eyes bore into your own, sparking an ancient fear. For millions of years humans have been a tasty hors d’oeuvre on the predator’s bushveld buffet.
I was glad to be in a game drive vehicle with an experienced guide. Stephen Meihuizen knows these lions better than most, having spent almost every day in their company since they were reintroduced to Addo several years ago.
“We call the female Jess, and the males John and Dudley – or Duddles for short,” Meihuizen laughed. “But don’t be fooled by their cute names, these are very wild, healthy lions. And they’re very successful hunters.”
Despite their undoubted ferocity when hunting, lions ought to be far more fearful of us, than we are of them. According to researchers, there are no more than 30 000 wild lions left in Africa, a pitifully small number considering there were an estimated 1 million just 200 years ago.
Several national parks in South Africa have reintroduced the big cats into areas where they once occurred before being exterminated. Just an hour’s drive from Port Elizabeth, Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape has several photogenic lions, all sourced from the Kgalagadi.
Although the dense thickets can make wildlife viewing tricky in the main section of Addo, guests have a better chance of getting up close to lions and elephants at the private River Bend concession in the northern part of the park.
This 70km2 area is part of Addo’s larger conservation area, but it is off- limits to the general public. Instead, guests at River Bend have it all to themselves.
The large open areas of grassland, as well as isolated valleys of woodland are home to not only lions, but also buffalo, eland, hartebeest, zebra, black rhinos – and more than 100 elephants.
On a morning game drive, Meihuizen and I were surrounded by a herd of about 30. We sat with them for two hours, as the adults chewed on spekboom and the youngsters played with each other.
Like lions, elephant numbers in Africa have fallen cataclysmically. From an estimated 25 million elephants in 1800, there are no more than 350 000 left.
Ivory poachers kill an average of 100 wild elephants every day in central and eastern Africa. And although South Africa has so far escaped this modern massacre, our history is full of murder.
The Eastern Cape saw its share of slaughter. In 1931 when Addo was proclaimed, there were just 11 elephants left in the province. Thousands had been killed in less than a century, as citrus farmers complained of elephants raiding their orchards.
Today, however, there are more than 700 elephants in Addo, one of Africa’s greatest conservation success stories. And as the herd mulled around our vehicle, within touching distance, it was clear that they have forgiven us, even if they haven’t forgotten.
“When Addo was proclaimed, the sight or smell of a human would enrage the elephants,” Meihuizen said as a young bull came up to the vehicle to check us out. “It’s incredible that today they are so accepting of us – and so trusting.”
The bull stood tall over our vehicle, gazing down on to us with its large orange eye and eyelashes as long as a human hand. After a while, the matriarch rumbled a message to the rest of the herd, and they moved off slowly.
Little else can compare to spending time in the company of wild elephants and lions. But as inspiring as it is, there’s a sad poignancy too. The wild animals that are protected today are a heartbreaking reminder of the destruction humans have wrought on the wild areas of Africa.
In a hundred years time will our grandchildren be able to admire these iconic creatures in their natural habitat? As long as national parks like Addo remain inviolate and accessible to all, then there’s a good chance. - Cape Times
l Ramsay is a photojournalist focusing on southern Africa’s protected areas. Partners include Ford, Goodyear, Cape Union Mart and K-Way. For more, see www.yearinthewild.com
For River Bend Lodge, see www.riverbendlodge.co.za