By LARRY ANTHONY PANNELL
We woke to a dark, overcast day and drizzling rain in Kruger National Park. It was Day Two of five in Kruger, after five days of safari in the Ingwelala Private Game Reserve in South Africa.
Our agenda for the day was to locate and photograph lions, one of the Big Five that had eluded us thus far. We had had plenty of other wildlife sightings over the last week, including two of the other members of the Big Five, cape buffalo and elephants.
My friend Greg Parker and I set off in our private vehicle rather than in an organized game drive from the reserve. This allowed us to wonder freely at our own pace and in locations of our own choosing. Greg has been to Kruger many times, a lifelong resident of South Africa and an avid photographer.
After about an hour of driving, we came across a small group of four cars that had stopped and pulled over to the side of the road. Located in the high grass and within several low-lying trees and brush was a pride of lions consisting of two males, three females and three cubs.
We spent almost two hours photographing the pride as the rain continued under the dark skies. During this time, the cubs played, launching mock attacks on each other, the males remained separate from one another, only clashing once, and the females roamed the grasses or lay next to one of males.
At one point, a female walked through the grass calling for her cubs. She covered an area of about the size of a football field and disappeared behind us.
I continued to take photographs out of the car window, as you are not allowed to leave your vehicle in Kruger for safety reasons and for the wellbeing of the animals.
In a quiet voice, Greg leaned over and said, “Larry look in the sideview mirror.” Glancing down, I saw the lioness approaching the car on the shoulder of the road only a few feet away. I asked if I should roll up my window and Greg said, “Just be quiet, still and calm.”
She walked right next to my open window. I literally could have reached out and touched her as she kept walking past me, without a care in the world. She veered to her left entering the field again, calling to the cubs, which now were running towards her.
Soon after, we began driving again, in search for more wildlife and, hopefully, another pride of lions. We were not to be disappointed as within 30 minutes about ten miles away we spotted another pride.
This one consisted of three males and one female. The female was injured and could not put any weight on her right front leg as she limped around the outstretched male lions sleeping in the midday sun. Every now and then, one of the lions would roll over with his huge belly stuffed from a recent kill and legs flopping from one side to the other.
After spending time photographing these two prides, Greg and I continued down the dirt rode in search of other opportunities, neither of us having any idea of what we were about to witness.
We decided to try an area where we had found a small herd of elephants the day before at a watering hole called Rabelais Dam near Orpen Camp. On arriving, we noticed a large male lion crouching on the shore drinking.
As our cameras clicked away, we could see something was off. The lion’s posture just did not look right. On closer examination through our camera lenses, we could see that his left hind leg was protruding and at a strange angle. After he had his fill of water, he struggled to his feet, hardly able to stand. What we did not notice while he was drinking was that he literally was nothing but skin and bones.
The lion slowly moved away from the water, staggering as if he was drunk toward a small rise. Every few steps, he would stop to catch his breath, his head hanging low until he had enough energy to take a few more steps. On reaching the rise, he turned to face the watering hole and began his slow descent to the ground. About half way down, he collapsed the rest of the way. It was evident the lion was on his last days, if not his last hours, on this earth.
As we continued to watch this once-beautiful and strong lion, a small herd of elephants arrived at the water’s edge. The elephants drank and played, squirting water into the air over themselves and each other to cool down from the days’ swelling heat.
One of the larger elephants left the others and walked towards the rise, not far from where the lion had collapsed, as if to stand guard over the herd. At first, he did not notice the lion lying low in the grass, about 30 yards away, trying to stay out of sight.
Then, in an instant, the elephant reared, ears outstretched and flapping. as he took several steps back, trumpeted and charged the lion. Upon hearing the guard elephant start his charge, all the other elephants began to charge as well, trunks in the air, trumpeting as they too ran toward the lion.
Maybe in his younger, more virile days, the lion would have tried to make a stand, or at least roar at the top of his lungs. But not now. Now it took every bit of energy he had to get to his feet, turn and run.
After everything settled down, Greg and I drove to find the lion. We finally found him lying in the grass, exhausted, unable to move. We were no more than 15 feet away from him as he lay dying in the shade of a tree.
Dropping my camera, I stared at the lion, and he stared back at me, our eyes locking for what seemed an eternity. I just wanted him to know that he would not die alone as he struggled to breath, his chest rising only every so often. Then, with one last twitch of the ear, his last breath, he was gone. The king was dead.
Over the years as a photojournalist, I have photographed people who had lost everything in earthquakes, fires and landslides, people who had been injured, people who were dying. But I have never photographed anything as sad as this majestic animal, the true king of beasts and master of his domain. I will never forget what I was so privileged to have witnessed that dark, rainy day in Kruger National Park.
Larry Anthony Pannell is a professional photojournalist originally from southern California who is also a licensed acupuncture physician with a degree in traditional Chinese medicine. Since 2010, he has served as an “acupuncturist at sea,” offering his services on several international cruise lines while traveling the Seven Seas. He specializes in landscape, travel, nature and wildlife photography, and more samples of his work can be seen on his webpage. He can be reached at email@example.com.