The first step in putting a collar on a lion is finding the lion. This is easier said than done in the vast lands of Laikipai, Kenya. Dr. Laurence Frank and his team tracker Steve take my graduate student, Caleb, and me out into the bush in search of the big cats. It is a daily combination of thrilling wildlife safari, kidney crunching roads and eating dust.
But the vistas of the Rift Valley where we are travelling are unlike any in the world. From the plateaus one feels that you can literally see the edge of the earth curve into blue atmosphere on the horizon- “breath-taking” does not begin to do the view justice.
Somewhere in this vast landscape of brush grasses, thorny acacia trees and red dirt are African lions and the prey that they eat.
The animals of the wild are adept at hiding from humans and other predators. They do this with cryptic movements and cryptic coloration that make them difficult to see. I quickly learn to react to fleeting movements- an ear twitch, a tail twitch or even the skin shiver to find animals. And even animals as big as African elephants can be hard to spot due to the mud covering their skin- they are the color of the ground.
This is the first grader level African eye test - see how quickly you can find
the rock hyrax
and the elephant.
As for giraffes – well, they do their best at hiding but sometimes anatomy just gets in the way.
Find the giraffe
Now imagine being in a Land Rover bouncing on rock and water pitted roads trying to find a crouching or sleeping lion hidden in grass the same color as its tawny hide. Somehow what seemed easy to put down on paper in our grant proposal is looking more and more impossible in the real world.
Today the lions did not show themselves to us.
Talking to other scientists at the Mpala Research Station where we are staying I find out that there are people working here for years that have never seen a lion- ever.
I begin to wonder if we have flown across the world on a wild cat chase.