In November of 2012 while on a 16-day photographic safari trip in Botswana, photographer Evan Schiller and his wife, Lisa Holzwarth, spent four days at Selinda Camp located on the banks of the eastern Selinda Spillway in the 320,000 acre Selinda Reserve of northern Botswana. With their guide, Isaac Seredile, they were witness to an extraordinary sequence of events. Here is an abbreviated account from The LEO Chronicles describing that amazing morning. And all of this happened in two-and-a-half hours….
November 14, 2012 – Morning Game Drive – Selinda
We were the first vehicle out at 5:40am. We headed right back to Leopard #3 that we had seen late yesterday when we had left her with her impala kill under the thick brush. She was only five minutes from camp and we discovered that she had made yet another kill – this time a reedbuck. No sooner had we spent some time photographing her, we saw two hyenas racing in our direction attracted by the reedbuck’s scent. The leopard took cover in a nearby tree as the hyenas feasted on her fresh kill.
We spent a bit of time with the hyenas as they devoured the reedbuck and then turned our attention once again on the leopard in the leafless tree. We were surprised by her sudden decision to leave the tree and dive for deep cover. While we were a bit disappointed that she was now out of camera range, Isaac told us to keep our eyes open, as she must have seen something that concerned her enough to move from the safety of the tree. Because the tree was bare, anyone or anything could easily see her from a distance. From our vantage point, this still didn’t make a lot of sense – the leopard is the only big cat who climbs, and leopards usually find safety in trees… but then we heard the baboons!
There was a troop of 30-40 baboons heading in our general direction making a lot of noise (and fyi, baboons and leopards are deadly enemies – I have heard guides talk about adult male baboons and adult male leopards each fighting to the death). The baboons settled on another “island” of trees a safe distance from the leopard. Then the baboons started screaming – again, we had no idea the reason, but from their elevated position in the trees they had a much better vantage point to take in the overall surroundings. Isaac quickly drove us to the troop and said again, keep your eyes open, they are sounding the predator alarm.
No sooner had he said this, two lionesses came out of the tall grass and rushed the baboons in the trees, only to be joined by two more lionesses. Between the baboons shrieking and the lionesses communicating with deep guttural roars, it was a mad scene. The baboons were safe in the trees but anxious about the lions clawing on the trunks. Evan and Isaac felt certain that with all the bedlam, someone was going to lose their cool and it wasn’t long before three of the baboons decided to “make a run for it”. The three were focused on another set of trees a few hundred yards away. As soon as the lionesses noticed the escapees, a chase pursued and we followed close behind. Two of the three baboons found the nearby treetops, but the third was grabbed as she tried scaling the tree. Did I say three baboons – my mistake, as the third baboon lay dying on the ground, we noticed a little baby (less than a month old) slowly disengaging from its mother’s dying body. Despite its young age, I was amazed to see how instinct so quickly kicked in that it immediately tried to find safety in a tree. Unfortunately, it did not know how to do this quickly or quietly.
While its instinct was good, it hadn’t yet mastered speed or agility. At this point the lionesses noticed the little one. They were intrigued, but did not go for the “kill” which would have taken less than a nano-second if they had been so inclined. The baby and one of the lionesses engaged in the African version of a “BIG cat and mouse” game, which we have watched countless numbers of times with our own domestic cats and their catches of mice, moles and chipmunks. The baby was jumping up and down, screaming and hitting the lioness on her nose. The lioness continued to gently knock the baby off the base of the tree each time it seemed to make a little bit of progress in its vertical attempt at escape.
The lioness then carried the baby in its mouth (really at that moment she could have swallowed it whole without a blink of an eye) and put it down on the ground in front of her. What happened next blew our minds – the baby, in another instinctual moment, held onto the lioness’ chest and tried to suckle… Evan’s pictures say it all.
All the while, the Baboon leader was climbing up and down his tree, calling loudly and making whatever noise he could to distract the lionesses.
The lioness was being as gentle as a 350 pound cat can be with a 3 or 4 pound baby baboon. The baby was now showing signs of physical harm and fatigue from the whole ordeal. After allowing the baby to “suckle” for a bit, the lioness again picked the baby up in her mouth – I was in agony watching the baby’s ordeal – and kept on turning off the video option on my camera because it was hard to record.
Just when we thought the baby’s odds were dwindling, the lioness turned her attention to the latest players in the cast – two male lions (each about five years old) were fast approaching. We had photographed these two the previous morning with a fresh buffalo kill. Initially we thought that the males were interested in the dead baboon (which no one had paid much attention to since its killing). While the big boys made a half-hearted attempt to check out the dead baboon, we ultimately figured that they were much more interested in “checking-out” the ladies themselves. Evan caught a couple of great shots where the lionesses made it very clear how they felt about the boys – NOT.
Back to the baby baboon – with the lionesses busy trying to ward off the amorous advances of the brothers, the Big Male Baboon, who had been trying to no avail to rescue the baby, was now able to climb down the tree, grab the baby and then head back up to safety.
Unfortunately, he chose a dead tree, so while that was good for our photography, he soon felt the heat of the sun. I was touched by how gently the Father Baboon held this little baby who was in tough shape after its ordeal. The baby’s body appeared limp and we thought it had succumbed. Isaac told us that if that was the case, the Father would most likely still hold the baby for a few days before finally letting go. After watching these human-like emotions and actions, it’s pretty hard to doubt Mr. Darwin and his theories.
With the heat of the morning sun getting stronger by the minute, the Father Baboon had to make a move. Holding the baby, in all sorts of contorted positions, he tried numerous times to climb down the tree. He tested the lionesses’ interest with each descent. Finally, the combination of daring courage and the lionesses own desire to take cover in some shade allowed him to find safety and a little peace in a neighboring tree.
And what happened to the baby? I like to think that the little guy survived with the help of his troop. He was alive and safe in his father’s arms when we left and that’s how I like to remember it. No matter what, he remains an inspiration – and a reminder, that life is fragile.
We were fortunate to see numerous lions and leopards on our 16-day trip to Botswana, but the reality is that lion prides are vanishing across the continent. Panthera estimates that nearly a century ago there were approximately 200,000 lions living across 54 countries in Africa. Today, lions are extinct in 26 of those countries and there are fewer than 30,000 left in the wild. We have heard that number may even be closer to 20,000 or 25,000. Lions have vanished from over 80% of their historic range due to illegal hunting, loss of habitat and habitat fragmentation. Only 7 countries: Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe are believed to each contain more than 1,000 lions. And while leopards are the most versatile of the Big Cats, Panthera estimates that even they have vanished from almost 40% of their historic range in Africa, and from over 50% of their historic range in Asia.
Evan Schiller is a professional wildlife and golf course photographer, and his wife, Lisa Holzwarth, is a writer and marketing professional (The LEO Chronicles at www.laholzwarth.wordpress.com). They have made a number of trips to Africa in the last five years and are passionate about saving the world’s Big Cats. Their efforts include raising awareness and funds to save the Big Cats from extinction, a very real threat. The couple has organized fundraising events benefitting National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative and Panthera, the largest dedicated funder of wild cat conservation globally.
There’s no time to wait, we need to make a difference today to ensure the Big Cats are here for generations to come.
Special thanks to Evan Schiller for sharing their story and these amazing photos.