Her beautiful amber eyes changed from soft and alert to cold and piercing.
They looked like they could burn holes into a 10 foot wide concrete wall.
The air changed too. You could feel it on your skin and in your gut.
It's one thing to know the lioness was a fierce predator. But, it's so easy to forget when you watch them relaxing and walking gracefully, playing with their cubs. It's so easy to forget even with the evidence of a dead buffalo right behind her.
It's another thing to see her become that fierce predator. The shift happened in a millisecond. In her eyes, her posture, the air, her voice.
But, I'm getting ahead of myself.
I was on safari in Ol Pejeta Conservancy. A fabulous conservancy and rhino sanctuary. I was traveling with my friend Michelle who had never been on an African safari and my sister Lynne who has been on safari a handful of times. We were guided by James Mwenda of Jemu Expeditions.
The morning started out by photographing giraffe and then hyenas (fierce predators in their own right - but they are so cute and fluffy and funny - it's hard to remember the other side of their nature).
One of the other guides told us that he saw a male lion and a recent kill. We hadn't seen a male lion yet on this trip, so we decided to go try to find him.
The topography in Ol Pejeta has so much variety. From huge open grasslands (because of the drought, the grasslands were super short and brown), to scrubby bushes, and large forests of acacia and other types of trees. Their are swamps and other types too. The variety supports a number of different species and it's a fabulous place to start a safari.
Ol Pejeta Conservancy is well known because they are the sanctuary for the last 2 northern white rhino in the world and they only place in Kenya to see chimpanzees - a sanctuary for chimps that were rescued from the pet trade (they don't live in Kenya in the wild).
We drove awhile and found ourselves on a narrow dirt road surrounded on both sides by thick brush and bushes.
Michelle shouted stop stop stop.
There was a lion cub very close to the road just on the outside of the bushes.
Through the very thick brush, we counted 3 cubs, mama lioness, and the buffalo kill was seen hidden inside the brush.
Two of the cubs were deep in the bushes and mama was behind some branches. Just one brave cub was out in the open.
The bushes were not far from the road - probably about 10'.
We were photographing from the windows to get under the branches but mom was so hard to see so Lynne stood up to see if she could see mama's face clearer.
I then also stood up. The mama lioness watched us.
Lions in tourist wildlife areas are usually very relaxed around cars. They will often use them to lie in the shade on hot days, walk next to them, and sometimes even spray them to mark their territory.
This lioness wasn't as relaxed as others I've been around but she was comfortable.
Her deep amber eyes soft but alert.
James also wanted a different vantage point to see if he could see the male in the thick underbrush.
He opened the roof over the driver's area and stood up.
The change in the mama lions eyes was dramatic...the change in the atmosphere was also dramatic.
Have you ever seen soft eyes go cold and hard? Perhaps a horror movie of a killer animal? or perhaps in a person?
The tingling up and down your spine, the hair on the back of your neck stands up. All your senses get magnified. If you haven't ever seen it, you'd recognize it instantaneously as I did.
Her soft but watchful eyes changed to daggers. The energy in the air changed from cautious to high alert and maybe even anger.
Everything melted away in my vision except her and her eyes. The sounds were magnified in my ears as I listened to any sound that would indicate a tiny shift in her weight.
It is hard to define but it could be felt on every inch of my skin and in my gut.
She was really close and could close the distance to our vehicle in one stride.
Her amber eyes became so large and piercing they demanded all the attention in our bodies.
She started to sound a warning growl. James sat down slowly as did my sister and I.
She stopped growling as soon as we sat down, but her eyes didn't soften. We slowly drove away - no sudden movements around a lioness that was in protector mode.
We drove a few minutes trying to find the male.
We circled and came back and then James found him under branches covered in various shades of green leaves. He was probably about 50 yards away from mom and cubs.
When he was lying flat, you couldn't see him at all. If he moved an ear or sat up, you could just see the outlines of his head.
We decided to have our breakfast boxes in the car watching him, hoping he'd get up or move position so we could actually see him.
As we dug into our breakfast, Michelle saw 2 people walking on the road getting closer to where the mama lion and the cubs were hiding.
The rangers and anti-poaching teams are always on foot at Ol Pejeta Conservancy. And we later learned that the herders also often walked from the cattle herds to the office.
The herders have some training but not the type of training that the rangers and anti-poaching teams have....at the time we thought the men were experienced rangers.
James signaled them that there was a lion in the underbrush. They had not seen her as she was very well camouflaged by the bushes.
As soon as they saw her, she saw them and the vocal message she sent them was undeniable -- GET AWAY FROM ME AND MY CUBS. The throaty sound was eerie and unnerving!
Lynne and Michelle were scared and you could hear "oh my God, Oh my God" echoing thru the car.
James kept a very watchful eye.
I was certain the men would be ok. I didn't think with their training they would be in real danger. I don't know if that was my intuition, my gut, or just denial - my mind not wanting to consider the potential of a horrific and tragic outcome.
I could hear myself saying staying impossibly calm - "They'll be ok. It's ok" as if my words could manifest a safe outcome.
The men quickly changed direction and cut into the underbrush on the other side of the road.
Any movement on our part could have triggered the lioness or the men so James stayed put ready, hyper vigilant and very calm and composed.
We lost sight of the men through the bushes and everything seemed to be fine. Until...
We heard the bushes rustle (it's truly amazing how loud things sound when you are on high alert) and she was out charging towards where we last saw them with what appeared to be blood lust in her eyes.
I can't even explain the sounds coming from her - alerting the entire pride probably hidden in the nearby bushes of the perceived threat to her cubs.
The sound so guttural and biological I'm sure all our bodies reacted the same way - with the knowledge of extreme and eminent danger.
In that same fraction of a second, James had the car racing towards the lioness.
He expertly turned the vehicle over the large dirt curb and placed the vehicle between her and the two men.
The movement was so fast and sharp, our breakfasts went flying through the cabin of the car.
We were grabbing things and moving them around in the car as fast as possible so the men could get into the vehicle and into safety.
Mama lion was PISSED. You could see it in her eyes and her stance and you could feel it in the air.
I was silently praying that she would not redirect that anger towards us and charge the car.
She stood her ground.
Once the men were safely in the car, James quickly and efficiently backed the car down the road to give the angry lioness space to calm down as well as the rest of us to gather ourselves.
After a few moments of silence the rush of voices started as often happens in high tension scenarios.
The men had never been charged by a lion before. We found out that they were herders.
They had been watching a herd of buffalo on the other side of the road and didn't see the lioness due to the heavy underbrush until we pointed her out from the car. (Buffalo are very dangerous as well and for them, that was the threat.)
We showed them where the male lion was. The cubs were now with the male. Mama at some point during the ordeal must have commanded them to go hide with him.
James explained that the growling she had done when she saw the men alerted the rest of the pride including the male.
James was quite certain the lioness would not have hurt the men but that since the male was on high alert, he may have especially if the herders continued on their path and "bumped" into him.
The rangers and anti-poaching team are trained extensively on how to handle being around dangerous and aggressive animals. However, every day they put their lives on the line and any day, they can be killed by the animals they protect or by poachers.
We were also told that the lioness was well known to be very aggressive and has sent many experienced rangers up the thorny acacia trees.
Do you believe in fate? That things happen for a reason? I usually don't...but the night before, it was raining, so James put the glass windows back in the vehicle. Usually the sides of the car were just open with no windows and just very large openings.
Had the windows been off the car, the lioness could have easily jumped into the vehicle and taken her aggression out on us. Had the windows been removed, all of us would have had a much different and much scarier experience.
We decided on the spur of the moment to have a boxed breakfast that day and we luckily spotted the male under the trees once when he sat up and decided to eat breakfast there-- otherwise we would NOT have been there.
After cleaning the vehicle, we had to go back through the road to get out. The mama lion and male lion were much calmer but we just drove through to give them space.
The information was quickly passed through the tourist vehicles so that the drivers would stay away from the area to give the lions a rest.
The rangers, anti-poaching teams, herders, and staff risk their lives EVERY SINGLE DAY to help ensure the safety of the wildlife, the wild places, and the clueless visitors stay safe.
Something I will never ever forget again.
Ol Pejeta Conservancy is about a 4.5 hour drive North from Nairobi. They work with the locals and use the land as a wildlife sanctuary as well as a working cattle farm. It is a beautiful example of how humans and wildlife can live peacefully side by side (with a few scary moments here and there.)
There has never been a "successful" lion attack on humans in the conservancy. Many charges and many men up in trees, but no one has ever been injured by a lion.
James Mwenda, founder of Jemu Expeditions was a ranger in Ol Pejeta for 3 years and then became the caretaker for Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhino in the world. He also cared for Najin and Fatu, the last female Northern White Rhinos.
He is the bushman that is very concerned about our world and environment. You can find his podcast on Spotify called Conservation Couch where he and 3 others discuss the world and what we can do to respect it.
He now organizes and leads safaris through Kenya and other areas of East Africa for conservation minded guests.
This and other stories will be available in my book