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Wednesday, 25 April 2007 00:00

Livingroom predators

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Relentless Enemies: Lions and Buffalo by Dereck and Beverly Joubert. National Geographic, 2006. 176 pages.

Four years ago, my family visited the Knoxville Zoo. It was February, and the cool weather seemed to make the animals unusually active, particularly the big cats.

The lions and lionesses padded about their enclosed area of grass and trees, some of the younger cats playfully cuffing each other, the older ones with their heads lifted to the afternoon wind, alert, clearly enjoying the crisp air. When we came to the bottom of the slope, our 7-year-old son walked beneath a covered shelter beside this arena, at which point one of the lionesses suddenly charged down the slope, running with incredible speed toward our oblivious son, to be turned away only at the last second by the clear protective wall.

Though I have never understood why that lioness charged my son, her attack provided one of those moments when the world shifts a little, when we witness first-hand what we had previously read in books or watched in movies. I understood why it was so brave of certain African warriors to have faced a lion armed with only a shield and some spears; why the lion in Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” was dangerous; why the ancients paid so many compliments to the strength and courage of lions; why indeed lions were the kings of the jungle.

Relentless Enemies: Lions and Buffalo (ISBN 1-.4262-0004-8, $40) brought back the memory of that afternoon in Knoxville when my respect for these big cats grew 10-fold. In this book are the lions of Botswana Duba Plains, magnificently photographed and filmed by Dereck and Beverly Joubert, who lived with three different prides of lions in the Okavango Delta for three years. Dereck Joubert provides us with an informative text about these feline hunters, describing everything from their mating habits to their treatment of their young, from their ability to swim in the watery marshes that make up the Duba Plains landscape to their ability to hunt dangerous buffalo. Here, for example, Dereck Joubert tells us of a classic hunt:

The lionesses pushed the herd and then caught them in a long running line, from the side. Then they attacked and spilt the herd. After that it was a waiting game.

It was an hour before the two herds started working their way toward each other, but one female buffalo suddenly realized that her calf was with the other herd and broke away, swimming the river past the hippo pool and out onto our bank — the bank with nine waiting lions.

Like the basic rule of ballroom dancing — the dance is a painting; the male provides the frame, the female the picture — Joubert’s straightforward prose frames for us his wife’s dramatic pictures. Beverly Joubert gives us photographs of a lioness defending her cubs against another lioness; buffalo and lions doing battle in the water; a lioness endowed with nerves of steel killing and then eating a bull buffalo within just a few feet of the herd (By then, as Dereck Joubert tells us, the herd has rebuffed the lions from the wounded bull half a dozen times. The situation of the bull being saved by the herd seemed to have reached a stalemate when another bull knocked over the wounded bull, then returned to the departing herd. The bull was left behind and the waiting pride of lions quickly made short work of their injured prey.)

In “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” Macomber faces a charging buffalo as well as a lion. With the text and photographs of the Jouberts, we can begin to understand Macomber’s apprehension. Here are animals that move through water and across the land like small tanks, ready to trample or gore any adversary. Like the lions, the buffalos are quick to adopt new tactics whenever necessary. The Jouberts show us that the buffalos have discovered that one effective defense against the lions is to stop and go to sleep. The pride of lions must then cease their attempts to separate the weak or the young from the herd; the lionesses are unable to attack “a sleeping herd of buffalo all bunched together with their horns facing outwards.”

The Jouberts end their book on an optimistic note, both in terms of their study of the environment in which the lions and the buffalos do daily battle, but also on whether that environment may survive. Derek Joubert writes that:

... far from being disillusioned about the future of the dance, I have to confess to a great optimism. I feel the slow wind of change, just a breeze against the skin for now, but there, nonetheless. Without hope the future will be no better than the past, and we can’t live with that.

Raptors on the table

Readers who enjoy coffee-table books about nature should also check out one that hits closer to home. Noel and Helen Snyder’s Raptors of North America: Natural History and Conservation (0-7603-2582-0, $50) gives us beautiful pictures of these birds of prey as well as descriptions of their range in terrain, of their habits in regard to everything from hunting to breeding. Raptors contains hundreds of photographs of North America’s 53 raptor species.

Though the Snyders, who are well known for their role in helping preserve the California Condor and the Puerto Rico Parrot, offer the reader a good deal of information in this densely written text, they frequently write with that sloppy, academic syntax still popular in certain university departments:

In our intensive observations of Elf and Flammulated Owls, we found that the adults habituated to us virtually completely even during the first hour of feedings if our presence was nightly and our behavior was consistent from the beginning of the breeding season.

Despite its sometimes tangled prose, Raptors should interest ornithologists of all levels as well as those of us who simply enjoy the flight of a hawk above a field on a sunny April afternoon.

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