We woke to a dark, cloudy day and rain in the 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 5 that had eluded us thus far. We have had plenty of other wildlife sightings over the last week including two of the other members of the Big 5, cape buffalo and elephants.
Greg Parker and myself set off in our private vehicle rather then in an organized game drive from the reserve. This allowed us to wonder freely at our own speed and in locations of our choosing. Greg has been to Kruger many times and a life long 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 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 spend almost two hours photographing the pride as the rain continued under the dark skies. During this time the cubs played with 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 the 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 the car window, as you are not allowed to leave your vehicle in Kruger for safety reasons and for the well being of the animals.
In a quiet voice Greg leaned over and said “Larry look in the side view 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 the window and Greg said just to be quiet, still and calm.
She walked right next to my open window. I could have literally 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 out stretched male lions sleeping in the mid-day sun. Every now and then one would roll over with their huge bellies stuffed from a recent kill, legs flopping from one side to the other.
After spending time photographing two prides we continued down the dirt rode in search of other opportunities neither of us having any idea of what we about to witness.
We decided to try an area where we found a small herd of elephants the day before that was near a watering hole called Rabelias Dam near Orpen Camp. Upon arriving we notice a large male lion crouching on the shore.
As our cameras clicked away you could see something was off, his posture just did not look right. On closer examination looking through the lens 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 you did not notice while he was drinking, he literally was nothing but skin and bones.
He slowly moved away from the water and staggered as if he was drunk towards 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. Upon reaching the rise he turned to face the water hole and began his slow descent to the ground. About half way down he collapsed the rest of the way. It was evident he was in 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 waters edge. The elephants drank, played squirting water into the air over themselves and others to cool down from the days 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 elephant start his charge all the other elephants started to charge as well, trunks in the air trumpeting as the ran towards the lion.
Maybe in his younger more virile days the lion would have tried to make a stand, 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 found him lying in the grass, exhausted unable to move. We were no more then five feet from him as he lay dying in the shade of a tree. Dropping my camera we stared at one another locking eyes for what seemed for 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 a last twitch of an ear, his last breath, he was gone. The King was dead.
Over the years as a photojournalist I have photographed people that had lost everything in earthquakes, fires and landslides, people that had been injured, people that were dying but I have never photographed anything as sad as this majestic animal, the true king of the beasts and master of his domain. I will never forget what I was so privileged to have witnessed.
Later we learned that the name of this noble lion was Skybed Scar. The lion was well known in the Kruger National Park where he roamed and ruled for many years. He lived free and he died free.