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The Lost Lion

Barely twenty minutes had passed before we had unexpected visitors: a herd of six elephants coming up fast behind the loudspeaker car. Frantically, we signalled to cut off the recording, as the elephants didn’t look happy. Seeing our urgent semaphore, the occupants turned, and noticed the herd approaching. Cutting the sound off they froze, the elephants now as little as five metres away! We sat stock-still in tense silence. In a real-life parallel to Jurassic Park, it’s important in these situations not to make sudden movements or flash a torch around.

The patience game

Earlier this year I spent an incredible two weeks in South Africa, volunteering with Wildlife ACT. Wildlife ACT work with game reserves, providing support for monitoring and conservation projects. We helped staff and research monitors with daily work and had some amazing experiences. I’d like to share a particular evening which sums up both the marvel of African wildlife and the challenges faced every day.

Nyala: interesting the first few times..

Tembe Elephant Park is a 300km2 reserve on the eastern coast of South Africa, right on the border with Mozambique to the north. The terrain varies, with dense bush, sand forest, broad grassland and water holes. It’s home to a huge variety of animals: lions; leopards; wild dogs; black and white rhinos; buffalo; monkeys; hundreds of bird species; some of the largest elephants in Africa and one of the smallest antelopes. Some days you can hardly move for fantastic sightings; others it’s possible to see nothing but the ubiquitous nyala (a type of antelope).

As volunteers on the conservation programme, we helped out any way we could. We’d do things like radio telemetry location, data recording, spotting, working on ID kits, and help with “call-ups”. One afternoon, we were in search of an adult male lion with the imaginative moniker M901. No-one had seen M90 for two weeks, but his radio collar always pinged from the same location, an area of thick bush. Radio collars aren’t infallible though. It can be difficult to get an accurate fix, batteries fail, and sometimes the animal can even force the collar off. Sometimes animals stay in the same place, or keep returning to the same spot. It’s unusual for this to last two weeks though. In this situation you have two choices: attempt the dangerous walk-in on foot, or try to get the lion to come to you. The idea of a call-up is simple: entice the animal out with the smell and sounds of food; then check up on them as they feed. This time we would use the carcass of a nyala2, with a recording of distressed animals blaring over the loudspeakers. Even the laziest lion would come a-calling for such a promising prospect.

Another of Tembe’s magnificent male lions

Before setting off, the head of conservation for the park, Richard, gave a safety briefing. Most days, we traveled on an open back truck; for obvious reasons this is not a good idea when tempting lions. Instead, we’d be piling into closed cab vehicles. The other rules were also common sense – pay attention at all times, don’t wander off, no leaving the vehicle once the call-up starts. Arriving at the road nearest the radio collar signal, we hopped out of the cars and set up. Although we wouldn’t actually be darting the lion if he came, the set up is much the same3. You clear an area of grass and brush to give a good line of sight, then fix the bait in place with a heavy chain and stake. Staking in some large metal screens behind the bait prevents the animal from feeding facing you. When darting, these preparations mean the animal exposes itself for a clean shot in the rump, but it’s also helpful to keep it in one place for observation. With that done everybody gets back in the cars, we start playing the distress calls, and the waiting begins. Call-ups are a patience game. Even if you know where the animal is, or is likely to be, it might not come out at once, or at all. Nature obeys its own rules, and so you settle in for the long haul, and expect to wait hours if need be.

Close encounters

Not today though. Barely twenty minutes passed before we had unexpected visitors: a herd of six elephants arriving on our left side, moving fast. They were coming up behind the loudspeaker car, having heard the sounds. Frantically, we signalled to cut off the recording, as the elephants didn’t look happy. Seeing our urgent semaphore, the occupants turned around, and noticed the herd approaching from behind. Cutting the sound off they froze in their seats, the elephants now as little as five metres away!

We wound up the windows and sat stock-still in tense silence. In a real-life parallel to Jurassic Park, it’s important in these situations not to make sudden movements or flash a torch around. While this was a breeding herd rather than large bulls, they could still do some serious damage to the vehicles or us without much effort. Having approached in cavalry line, they paused and one went forward as scout. Sniffing and poking around with her trunk, she seemed to be checking for danger before the others. The herd moved up, investigating the whole area: bait, cars, and equipment. Richard explained that although upset, they didn’t seem violent, and were probably more curious than anything else. Elephants are both intelligent and inquisitive; these had come to see what was going on. Several times they stopped to exhibit a fascinating behaviour: the group would congregate, clustered in a circle with their heads raised and trunk-tips touching. A sculpture of perfect poise, they would not have looked out of place as the centrepiece of a piazza. At the same time they made sounds I’d never heard an elephant make before – a sort of click-click-click noise. We were entranced. When animals do things like this it’s hard not to anthropomorphise; it was easy to imagine this as some sort of team huddle.

A large, wise-looking elephant

After ten minutes of circling, ambling, and grunting, it looked like the herd was going to leave, and they began to move along the road. Good news for us. We would wait until they were definitely gone, then resume our call-up for the missing lion. Unfortunately one of the radios chose that moment to squawk, and the troop was back again. Packed in the sweaty cab of the car, condensation steaming up the windows, we watched as they did another inspection of the site. They sniffed around the nyala carcass again, and one even nudged the metal screens with a lamppost-wide leg. Elephants are compassionate, and seem to be sensitive to the distress of other animals. They’ve been observed to encircle a wounded or dying animal to protect it from predators, waiting for the unfortunate to recover (or expire). An elephant expert would later tell me they’re known to do the opposite too, euthanising wounded animals. From our limited understanding and biased perspective, it’s impossible to know whether this is a true act of mercy or something else.

It was clear that tonight their aim was protective – they formed a rough circle around the bait4, and appeared to be settling in. No lion would be getting in there, and any predator in the vicinity would be unlikely to approach at all once they smelt the elephants. Humans may have crowned the lion “king of the jungle”, but no lion is a match for a full grown elephant, let alone several. We took advantage of a break in their attention to start up the cars and move off, tails between our legs. The venerable tusked guardians had decided there would be no lion call-up tonight, but it was still an unforgettable close-up encounter.


Tragically that was not the end of the story for the lion M90.

Following our unsuccessful attempt to get him to come to us, the team planned to walk in to him. A group of rangers and researchers went in the next day, risking the thick bush to follow the collar signal. The group found him exactly where the collar had indicated, caught in a wire snare attached to a small tree. In his desperate attempts to escape the poor beast had almost uprooted the tree, an unimaginable, horrible death for any creature. A devastating loss for those who worked with this lion and his fellows daily, and the end of a beautiful animal. The team found and removed a series of other snares in the vicinity, some with other hapless victims.

Traps like these are set for antelope, the catch sold or eaten for subsistence. You can’t set a smart trap though, and so snares are capable of catching other animals too. I’ll leave the debate about subsistence poaching for another time – it’s by no means simple. Finding these snares and their unfortunate victims caused a ripple through the park though. It seems that poaching is on the rise in Tembe, previously a relatively safe harbour for it’s inhabitants.

You can volunteer with Wildlife ACT at any of their WWF-supported conservation programmes. Programmes run year round, from two weeks commitment upwards. Trust me, you won’t regret it!


  1. As with many parks, not every lion in Tembe has a name; most just have a code like M90 or F76. To put this in perspective, in some parks it’s not known exactly how many lions there are, and ID kits aren’t completed for every individual. First things first.
  2. Tembe actually has an overpopulation of nyala, the predominant antelope species. It’s difficult to manage the numbers of any species in a park where natural “macro” processes are less in effect, and so sometimes there is a surplus. Left unmanaged this could lead to bigger problems with food resources and biodiversity. So, while it sucks for this antelope, it’s for the good of the herd in the end.
  3. So-called habituation call-ups are common. With some species its helpful to get the wildlife used to the procedure, and helps to avoid negative associations. Of course, it’s also good practice for humans.
  4. You and I know the bait was long dead at this point, and in fact was until recently in the freezer. Bear in mind though, the elephants had heard distress calls coming from the spot. Also, to the best of our knowledge elephants don’t have freezers.

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