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When a lion roared in my face

Updated: Jun 25, 2020

#NatureFeature #Lions

A lion roars angrily at me in Serengeti, Tanzania
A lion roars angrily at me in Serengeti, Tanzania

Having lived in India, I have seen the Asiatic lion at a young age, unfortunately, in zoos, in captivity.

But that’s no way to see lions. In their natural ecosystem is where one can truly see why they are majestic; why they were, along with a few other creatures, at the top of the food chain for millions of years; and, why, I believe, a pack of them is called ‘pride’.

My first such encounter of awe was in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. The sun was at its peak in the sky on a rather humid day. In the mid-day heat, my guide brought us to a lion resting under the shade of a tree. He seemed to have polished off a large part of its kill, a gazelle, most of its erstwhile self now a bulge in its belly.

From where I stood, admiring the scene of a real lion and a real kill, there was some movement far in the horizon. A pack of 3 hyenas had distributed themselves and slyly approaching the drowsy lion from 3 directions. Tentatively, but surely, they were inching closer, which I deduced was in the hope to sneak off with the rest of the food when the time was right.

The story was playing out like a suspense film from my vantage point. The lethargic, over-stuffed lion who could barely keep his eyes from drooping. The 3 hyenas in silent communication, pausing and moving with caution, trying their collective luck. I watched with wide-eyed excitement. The hyena to my right had become full size, barely 15 meters away, all set to make the big move. When suddenly something tipped the lion off. It was either sound or smell, clearly not the vision of the droopy-eyed fellow, that snapped him out of his siesta. The hyenas froze as he sprung up on his fours and let out one resounding roar. Before I could say ‘growl’ the hyenas had disappeared from the scene. The irritated lion, stood guard by his kill for a few minutes and slumped beside it to rest again, marking his territory by how far his roar reached.

On the third day of the safari in Serengeti, my guide received a radio message at the very beginning of the day and he swung towards an open grassland. Two tourist jeeps were already parked there. 3 more arrived, us included.

It was a quite common scene that unfolds under trees in parks. A lion was bringing out all his tricks to woo a lioness barely paying attention to him, clearly playing hard to get. I guess a lion can only be heeled by his beau and how the familiar dynamics of courting were playing out even for the mighty cat was fascinating. Us tourists were going nutty clicking away with our cameras. The non-stop clicking cameras must have ticked off the lioness as she suddenly upped and walked off, leaving the lion feeling a bit foolish. Unsure of his next move, the lion collected himself after a few minutes and slowly followed, a bit hot under the neck.

My guide is quick to drive our jeep ahead for a better perspective of the scene, parked on the path the miffed one was taking to catch up with his lady love.

I had my camera aimed straight at him to capture him as he crossed us. He was so close, he didn’t fit my frame as I started clicking. Possibly hearing the sounds again, the lion completely lost it, looked at me square in the eye and let out a long, angry roar. Burning eyes, bare teeth, pink tongue, wide open mouth, and a glimpse of the epiglottis even. A full blast of the roar fired straight to my face. I recoiled with fear. My guide, who was generally encouraging of close interactions with the animal, asked me to back off the window.

The lion carried on, focused on his pursuit, leaving me overcome with guilt.

I haven’t ever considered myself to be a very successful wingman for my friends, but I hardly ever thought of myself to be a game killer, especially to a mighty lion. My attempt to patch the two up was a a silent apology from afar. Quite afar.


  • Typically, the lion inhabits grasslands and savannas, but is absent dense forests.

  • A new-born lion has dark spots, which fade as the cub reaches adulthood, although faint spots often may still be seen on the legs and underparts.

  • The lion is the only member of the cat family that displays obvious sexual dimorphism, which is a condition where the two sexes of the same species exhibit different characteristics beyond the differences in their sexual organs.

  • The lion is rivalled only by the tiger in length, weight and height at the shoulder.

  • Lions spend much of their time resting; they are inactive for about 20 hours per day. They spend an average of two hours a day walking and 50 minutes eating.

  • The lion is the most social of all wild felid species, living in groups of related individuals with their offspring. Such a group is called a ‘pride’. Groups of male lions are called ‘coalitions’.

  • Females form the stable social in a pride and do not tolerate outside females.

  • Lion cubs are born blind; their eyes open around seven days after birth.

  • The lion ranged throughout Eurasia, Africa and North America, but today it has been reduced to fragmented populations in sub-Saharan Africa and one critically endangered population in western India.

  • It has been listed as vulnerable on the IUCH Red List since 1996 because populations in African countries have declined by about 43% since the early 1990s. Primary causes of the decline include habitat loss and human interference.

Yual Harari writes in Sapiens:

“The position of humans in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. It was only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain.

That spectacular leap had enormous consequences. Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster. In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.”

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