Photograph by Michael Nichols
Photograph by Michael Nichols

The Moment: Serengeti Lions

This story appears in the August 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Eyes on the Pride Nighttime was the right time for veteran National Geographicphotographer Michael Nichols to take pictures of lions. The cats sleep most of the day, preserving energy for hunts after dark. To capture a pride’s pursuit of prey—or the sharing of bounty (above)—he used infrared light that is not disruptive to lions and produces black-and-white images. For close-ups, he affixed a camera to a small robot. “We never wanted to use equipment that would startle them or deny them a meal,” Nichols says. “We tried to treat them with honor.” —Daniel Stone

Behind the Lens

Q: You really did get up close and personal with the lions.

A: We did. We had incredible intimacy. Our car was closer than close, just a few feet away. We saw cubs when they were tiny and watched them grow up. I never thought I’d find so much family support among them. Lions are different from house cats, which can live individually. Being there, you really see how much they depend on each other to survive.

Q: Were you afraid of getting hurt?

A: Psychologically, it’s very strange. You have to take the leap of faith that they have no desire to hurt you. But if you make a mistake, like putting your arm or leg outside the car, all of that could change. One swipe and you’d be done. One time a lion three feet away almost walked into our vehicle.

Q: Did you sense that they felt threatened by you?

A: They were nervous at first but quickly got habituated to us. They see the car as one entity, not understanding that humans are in it. Lions are very efficient animals, so they won’t expend energy unless they see you as a threat. We got very close, but we never interacted.