Magnificent. Exceptional. Skilled. Relentless. Powerful. Life-changing. These are just some of the words six National Geographic photographers used when describing lions they had encountered during their careers. The recent killing of Cecil, a 13-year-old lion from Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, has struck a nerve with people all over the world. As we mourn his death, we wanted to know—what’s it like to be among the living? To spend time with a lion in its natural habitat? To witness them hunt, mate, and sleep, and to hear their shattering roars? So we turned to the experts—photographers who have spent extensive time documenting lion prides. Their stories and photographs tap into the awe-inspiring power that earns lions their rightful nickname, the “king of beasts.” —Kim Hubbard, Kathy Moran, Melody Rowell, and Jessie Wender
My husband Dereck and I have worked with lions for over 30 years and each is an individual, just like poor Cecil who was recently killed in Zimbabwe. While filming Relentless Enemies: Lions and Buffalo, we worked with a group of young males and females called the Skimmer pride. One day they adventurously explored … an adjoining territory. When a large male lion stood up from the tall grasses, each youngster turned and fled immediately and ran back to the river, where they leapt in and splashed across running for their lives—but straight towards me. We got to know each of these young lions, mourned each loss to the pride, and celebrated each success. They would often lie in the shade of our vehicle quite relaxed.
Look into the eyes of a lion and you will see a wildness and yet an innocence that we need to protect. The wildness is in many ways symbolic of what we love about Africa and lions; the innocence is what Cecil the lion was, each of these lions are, unable to ever match our guns. Look into the eyes of a lion and you will see both the good in man—those who care for them—and the bad: those who will kill them for the blood sport … We are better than this. —Beverly Joubert
C-Boy the Lion is my Cecil, and the exact same thing could have happened to him. He is famous because of my pictures and David Quammen’s text for the [National Geographic] story “The Short Happy Life of a Serengeti Lion.” His territory in Serengeti National Park borders on a legal safari hunting area, which C-Boy would go to if lured out, as Cecil was.
My first encounter with C-Boy was while he was on a consort (mating session) with two lionesses. I followed him into the night using night vision to drive and infrared illumination to photograph by. He may have been disturbed by my invasion of his privacy while mating, but I doubt it. The life-changing moment for me and my team (our driver—[who was] my wife, Reba—and the videographer, [who was] my longtime assistant, Nathan Williamson) came after [the mating session], when C-Boy walked to our open vehicle. It was pitch-dark so we could not see him, but we could feel that he was literally inches, not feet, away. He proceeded to roar: first north, then west, east, and south. Then he was done and walked away, not [to] be seen again for several weeks. The roar was so loud and so powerful it blew out our microphones as we tried to record it. It was the most awesome display of natural power I have ever seen. —Michael “Nick” Nichols
I took this picture at a lion-breeding farm in South Africa. I got inside this enclosure with around 30 of these lion cubs. I thought it would make an interesting image to be in there with them. That was my mistake. Within a minute they surrounded me from all sides and herded me up a small rise in the middle of the enclosure. They were in full-on stalk mode. I didn’t know where to look, and alarm bells started ringing in my head. I had been stupid. None of these cubs [was] more than six months old, but they were full-on lions from the start. The fact that they had grown up in captivity and never hunted prey had done nothing to diminish that instinct. I remember wishing that I had a camera mounted above me so that I could shoot the perfect symmetry of their advance. The manager of this lion farm had to come in and rescue me—not my proudest moment.
Shooting on South Africa’s lion farms was a tough one; I always try to remain objective in my reporting, but sometimes that’s very difficult. The jury is still out as to what the future will mean for lions. Humans are more voracious than lions will ever be—we seize their land, kill their natural prey, force them into conflict with us. Certain hunters pay a lot of money to shoot these magnificent creatures: Some of [it] genuinely reinforces conservation, [while] some of it just reinforces alpha-male egos. What is certain is that if we do not protect their natural habitats, the lions of the future will all come from these facilities, just another manufactured commodity. I wonder then how many generations it would take to quell the lion within.—Brent Stirton
He emerged out of a sandstorm as if he was Lord of the Desert. The big Kalahari lion walked straight into a howling wind, mane flowing, seemingly oblivious to the stinging sand. He was on a mission and nothing could stop him. For a few precious minutes he let my Land Rover accompany him as February storm clouds turned the sky black. I could not make photographs fast enough. This was the kind of special moment I had sought for years in Africa, but the light was fading fast. The lion quickened his pace, turned right, and disappeared over a steep dune. There was no point in trying to follow him. The landscape that made him exceptional made it impossible to continue. I turned and drove to camp, convinced that Kalahari lions are the wildest and most magnificent lions in all of Africa. They must be, for they live in the harshest environment, where only the strongest survive.
Hoping to somehow get a great landscape picture, I often tracked lions with a German veterinarian named Ludwig Siefert in the Albertine Rift of Uganda. The lions sleep in the trees there, perhaps to cool off, perhaps to keep track of game, or for some other reason only they know. We came across this male in the early evening, in a huge tree on the side of a hill—where even in the shade it was still hot—and he was sound asleep. It was useless to photograph him through foliage bathed in harsh light and shadows, so we just watched him dreaming, for hours. Finally, just when it was getting too dark to see anything at all, a lioness roared far off in the distance. The male opened his eyes, stood up, and looked out into the gloaming … for all of five seconds. We were ready, and Ludwig put a spotlight on him as I tried to hold still enough to get a sharp picture. Then the lion walked down the tree and leapt into the night in a single bound, leaving us in whispers. We waited for a while, hoping to see something else, but he was long gone, so we gave up and headed home. After all, a landscape without a lion is no landscape all. —Joel Sartore
I’ve spent countless hours photographing lions in the wild. Actually, I should rephrase that because most of those hours were spent sitting in a car watching them. Adult lions spend about 20 hours a day sleeping, and there are only so many pictures you can make of that. But you have to be there—and ready—when they do something. So I’d sit and watch and get to know the habits and personalities of individuals. Some are haughty and aloof, some curious and playful, some aggressive: a whole spectrum that is probably not surprising in lions, given that they are the only social species of cats. And, in my mind at least, not unlike individuals in another species of large social carnivores: us.
I made this image when I was doing a story about the lions in Tsavo National Park in Kenya. Dry and dusty, Tsavo is a harsh environment. Prey is not plentiful. To survive, the lions have to be skilled hunters. I wanted to make a photograph that somehow conveyed the ability of such a large animal to become almost invisible at night, when they do most of their hunting. I’ve always thought of the picture as a “ghost lion.” Now I see it as a metaphor for something larger. In 1960, there were 200,000 lions living in the wild in Africa. Today there are less than 32,000. Like the lion in this image, they are fading into darkness. And that thought makes me shudder, because I have been lucky enough to sit and watch them live in the sun. —Robert Caputo