Illustration: Gracey Zhang.

A lion roared in the night, blasting waves of guttural bass notes across the floor of the Kalahari valley. I felt the reverberations in my spine. The lion must have been within a quarter mile of my tent, and he sounded massive—probably more than 400 pounds, with canines as long as my index finger. A casual swat of his forepaw could kill me.

I slid the few inches from my bedroll onto the tent floor and pressed my abdomen into the canvas. Fighting sleep like a child, I soaked in the sensation and the sound. I wanted to bank it, bring it home, put a jar of it under my bed. But the roaring lulled me from consciousness, as it had throughout the week.

At sunrise, we emerged from our tents. I was the only woman in our party of ten, and one of four Americans, along with five Africans and an Australian. All of us were taking part in a conservation research project on Panthera leo, the African lion, in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve in southern Africa. On this particular excursion, we were helping Kevin, the Australian, with his Ph.D. dissertation research. He was studying how lions in a section of the game reserve used habitat and food resources. Lion populations are declining across Africa, and scientists are concerned that antelope populations in the reserve—a primary food source for those lions—are declining, too.

A lion pride had explored our camp overnight. Bahiti, a Bushman and wildlife tracker, circled a paw print in the dirt and confirmed what we all knew. “Tau,” he said, Setswana for lion. The plump, round paw impression, with four ovate toes splayed around the main metacarpal foot pad, was larger than Bahiti’s hand. He pointed out more prints around our tents: “Females with their cubs.” No one seemed surprised that we hadn’t heard the animals while we slept. They could have been watching us that morning, camouflaged in the thigh-high grasses or shaded under the dry shrubs surrounding our campsite. I felt electric twinges travel from my armpits through my pinky fingers.

I remembered the standard precautions I learned from a wildlife biologist friend the first time I visited Africa: stick to open areas for maximum visibility. Never turn your back on a lion. And above all, don’t run.

None of the men on my team admitted that they were afraid of lions. But their faces, from visibly anxious to nearly terrified, gave them away. I watched as they looked over their shoulders and scanned the perimeter. Mmoloki, our general logistics manager from Botswana, slept locked in the team’s Toyota pickup truck every night. Glyn, also from Bots and head of the loose research team, revealed his own worry in warnings to others, “Right-o then, everyone stay alert. Keep away from the tall grass and no wandering off.” All of us had enough experience around lions to know this. I’d been a professional wildlife advocate for almost twenty years and, while I spent most of my time in an office, I typically fled the States for the field once or twice a year—most often in Africa.

I did not wish these men fear or harm; I knew and trusted them. Except for one, who was new to me. Small, surly, and somewhere in his fifties, this fellow white American’s flirtations—already unwelcome—had a hostile edge, and I avoided his eye contact and conversation. He tracked me down during breaks and offered openers like, “If you were my girlfriend …” or “Let’s say you and me were going out … ” I didn’t want to be alone with him. I was used to this kind of crap at home on Denver’s crowded city streets. Here, in a place where I’ve always found refuge, my annoyance was amplified.

I typically travel with my husband Rich, a wildlife biologist, on these kinds of trips. I know that in many ways his presence—and even just men’s awareness of him—has shielded me from the sexism and harassment that many women biologists endure while conducting their own field work. I resent the idea that I need his protection in his spaces, but I can’t say I’m not grateful for the relative freedom it enables—and don’t miss it in situations like this.

So I was grateful that lions were frequenting camp at night, keeping everyone in their tents, peeing in empty beer cans—or like me, holding their bladders until sun up. With lions around, these men—at least for a moment—understood what it’s like to be prey.

* * *

Plenty of animals in the Kalahari can kill you: cobras, black mambas, puff adders, scorpions, bees, leopards, hyenas and, though not common in the game reserve, elephants. But lions hold a special place in the amygdala.

If they choose to attack, lions will mess you up. They are stalk-and-ambush predators. They hide and wait for their prey to get within striking distance, then sprint and strike, clamping their jaws around a victim’s windpipe until it suffocates. Sometimes lions begin dining while their food is still alive. They probably prefer the meatier wildebeest to human, but they will eat people. No one tallies how many of us lions kill across Africa every year, but it’s likely several hundred out of the continent’s population of over one billion people. Such attacks tend to happen near villages, often in crop fields, and at night. (For their part, trophy hunters kill somewhere around 600 African lions annually.) Tanzania keeps records: a bad year in that East African country might mean 140 human deaths by lion. Just enough to frighten us.

The Central Kalahari Game Reserve, one of the largest protected areas in the world, encompasses nearly six Yellowstones but without the bulk-quantity tourists. It’s possibly my favorite place on the planet. When I’m here, I often go for days without seeing anyone but the few members of my team and many wild animals. The game reserve lies within the Kalahari Desert, which isn’t a true desert but a vast arid grassland with shallow open valleys surrounded by acacia trees and scrubby uplands, and lion food on the hoof: gemsbok, kudu, springbok, red hartebeest, giraffe, eland, and wildebeest. Families of cheetah, bat-eared fox, black-backed jackal, honey badger, and African wild dog wander among the ungulate herds. Most animals blend with the vegetative spectrum of browns and greens but a few mega-chromatic birds streak brilliance across the earth tones: crimson-breasted shrikes and lilac-breasted rollers. Thousands of red-billed quelea may flock up and form murmurations that undulate through the sky like single organisms, solitary black dancing spirits. Hints of a peppery aromatic sage infuse the air. When the trucks’ engines are silent, birds, crickets, and the breeze create the soundtrack.

The boundless landscape—unscarred by paved roads—offers infinite space, luminous sunsets free from the right angles and straight edges of human infrastructure, and dark night skies untainted by artificial light. The game reserve is completely unlike Denver, where the metro area human population runs over three million—more than all of Botswana, which holds just over two million people and is geographically almost the size of Texas.

I live with my husband in Denver proper, about three miles east of the state capitol and half a block south of the famous Colfax Avenue. The longest commercial street in the US, Colfax buzzes with vehicles, pedestrians, skateboarders, and the occasional unicyclist and is made up of small, local businesses interspersed with Taco Bells and Pizza Huts. Within a half-mile of our house there is a gun shop, six head shops, six pot shops, five tattoo parlors, a gym devoted to mixed martial arts training, a bunch of bars—including one that advertises a 7am happy hour—and a roving market for drugs and blow jobs. There’s also a new ice cream parlor and a yoga studio. Engine exhaust and cheap fast food overpower the chalky smell of pavement. I love this loud and lively road but it comes with headaches. Strangers who pass me on the sidewalk catcall and order me to smile. Since I moved here eighteen years ago, the police have put our block on lock-down multiple times, with SWAT and police sharp-shooters swarming our street, usually to chase down men high on meth and toting guns.

One night, years ago, as I walked the mile home from a friend’s house, men kept stopping their cars along my route to proposition me for sex. After car number three, I kept count: thirteen by the time I reached my house. My bulky sweatpants, flip-flops, and lack of reaction did nothing to thwart the unwanted attention. A few solicitations turned aggressive. One man followed me for two blocks in his car, yelling through his rolled-down window, “Hey baby, let me have some of that.” I ignored him. He persisted. “Come on, give me some sugar,” he said, and then a final, “Fuck you, bitch!” before peeling off.

On another day, I didn’t notice my unwelcome follower at first. I was on crutches, healing from hip surgery and in pain. That day, I insisted on taking the bus home from physical therapy to enable my care-taking husband to get back to work after two weeks of bringing me icepacks, soup, and Percocet. My drug fog, the rush-hour chaos of the Bus 15, and my fear of slipping on ice were compound distractions. I hobbled off the bus and crutched my way toward home. The footsteps behind me grew faster and louder, then quieted as he approached. His breath at my back. I stopped. I couldn’t run. I knew I would have to scream, maybe fight. But as soon as I turned to face him, he bolted. Once I was safe at home, I paced on my crutches for an hour to burn off the adrenaline, anger, and the feeling that I escaped something bad.

Women can choose from an array of precautions aimed at warding off the predators in their everyday lives, wisdom passed down from mothers or picked up from friends or distributed through public service materials: survey your surroundings, stay alert, carry a flashlight, consider the flashlight a handy weapon, consider your purse a weapon, clench keys in fist and go for the eyes, go for the testicles, yell, beg, negotiate, carry cab fare, get a whistle, get mace, lock all doors (one-inch deadbolts) and bar the windows, get a home security system, get a big dog, take self-defense classes, stay in groups of trusted friends, have a buddy system, watch your drinks closely, don’t drink too much, don’t give out your number, say you have a boyfriend, say you have a husband, say you have herpes, say no, scream no, know when to run. There are so many possibilities to anticipate and take responsibility for, and so many decisions to make—all of them flawed and infuriating—about how to attempt to stay safe among members of our species, who should be more evolved.

I would rather be killed by a lion than by a man. When lions attack, it’s not personal. You’re either food or a perceived threat, and there’s nothing more to it—no basis in psychopathology or hatred or jealousy, no motivation to manipulate, no “mommy issues,” no rejection of moral standards, no intra-species betrayal. Lions are guileless. We accept that they are killers.

* * *

Distinguishing who presents a danger can be difficult, even among the familiar.

Steve was my boyfriend during my sophomore year in high school. Everyone liked Steve. He was a literal Eagle Scout. He made polite, sincere small talk with my parents before our dates. Several years passed before I could acknowledge that he raped me.

I had been looking forward to making love with Steve, eventually. But not that evening, not in the woods behind his house in the fort he built with his father when he was a boy, and on top of a dirty Boy Scout sleeping bag—not for my first time. I thought we went there just to kiss. I don’t remember how my shorts and underwear ended up at my ankles or how I ended up on my back. I remember saying “wait” and “stop” and “no” and pushing his shoulders to let me up. He didn’t stop. When my mother asked if I had a nice time on our date, I lied and said “yes” and convinced myself that it was love. I stuck with Steve until my family moved away a month later, and stuck with that explanation through most of college.

Five years after the fort incident, Steve drove two and a half hours from the University of Pittsburgh and showed up at the apartment where I lived during my senior year at Penn State. He said he wanted to take me out for drinks to catch up and maybe see a band. His arrival made me uncomfortable, but I was curious to see what kind of man he was becoming. I agreed to have one drink, and went to change my clothes while he chatted with my roommates. I hadn’t gotten the sense those two women liked me much, but they pulled me into my bedroom just before as I was about to leave. One of them put her hand on my shoulder and whispered, “Steve said he’s going to get you wasted and have his way with you.” The other grabbed my wrist and said, “Don’t go with him. Stay here with us.” I’d never seen those two party-girl slackers looking and sounding so serious. I told them I would be fine and let Steve lead me away.

But once he stepped through the doorway, I pulled back and I locked the deadbolt behind him. One of the women put a beer in my hand and the other ordered pizza, and they kept me company while I let the depressing truth about Steve and his violation, his betrayal, sink in. After the incident, I started learning judo. What weakness did he see in me that made him think I was easy prey?

* * *

On day seven, the research team broke camp, heaping the pickup with tents and bedrolls, and we headed out in the trucks to search for lions and move on to our next site. I took my place in the back middle seat of the Land Rover. After awhile, we came upon a group of male and female cats shaded under an acacia grove and stopped, giving them a buffer of about fifteen feet. Several animals raised their heads in lackadaisical acknowledgement and returned to rest. Two licked each other’s faces while five napped and cuddled in a lazy aggregate of tawny fur, hardly looking like bloodthirsty beasts. We kept our limbs in the truck and our voices quiet, careful not to make the animals nervous or risk provoking an attack.

From a research perspective, having so many lions around was excellent: one of our main jobs involved fitting a few cats with GPS tracking collars so Kevin could follow their movements and monitor whether they were leaving the reserve in search of food. The game reserve prohibits hunting but, outside its boundaries, lions can run into trouble with herders and commercial livestock producers who poison and shoot predators to prevent them from feeding on domestic goats, cattle, and horses, or in retaliation for killing their animals.

In the last 100 years, the African lion population has plummeted from about 200,000 to 20,000—and that decline is accelerating. Within forty years, they could be extinct. The species is doing a bit better in southern Africa than in other parts of the continent, but lions also face trophy hunting, disease, and habitat loss from farming and urbanization.

We spotted a male lying alone under a tree about thirty feet from the rest of the pride. He was posing on his belly, head and shoulders propped on his forelegs, imperial with his black and tan mane. He had a few scars on his face, most likely from territorial skirmishes with other males, but otherwise he looked healthy, a few years old and a good candidate for a GPS collar. Our trucks formed a wall between him and his pride mates. The veterinarian prepared the tranquilizer dart gun. The rest of us readied for our roles, whispering about how we would work together once the lion was fully anesthetized. A slight tension hovered in the atmosphere, and some quiet fear. That fear was healthy: darting a lion is serious business. The darted animal might react poorly to the sedative, or attack us if shot with an insufficient dose. The lion might be threatened by pride members strategizing to move up in the group hierarchy, ready to seize on a moment of weakness. Other lions, agitated by our presence, might charge. I climbed through the open sunroof of the Land Rover to take my position up top where I watched the other lions. I was assisting on this project; for now, my job entailed alerting the driver if any lions approached. Revving the engine usually keeps curious cats away. If revving fails, driving toward the animals will make them back away but also adds stress that we wanted to avoid.

We were about to be in full control of the imposing creature lying unaware before us. I felt uneasy at the sense that we were stealing some of his wildness. We meant well. Ultimately, our work was aimed at mitigating the local human-lion conflicts that left so many lions dead. I supported that mission. But I found myself wondering if the men around me shared my concern: Did it sadden them that we were about to perpetrate an assault, an act of sheer dominance? If so, they didn’t show it. Just a few hours after the act, we would divvy up the last bit of ice for gin and tonics and pass around warmish beers and gaze at another spectacular sunset and laugh at stories of our adventures in the African bush—just another day at the office. We wouldn’t talk about the lion.

The vet took aim. Relaxed, our cat suspected nothing. I heard the pop of the gun, more like the release of a champagne cork than rifle fire. The dart with a fluorescent pink tassel at its end stuck out of the lion’s rump. A clean shot embedded in the muscle. The lion roared and stood in shock for a few seconds before taking a few clumsy steps and falling to his side in slow motion as each leg weakened under his bulk. The team got to work. Kevin attached the leather collar around the neck—tight enough to stay put, loose enough so it didn’t affect the cat’s breathing. The collar bore the GPS transmitter encased in a protective plastic case, about the size of three cigarette packs stacked together, that would allow Kevin to track the lion remotely from his computer. Others on the team checked vitals: heartbeat, respiration, body temperature. The vet collected a blood sample to test for diseases and monitored the lion’s level of consciousness, keeping more drugs close at hand in case our victim stirred. When we finished, he would administer another drug to reverse the tranquilizer’s effects, and then make a hasty retreat to a vehicle before the lion woke up.

With the collaring in progress, Mmoloki switched places with me so I could take photographs and he could get farther away from the lion. I snapped a bunch of action shots of the men laboring around the stilled cat and then let the camera dangle around my neck. I squatted by the gigantic head and exploited the opportunity to run my fingers through the animal’s mane. The coarse fur had ensnared some burrs and small twigs. A faint maroon tinted his muzzle. Blood. The pride had made a recent kill. Somewhere, perhaps not far from us, a wake of vultures was certainly gorging on what remained of the carcass, fighting with the jackals and with one another for each sinewy scrap.

I marveled at the lion’s long, pointed canines—just slightly worn down from crunching through bones of his many prey—teeth masterfully tooled to pierce through flesh and tear it from bodies. I rubbed the distended belly, full up with raw meat. His thin coat was smooth but not at all soft. I knelt at his backside to stroke his thigh and ran my fingertips along the impressively defined striations of the fast-twitch muscles. Conscious of the latent danger pulsing within him, I found it oddly soothing.

His claws were retracted and the pads of his forepaw felt like sandpaper. I held the paw between both my hands as if we were intimates.

Lauren McCain

Lauren McCain is a wildlife and wildlands conservation advocate based in Denver, Colorado. Her work and writing explore the relationships between animals and humans and their shared habitats.

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