The Serengeti Lion
Hildur slumbers undisturbed as a storm crosses the Serengeti Plain. Photo by Michael Nichols.
About the Project
Enter the world of the Vumbi pride. The lions strut and grimace, bare their teeth. One drapes a paw indolently, another nuzzles.
Photographer Michael Nick Nichols and videographer Nathan Williamson were determined to break new visual ground when they made several extended trips to the Serengeti between July 2011 and January 2013. A remote-control toy car and a rugged robot tank gave them an unobtrusive way to make images up close and at low angles. Two cameras were mounted on each device; Nichols controlled one and Williamson the other, a pairing that let the collaborators create a synchronized dance of photo and video. They took their time, letting the pride get used to these little machines. The robot, says Williamson, was made to be sturdy enough to stand up to a lion giving it a swat. It didn t need to be the lions were dignified and just arrogantly ignored it most of the time, he says. Night-vision cameras and goggles were used to capture images of the lions stalking prey. But most of the images and videos here were made using old-fashioned, camera-in-hand technology. Nichols shot 242,000 images and Williamson recorded 200 hours of video, often while lying on the floor of a specially outfitted Land Rover.
In this multimedia presentation Nichols and Williamson re-create the feast and famine of the plains; the purring, bleating, and roaring of these cats; the fragile balance of lion survival. It s only a slight exaggeration to say that Nichols learned to think like a lion, to game their moves, and to photograph them with an intimacy that comes from an undisguised feeling of kinship.
The Short Happy Life of a Serengeti Lion
Death is always near, and teamwork is essential on the Serengeti even for a magnificent, dark-maned male known as C-Boy .
By David Quammen
Photography by Michael Nichols
Living With Lions
Africa s lions may number no more than 35,000. In Kenya a program called Lion Guardians points to a way to save the beleaguered cats.
By David Quammen
Photography by Brent Stirton
Want to Save a Lion?
Lions have disappeared from 80 percent of their African range. Where once they presided over vast ecosystems, now their roars are silenced, their prides dispersed, their fierce grandeur dimming into memory.
The extinction of lions is likely but not inevitable. Preventing it will require action. The National Geographic Society s Big Cats Initiative is dedicated to halting the decline of lions and other big cats around the world. Find out what you can do to support the Big Cats Initiative.
The lion, as I see it now, is going to continue to decline for the foreseeable future, says ecologist Craig Packer, whose considerable expertise guided the work of photographer Michael Nichols and videographer Nathan Williamson. The more we understand about lions, the more likely we ll be able to save them. Packer and his research team at the Serengeti Lion Project have been studying African lions for more than 30 years in one of the longest continuous field studies of any species ever done. Find out how you can support the Serengeti Lion Project.
Photographer, Editor at Large
A National Geographic photographer tells stories with plots that unfold on the biggest stage of all: our planet. In Michael Nick Nichols s stories, the protagonists are elephants, tigers, and chimps, with scientist-conservationists like Jane Goodall, J. Michael Fay, and Iain Douglas-Hamilton in featured roles.
Nichols is a wildlife journalist; his narratives are epics, as when he chronicled Fay s 2,000-mile trek or Megatransect across the Congo and Gabon to document Africa s last untouched wilderness. He came to the magazine with the legacy of a childhood spent in the woods of his native Alabama, reading Tarzan and John Carter of Mars adventures. He knows that the heart of wildness whether in the redwood forests of California or the acacia plains of Kenya must be nurtured and protected. Lions was Nichols s first professional collaboration with his wife of 30 years, naturalist Reba Peck.
Nathan Williamson is a freelancer specializing in remote-camera photography. He graduated magna cum laude from Macalester College in 2000, and received a Fulbright Fellowship the following year to document efforts to curb deforestation in the Bolivian Amazon. His first assignment for National Geographic came in 2003, when he traveled with Nick Nichols and J. Michael Fay to document Gabon s newly created national park system. He has subsequently assisted National Geographic photographers on seven assignments.
Brent Stirton is a senior staff photographer for Reportage by Getty Images, New York. He specializes in documentary work and is known for his alternative approaches.
As journalists we often have to find new ways to tell an old story, he says. I believe in trying to tell that story in the most powerful way I can under the limited circumstance that time brings to any assignment. I am trying to be less concerned with who I am working for and more concerned about what I am doing with my time. This is [a] crucial period in our history on this planet, and I want to feel like I am working on issues that matter beyond the sensationalism of the 24-hour news cycle.
Craig Packer, director of the Lion Research Center and the Distinguished McKnight University Professor at the University of Minnesota, has headed the Serengeti Lion Project since 1978. Born in Texas, he received his undergraduate degree from Stanford in 1972. While there, he went to Tanzania to study baboons with Jane Goodall at the Gombe Stream Research Centre, then completed his Ph.D. research on Gombe baboons at the University of Sussex. In 1990 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 2003 was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of Into Africa and more than a hundred scientific articles, most of which are about lions.
For David Quammen, a contributing writer for National Geographic magazine, finding alpha male C-Boy dead or alive was the priority during his reporting trips to the Serengeti. Quammen is the author of four books of fiction and eight nonfiction titles, including most recently Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. He has been honored with an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and is a three-time recipient of the National Magazine Award. Last year, he received the 2012 Stephen Jay Gould Prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution.