African lions are the top predator in any habitat they occupy. So coming eye-to-eye with a dominant male in the wild is, needless to say, an intense experience.
My whole body trembled as I took this image during a conservation trip with Panthera.
Before coming to Zambia’s Kafue National Park, I was told that I may not even see a lion firsthand. Mentally, I was prepared for that, especially considering that this was the norm for most of my Panthera trips. Hopefully I would at least get a picture using camera traps.
When Panthera biologist Xia Stevens, a park scout and I drove to check a camera trap we had set up the week before, we came upon this male lion, his brother, and one lioness. He was calm, relaxed, basking in the rising sun.
We watched from a distance, inside our car. As he showed no signs of being disturbed, we crept closer, always watching for any indication that our presence was negatively impacting the pride.
Being top dog — or, better yet, top cat — comes with a certain confidence. The large, muscular cats couldn’t have cared less about us. We inched forward, until we were less than 10 yards away. My window was rolled down only so far as to let my lens stick out.
As I looked through the camera’s viewfinder, the rest of the world fell away. It was just the lion and me. He slowly turned his head, allowing our eyes to meet. His stare was piercing: I felt that he wasn't looking at me, but into me.
I started to shake. I was sharing an extremely intimate moment with a 400-pound predator. My heart was racing. I felt respect, admiration, and — yes — some fear. It’s a moment I will never forget.
He blinked and turned his head toward the morning sun. The moment had passed. Over the radio, we got word of a sub-adult cheetah trio that had not been seen for months, one of which Panthera wanted to collar. From one exhilarating experience to the next.