Lion Photograph Essay: Africa's Magnificent Predators

Over at Edge, they have posted a marvelous photo essay on lions by Nathan Myhrvold, titled, Lions: Africa's Magnificent Predators.
Here is a small sample:










Females, on the other hand are sleek efficient hunters. They must kill most of the prey, which is very dangerous work. I saw three lionesses that had each lost an eye. One, which the guides call Silver Eye is the most aggressive hunter in her pride. In another area we saw a lioness dubbed "Evil Eye" who had a similar but much more recent eye problem. The eye was still swollen, giving her a demonic look, a bit like villains in Japanese Anime. I also saw a lioness which had lost her eye in the last couple days—the socket was still oozing blood. Each of the lionesses had lost their right eye, which suggests to me that lions might be right handed—technically this is called laterality. Presumably right favoring lions would approach prey preferentially from the right, leading to more right side injuries. Of course, a sample size of three is too small to make a firm conclusion.

Often the buffalo just shrugs the lions off, and that is that. However if the buffalo falls down, things get much more serious. Some cats kill instantly with a bite that dislocates cervical vertebrae, severing the spinal cord—for example, cougars in the US. This is not the case for lions, they are stranglers or suffocators. They either bite the underside of the neck to collapse the trachea. Or they put their entire mouth over the prey animal's nose. Either way it is a relatively slow suffocation that kills the animal. This can take 30 minutes, or even an hour for a buffalo because they can't get enough pressure on the huge buffalo neck to close it all the way, or can't get a good seal on the nose. This is not the quick merciful picture that one sees in nature documentaries. If the buffalo gets up during that period he or she may get away with only some minor mauling.

What a human being must wonder is about theodicy - the problem of evil in the world. If God is alleged to be good, then why waste so much and allow so much pain? An hour of suffocation with teeth in one's throat? This sounds much like Dawkins' (albeit not joyful) proclamation that:
We cannot admit that things might be neither cruel nor kind but simply callous - indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.

I don't think that "lacking all purpose" sums up the lion's point of view very well for, as Dawkins knows, the lion pursues its prey to increase its fitness as the amoeba consumes the galena to improve its fitness. But the suffering entailed in either is neither here not there. It is part and parcel of the movement of life on our small planet. Our subjective sense of cruelty (useful as it is) will be constantly affronted by the death and suffering of Cape Buffalo, baby Gray Whales, and Harp Seals.
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All in all, this is an amazing piece. The pictures capture that which we inherently despise and admire about "nature": its red tooth and claw...its indifference (to paraphrase some). But it also captures the evolved beauty with which lions move and also their profligate nastiness. Strangely, when I look at my cat Floyd...


...though far-removed from lions, I see his feline predatory instinct and wonder, even hope, that he still wishes to kill as a lion would. His eyes, though small and domesticated, watch the squirrels and chipmunks outside of our backdoor and wish that they could follow the tether of his eyesight to play and natter with the rodents. He wishes that his mouth could be coated in the blood of some furry scrap that had all of the ability to hide while he sought and yet could never escape his grasp. How my cat wishes he were a lion. Or perhaps, I wish that he wishes he were a lion.

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