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Looking Up To Lions in Chartlottesville

Michael Nichols' bio look3.org
Credit Michael Nichols' bio look3.org
National Geographic photographer Michael Nichols

The Festival of the Photograph is underway in Charlottesville with a preview of one of the most dramatic projects undertaken by National Geographic.  Three residents of Albemarle County spent 18 months recording the lives of lions in the Serengeti and came within inches of the big cats and made surprising discoveries.

The Haven is an old church in Charlottesville, that’s been converted to a community center, and this month it’s occupied by frightening sights and sounds. The work of local photographer Michael Nichols, his naturalist wife Reba Peck and videographer Nathan Williamson is on display - the product of 18 months in Tanzania, where they documented the lives of Serengeti lions.  They used robots at first - so the lions got used to small vehicles being around - and then they used a specially modified vehicle to get super close.

“We could drive it right into where they were sleeping, and whenever they woke up and started licking and socializing, because a big part of this was to talk about how social they are and why they’re social.”

Too often, Nichols says, the king of beasts is photographed from a place of safety - above these powerful animals, and that is demeaning.  He was determined to shoot from below - often lying on the floor of his car, sometimes unaware of possible danger.  Once, he says, a female lion came within inches of his camera.

“I was so focused on scene and the moon rising that I couldn’t here Reba and Nathan whispering to me: ‘We have a problem, Nick. We have a problem.’  And she was standing about where you are from me, where she could just walk into the car.”

Fortunately, she stayed out of the car, and Nichols learned - over time - that lions can be easily deterred by the perception of a barrier - even a sheet can discourage them.

Nichols shot 242,000 images of lions, while Williamson recorded two hundred hours of video - and together they uncovered the truth about these wild cats.  Females cooperate extensively in raising their cubs - and the male in each pride does very little.

“He sires the cubs, and it’s his job, because their his genetics, to protect those cubs, because male lions, when they meet female lions, they kill  existing cubs, no matter what the age of them is.  It’s hard to witness this killing .  They definitely don’t eat them, and the females that are fiercely protecting those cubs - the next day they’re mating with the guys that killed their cubs, because they’ll go into esterus immediately, and we saw that play out.”

In spite of their deadly ways, Nichols came to love the big cats and to hope that their habitat can be protected from rapidly growing populations of people around four large areas of wilderness in Africa.

“Those lions should live forever, if we start paying attention.  What we tend to do though is we start to try and protect little pockets.”

He says humans are not normally on the lions’ menu.  Other animals taste better to them, but if we don’t  commit to preserving bigger areas - fencing vast tracts to protect people, we will lose the lions.

“When they get in isolated pockets where there’s not enough prey, and they see how easy humans are to kill, a mom does that.  Her cubs get a taste for human meat, game over.”

The exhibit - called the Short Happy Life of a Serengeti Lion runs through June 29th at the Haven, and in August the photos will appear in National Geographic. 

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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