In the desert – the mighty Namib desert – the lion slipped behind the village donkeys while we slept in comfortable beds at a nearby lodge where whistles were placed on the nightstands in case danger came stalking. The day before, I had seen two tribal members ride the same donkeys in the distance as I played with the Himba children with sticks and a small melon ball.
Living in the largest desert in the world comes with a cost. Sometimes that cost is a donkey or a cow claimed by the region’s predators who often size up meals based on energy savings. A donkey can be a one-lion job. It can take up to 25 lions to take down an elephant.
“The lion is probably one of the most laziest animals, and he’s also a big opportunist,” said my guide Regan. “He watches the village and waits for an easy meal.”
By now, the people living in the Purros area and beyond both respected and feared Namibia’s most well-traveled lion. The Terrace Male – Xpl-68 – made a legend for himself by roaming hundreds of kilometers and crossing the Kunene River from Namibia into Angola where he spent two weeks before crossing the river again to return to Namibia. His home range covered a remarkable 40,081 square miles from Brandberg to the Ugab River to Baia Dos Tigress in Angoloa. His ramblings caught the attention of the Desert Lion Project in 2012.
Fitted with a radio collar to help researchers better understand his nomadic ways, the Terrace Male seemed born to roam. Remote cameras captured much of his movement, and photographs of him lounging atop a dune along with a map following his journey earned the lion a cult following.
Desert Lion Project report: 13 Aug 2012. Extraordinary Xpl-68. The sudden movement of the Huab Male (Xpl-68) from the Huab River to the Uniab River was unusual and totally unexpected. But, his movements during the past 24 hours have been even more surprising. At 21h00 on 11 Aug 2012, after feeding on the Oryx, he continued moving north along the dune-belt towards the Hunkap River. During the midday heat, he rested in the Karugaiseb River and continued again at 17h00. By 05h00 this morning, he was in the Hunkap River, after walking 54.8 kilometres.
I longed to meet this rogue rambler who wandered across south Africa on a one-lion mission that surprised researchers and captivated a country. As we followed the elephants searching for water and watched giraffes rubberneck their way into trees, I scoured the tawny landscape for the flick of a brown tail in the sparse grass. I strained to hear a bellow beyond the snorts of the donkeys drinking river water caught in the footprints of the elephants.
I came up empty-hearted.
The Terrace Male likely watched our photographic antics from a shadowed place. On the morning of May 6 while we sipped coffee from one of Namibia’s most remote lodges, Xpl-68 tried to snag a donkey for breakfast in the same area where children were walking to a nearby school. Whether the lion failed to get a good grip or simply injured the animal with plans to return for the kill the next day can’t be known.
What was clear is that this was one lucky ass.
The smaller donkey sustained no injuries but seemed determined to stand guard in the open coral located in the center of the Himba settlement. The incident excited the children and concerned the adults who discussed plans with local officials to move the women and children into Purros where huts included doors. Everyone expected the lion to return in the night. The Purros lion rangers ( Collin, Bertus and Kooti) were dispatched, and we were invited to tag along in our jeeps.
“We must go now,” our guide said. “It will be dark soon, and he will have vanished.”
It wasn’t the Purros lion rangers’ first rodeo. Just weeks earlier, they resorted to drastic measures to scare the Terrace Male out of the area:
Desert Lion Project report: 15 Apr 2014. Desperate Tactics. The use of fireworks and flares to disturb and chase the “Terrace Male” (Xpl-68) away from the problem area north of Purros was only partially successful. It was the use of heavy rock music, especially tracks with a strong high-pitched voice component (such as songs by AC/DC, Deep Purple & Led Zeppelin) played at full volume (±4,500 Watt peak power) through the sound system that caused the lion to vacate the area. Even though care was taken to “hide” the research vehicle behind thick vegetation when the music was played, there is little doubt that the “Terrace Male” will associate the disturbance with the research vehicle. This will limit future opportunities of observing and following the lion. These desperate measures are unfortunately required because if the “Terrace Male” remains in the area he will be shot or poisoned.
The risk to local villagers balanced against the survival of a famous predator caused everyone to be on edge. I saw it on the faces of the rangers as we followed them across the thick sand in search of a lion with such tenacity and endurance that it felt as if we were searching for a mythical creature. The rangers do not carry guns so I was unclear what would happen if we found him. Later I learned the hope was to locate and possibly tranquilize him so that he could be moved to a safer location. Up in the main village, the Himba began moving in with their neighbors for the night. Arrangements were made to transport the children via trucks to school.
We never found Terrace Male although we wore circles into the sand stalking him. Split into three groups, we rolled down our windows and leaned out to hear whatever we assumed might be the sound of an unsatisfied lion. As the night closed tight upon our hope, we drove back to the lodge to a satisfying meal and deep glasses of gin. Walking toward our huts, we joked about dear Terrace laughing at our wild lion chase.
I wanted to dream of lions that night, but even that eluded me.
Desert Lion Project: Saving “Terrace”. The wanderings of the “Terrace Male” (Xpl-68) across the harshest sections of the northern Namib Desert during the past 2.6 years have been nothing short of remarkable. But, it was his voyage into Angola, where he swam across the Kunene River, that captured the imagination of the public and he has become somewhat of an icon, which has arguably benefitted wildlife conservation and tourism in Namibia. Unfortunately, his recent visits to Purros have taken him into harms way. Management efforts to deter him from the area have failed when he returned to the settlement for the third time two nights ago. With the invaluable support of Wilderness Safaris (Emsie, Gerhard, Bertus & Jannes), the Purros Lion Rangers (Collin, Bertus & Kooti), Purros Conservancy (Hiskia) and Okahirongo Elephant Lodge (Pollen & Pieter) a desperate effort was made today to scare Xpl-68 away from the Purros Settlement using fireworks and flares. Due to the extensive rains most of the wildlife have vacated the areas that Xpl-68 utilised during the past 2 years and he has presumably been attracted to Purros because of the donkeys that occupy the river habitat. Hopes are that the disturbance will cause him to leave.
We thought about Terrace Male throughout the rest of what would become a 3,423-kilometer journey across Namibia. Our guide, Jason, has close ties to the project and gave us a few updates including a sighting near where we’d photographed elephants earlier in the trip. Terrace Male weaved in and out of populated areas then slipped high into the dunes where he wouldn’t be spotted for days. Eventually, the people of Purros relaxed back into their routines. Children walked to school. The men returned to herd cattle toward more fertile grass. The women watched over the villages and welcomed the slow trickle of tourists who now help supplement family income through organized cultural tours and craft sales.
Traveling through Namibia and on the long journey back home, I thought about Xpl-68. Had he reached the Hoanib river? Were the oryx, his main food source, plentiful? Had he found the floodplain lionesses?
On days when the Oklahoma summer and a slight case of writer’s block wore me down, I went into my office and read about Terrace’s wandering ways. In late June, cameras captured him hunting giraffe and oryx. On July 7, the lion’s impatient wandering moved him toward Okongwe as the sun blazed orange across the empty desert. If he had only lingered, he would have reunited with the floodplain lionesses who arrived just after midnight. Once again, he was late to the party.
By morning, the lonely bachelor circled back to his old chomping ground near Purros. The next day, he walked 60 kilometers and eventually ended up at the same location. It was assumed that he killed another donkey in the early morning. I hoped it didn’t belong to Uazapi or her family.
For much of July, the Terrace Male moved through the nights in what researchers worried was a “suicide mission” as he journeyed through areas populated with people and large cattle posts. A quad-copter was used to pinpoint his location in hopes of deterring loss of livestock. Every time he changed direction and stayed in the same position for hours, the researchers hoped he had located a prey animal instead.
Things heated up on July 13:
13 Jul 2014. Gomatum River. The “Terrace Male” (Xpl-68) started moving at dark and reached the Gomatum River at midnight. He then followed the Gomatum valley in an easterly direction. This was fortunate since the route took him away from a large cattle post south of Purros, but also concerning because he walked past the place where Xpl-73 “Rosh” was shot two weeks ago and towards Tomakas where there are large numbers of livestock.
14 Jul 2014. Necessary Action. At sunset the “Terrace Male” (Xpl-68) came out of the narrow gorge where he spent the day and headed along the Gomatum River straight towards Tomakas village. An anthropomorphic, but all too realistic, view of a “suicide mission” seems appropriate to describe the behaviour and movement patterns of Xpl-68 during the past week. For reasons of human-lion conflict, public safety in the Purros area, and the survival of the “Terrace Male”, it was decided to relocate him to the Hoanib Floodplain. After a seven-hour drive Xpl-68 was released near the Floodplain in a thick blanket of fog at 05h40 this morning. By 06h50 he had recovered sufficiently to start feeding on a springbok carcass. The “Terrace Male” was immobilised less than 200 metres from the place where Xpl-73 “Rosh” was shot.
The lion’s dance with danger carried me through the summer unlike any suspense novel I’ve ever read. A camera trap caught him moving toward the lionesses in early August. Their love songs could be heard roaring across the desert night. On Aug. 14, he killed a zebra, and I felt relieved for both Terrace and the donkeys. But he kept going back toward Purros.
“Damn you, Terrace. Get it together,” I heard myself say one blistering Oklahoma afternoon. I blamed his wayward ways for my foul mood as I grabbed a beer and headed to the pool when I should have been writing. As I floated in the cool water, I thought about the bird’s-eye view of the Namib desert that I’d seen from a hot air balloon. Even then, we had scoured the sands for signs of desert lions.
At 12:33 p.m. on August 24, Terrace Male’s satellite collar stopped transmitting. It was hoped that he followed the floodplain lionesses into the narrow gorges of the northern Okongwe Mountains. The cliffhanger news left me anxious as I burned up the internet searching for the next chapter of what had become one of the most nail-biting summer mystery reads of my life.
Desert Lion Project report: 26 Aug 2014. Concern for “Terrace Male”. The satellite collar of the “Terrace Male” (Xpl-68) is still not transmitting any new information. Although the Okongwe lionesses moved deeper into the mountains there is real concern as to why the satellite collar of Xpl-68 suddenly stopped working. Two vehicles are currently en route to his last location to investigate the cause of the problem. The Floodplain Pride spent the day at Oasis spring and then moved 15 km southwards during the night.
Left hanging for at least 24 hours until the next report, I tried to satisfy my carnivore itch by working on cheetah and leopard photographs taken at a game reserve where my traveling partner, France, and I nearly bared our teeth at a German tour guide who positioned his clients and their iPads in front of our cameras. We had tracked the cheetahs and their radio-collar signals on foot, but when we found them stretched out in the sun, they weren’t impressed with us.
The photos left me feeling empty. I liked the action of the zebras photographed horsing around in the wild but found myself thinking, “What a tasty meal you would make for dear Terrace.”
And then the wait and the romance was over.
Desert Lion Project report: 27 Aug 2014. The Terrace Male is Dead. The Desert Lion Project is sad to report that the “Terrace Male” (Xpl-68) was killed near Tomakas village sometime after midday on 24 Aug 2014. Xpl-68 was with the Okongwe lionesses when the incident occurred. Data from their satellite collars show that the Okongwe females immediately moved into the northern Okongwe Mountains – possibly due to the disturbance caused by the killing of Xpl-68. Furthermore, the satellite collar of Xpl-68 was removed and burnt. The charred remains of the satellite collar were located +-100 metres north of the carcass. It would appear that the people responsible for killing the “Terrace Male” wanted to hide the evidence. This is an unfortunate development because the incident could stimulate a public outcry that may question many fundamental aspects of the conservation, communal conservancy and tourism efforts in the Region.
28 Aug 2014. Information on Xpl-68. The day was spent reconstructing the events that unfolded during the killing of the “Terrace Male” (Xpl-68) by systematically following the tracks of the lion and other related activities. An autopsy was also performed on the decomposed carcass of Xpl-68. The conclusion is that the lion was shot and that he died quickly after a bullet entered his heart. A detailed analysis of the findings and a summary of all the data collected on Xpl-68 will be compiled and presented to the local authorities and to the Ministry of Environment & Tourism.
1 Oct 2014. Explanation. The death of the “Terrace Male” (Xpl-68) on 24 Aug 2014 generated a lot of reaction from the general public and the local authorities. Unfortunately the incident also stimulated polarised viewpoints and criticism between the various parties involved. The Desert Lion Project have accepted the criticism against the research project, such as poor communications and the need to provide the Ministry of Environment & Tourism with preferential information, especially during key events such as the shooting of Xpl-68. As a sign of our commitment and willingness to work closely with the Ministry of Environment & Tourism and the communal conservancies, we have honoured the process by not posting regular website updates until such time as the official research permit conditions have been issued.
In the desert – the vast and lonely Namib desert – a legendary lion roams no more.