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October 2010: Lion cub and father meet for the first time, Kenya

From the Photographer

Suzi Eszterhas  

While living in a bush camp in Kenya's Masai Mara for nearly four years, I spent a few months photographing a lion pride. It was an amazing project. By following them every day from sunrise to sunset, I got to know the different pride members pretty well.

For me, the stars of the show were not the handsome, majestic males, nor the very elegant females, but the pride's adorable newborn cubs.

I first found the cubs when they were about two weeks old. At that time their mother was still keeping them in a den and I spent many long days watching the cubs play and grow in the safety of their mother's watchful eye, hidden away from the many dangers of the plains outside.

Hanging out with lions can be slow, to say the least. On an average day, they spend about 21 hours sleeping. I spent a lot time reading. But, by spending so much time in their company, I was able to capture some incredible, unique moments, such as one of the newborn cubs meeting his father for the first time.

A lion mother keeps her newborns tucked away in a den for the first 6-8 weeks of their lives. But eventually her adventurous cubs become desperate to leave the den and try to follow her when she leaves to go out hunting or to socialize with fellow pride members.

For weeks, a mother will growl at her cubs to make them stay in the den, but as the cubs grow stronger and more mischievous every day, the mother's feat becomes more and more difficult. And then one day, it seems that she just gives up. And that brings a pinnacle moment in a baby lion's life.

Meeting the rest of the pride for the first time can be a bit intimidating. New faces and the excitement of being outside the den are overwhelming. But meeting your absolutely enormous lion father for the first time is downright scary.

This brave little cub pictured in the photo stared at his father with huge eyes and then slowly approached. The father watched with curious eyes as the cub, with a tentative paw in the air, completed the meeting with a soft nose touch and a playful growl.

Sadly, the future for this lion cub is uncertain. It's easy to return from an African safari and think that there are plenty of lions in Africa. But the truth of the matter is that the lions we see on safari are literally the only ones left.

Twenty years ago there were about 200,000 lions throughout Africa. Now, there are about 20,000, all of which live in fragments of protected habitat in national parks. Outside the parks, they have virtually disappeared. Through habitat loss, prey loss, poisoning and hunting, lions are disappearing before our eyes.

The Nature Conservancy in Africa seeks to preserve key wildlife corridors that link established protected areas while maintaining the pastoralist way of life. With a strong network of partners, the Conservancy is working to conserve Kenya's forest reserves, national parks, communal lands and private ranches for the wildlife and people that rely on them.

Suzi Eszterhas spends nine months of the year photographing a wide variety of wildlife in the field. In recent years, she has specialized in documenting family life and has become well known for her unprecedented work with newborn animals. See more of her photos at www.suzieszterhas.com


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