Stuck. Part 1.

Stuck. Surrounded by lions. Please come.

This is not a text message that you’d necessarily expect to get on your cell phone…unless you work as a lion researcher in the Serengeti like Ali does.  Receiving this text in the early afternoon, she takes the news in stride as a necessary task that needed to be finished before dark. I on the other hand, as a visitor, am charged up and nonplussed with the drama of it all. George, one of the field research assistants on a lion tracking expedition, obviously needs help and pronto, so we are on our way out within a few minutes. In the wild Serengeti, a few minutes can separate success from tragedy — the research team has an exceptional awareness of this and also the discipline to do what it needs to be done in a methodical and prompt manner as Ali is demonstrating to me at this moment.

We track George and his land rover down just like we do lions. Each rover is outfitted with the same tracking unit that is on the collar of each radio-tracked lioness. So we chase the rover’s signature signal deep into the southern range, driving on the dirt roads as fast as we can safely afford. As the day draws towards a close, the animals become restless. Elephants trumpet in the distance. A serval — a beautiful African wild cat one doesn’t see everyday– trots across the road and disappears in the brush. Normally such a sighting would warrant an immediate stop, but not today.

Finally, we go as far as the roads can take us and we must venture in the unmarked grassy plains that are a minefield of axle-breaking holes and mud-traps. Driving off road is risky business in the daytime –as George was just reminded of — and completely a fool’s errand in the nighttime. Ali looks for the tell-tale signs in grass patch coloration that indicate a possible hole as she swerves deftly through the treacherous terrain in a labored crawl.

Finally on the horizon, we sight George and his rover axle deep in a seemingly stable area. The dry cracked surface, however, masks a vast mud hole created by the recent rains. This is the worst kind of environmental trap  that even a seasoned veteran like George can fall prey too. With a lighthearted smile that belies any frustration, George explains how he tracked a pride of lions into this area and was surprised by the sudden drop into the mud. Luckily, our rover remains in the solid area just short of George’s rover. We check the area and see that the lions have moved off to a series of small mesas to the north. It’s safe enough to exit the vehicles as long as one of us keeps a 360 degree lookout.

How we found George.

How we found George.

Our cellphones at that point record no bars, so as Ali readies a tow line, she inquires how George was able to get a message out.

The calm exterior and wry banter of every lion researcher I’ve met is always the counterpoint to the fierce passion and iron discipline at their core. George is all smiles and laughs a bit as he recounts the sinking feeling he had when he saw that he had no bars on his cellphone and lions surrounding three sides of the vehicle. A thickly maned adult male lion stood watch right outside the drivers side as if he sensed George’s desperation.

A good scientist, when faced with a problem, puts together an experiment to test its boundaries. Perhaps the cell phone could be made to transmit somehow? As George raised his hand up and out of the vehicle he noticed to a single bar flicker on and off. This observation made him hatch a plan that he reflected on as he eyed the attentive dark-maned sentinel waiting outside along with the multiple groups of lionesses and cubs surrounding him.

The day was not going to get any longer so George, did exactly what he contemplated: he composed his terse message on his phone, climbed out the window onto the roof rack, and jumped up several times pressing the send key until the signal caught and the phone indicated the message was sent. Then he waited for the animals realize that he was still out of their range and relax back down to their lazy poses and before slipping back into the car to await rescue.
By the end of the story, the tow cable is fastened and mud traction ladders are in position under the rear wheels of the rover. Ali is ready to begin the first effort to pull the car. The gears lock in, the engine strains, the wheels spin, and…Georges car slips off of the ladders and deeper into the mud.

Step 1. Let's see if we can tow George out...

Step 1. Let’s see if we can tow George out…

To be continued

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About ali swanson

I'm an ecologist studying how large carnivores coexist. I spend way too much of my time trying to stop hyenas and elephants from munching my camera traps!

4 responses to “Stuck. Part 1.”

  1. StephanieF says :

    I lived in the Serengeti when I was 5 (my dad was a researcher), back in the mid-70s, and I just had a total mental paradigm shift with the realization that you can get *cell signal* in the *Serengeti*! (Back in the dark ages, there was one shortwave radio that several families shared!)

  2. telophase says :

    I lived in the Serengeti when I was 5 (my dad was a researcher) back in the 70s, and I just had a total mental paradigm shift as I realized that now you can get *cell signal* in the *Serengeti*.

    Back in the dark ages, there was one shortwave radio that was shared between a few families on the research station!

  3. telophase says :

    (Hah–I managed to rewrite the comment after problems with logging in to WordPress, which seemed to erase it without telling me it had gone to moderation, like it’s supposed to!)

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  1. Stuck. Part 2. | Snapshot Serengeti - June 26, 2013

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