Then I saw one tiny, yellow, heart-shaped face, and then another, bright as dandelions against the gray rocks. Golden eyes blinked at us.
Mothers often leave their cubs for long stretches to hunt, but this was only the second time in Packer’s long career he’d found an unattended den. Young cubs are almost completely helpless and can starve or be eaten by hyenas if left alone too long. One of the cubs was clearly horrified by our presence and shrank behind its braver sibling, which arranged itself in a princely fashion on the rocks to enjoy these strange, spindly, cringing creatures. The other cub seemed to forget its fear and bit the bold one’s ear. They were perfect fleecy things. Their coats had a faint tiled pattern that would fade away with time.
That night we camped beside the kopje, Swanson and I in the bed of the Land Rover and Packer in a flimsy tent. It wasn’t the most restful evening of my life: in the lion’s last great stronghold, we were outside a mother’s very den.
I kept thinking of the cubs in the crevice. Their mother might return while we slept. I almost hoped she would.
Abigail Tucker, Smithsonian’s staff writer, has covered narwhals, salmon and the link between birds and horseshoe crabs.