“So this is the guy we’re feeding to the lions?” Dan said with a smile, nodding towards me.
Looking down from the top of the steep bank, the Okavango River was cast sterling by a moon two days shy of full. Hippos splashed and belched below, their silhouettes like oblong boulders in the light-burnished water. A chorus of frogs and insects tinkled and weeped. But nothing could drown out the bellows of the lions, whose roars stayed low—earthbound—as the rest of the din dissipated into the night air.
There were many reasons I felt compelled to cross the globe to camp in Namibia’s remote Caprivi Strip. Some I understood better than others, and some my therapist found more interesting than others, namely those about regret and my dead father. But already, on my first night here, I was finding so much of what I had come for. A world wild enough to eat me. A land where an apex predator freely roars, and isn’t forced to spend its life as a ghost in the shadows.
I learned the word extinct when I was five, maybe six, the day my father gave me a book about the Pleistocene. He was a biologist, and so much of my upbringing was spent squinting through his binoculars as he pointed over my shoulder at a rail skulking through the marsh grass, or kneeling beside him in a tidepool while he used his small folding knife to gently pry a chiton from a rock, its underside a rough tongue against my fingertips. But when he handed me that book, I encountered a different world of animals—one with wooly mammoths and saber-toothed cats and giant beavers as big as grizzly bears.
“Where do they live?” I asked.
“They used to live here,” he said. “But they’re extinct now.”
“It means they’re gone, Sammy. And never coming back.”
Since that day, the lumbering, snorting, tusked, and fanged ghosts of the megafauna that once roamed North America have haunted my imagination. It never seemed possible something so grand could disappear.
As an adult, I’m haunted by a world more recently lost. One that existed only 200 years ago, instead of 200,000. Grizzly bears and gray wolves were once numerous in my home state of California, but both were shot into local extinction shortly after the arrival of European settlers. Mountain lions still prowl here, but they don’t dare announce themselves like the African lions I listened to on the banks of the Okavango River. The lions where I come from have to slink along the edges to keep alive.
Like my father, I too became a biologist. My job is to protect threatened wildlife species at risk from construction projects. Day after day, I witness as more habitat is destroyed and more animals lose their homes—San Francisco garter snakes, snowy plovers, red-legged frogs—inching ever closer to the abyss of extinction. At best, my efforts to help these disappearing animals feels like spreading a thin strip of gauze across a buzzsaw wound. At worst, I feel complicit.
Namibia was the first nation in Africa to write environmental protections into its constitution, resulting in the designation of over 20 percent of its lands as communal conservancies—a system which empowers local communities to establish and maintain their own wildlife populations. This model has been highly successful in helping animal populations rebound while providing revenue for the people who protect them, incentivizing communities to live alongside crop-crushing elephants, cattle-marauding lions, and crocodiles who patiently wait for them to do their washing in the river. As a citizen of the United States, where our national policy seems to be to annihilate first and ask questions later, I found this type of creative cohabitation with animals that can eat and destroy both people and their food sources so foreign I had to go see it for myself.
I was traveling in the Caprivi Strip with a bush guide named Nick Buys, whom I’d met five years earlier on my only other trip to Southern Africa. After originally meeting over email, I was surprised to learn that Nick was as white as I am, descended from Dutch ancestors who arrived on the continent longer ago than even he knows. Nick had the classic look of a white safari man—kempt in khaki, clean-shaven, massively built—the type of guy who says “good afternoon” if you sleep past seven in the morning.
After staying up most of the night listening to the lions, Nick woke me at dawn and we drove east, deeper into the Caprivi—a narrow salient jutting off Namibia’s northeast corner, some 280 miles long and 20 miles wide. Too small to be a panhandle, the Caprivi is more the penny nail from which the rest of the country hangs on a crowded wall of political boundaries—a nail bordered by Botswana to the south and Angola and Zambia to the north.
The reason this strange appendage exists at all is one of the countless remnants of Europe’s bloody colonial rule in Africa. In 1890, when what is now Namibia was known as German South West Africa, the Germans traded Zanzibar to the British in exchange for the Caprivi Strip (as well as the island of Heligoland in the North Sea) to gain access to the Zambezi River, which they planned to use to ship goods up from the Indian Ocean. It wasn’t until after the deal was finalized that the Germans learned their plan had one minor flaw: roughly 150 miles downstream from where they now had a post on the Zambezi was the largest waterfall on the planet—Victoria Falls—making the river about as navigable by boat as Half Dome.
Unlike the rest of Namibia, which is one vast desert, the Caprivi is wet, lush, green—a place where rivers crisscross the land and animals aren’t penned in by park boundaries but move freely across territories that often have them stepping over multiple international borders in a single day.
The first time I met Nick he told me the Caprivi Strip was his favorite place to search for wildlife in all of Africa—an area where tourists rarely visit and animals remain wild and skittish, unaccustomed to seeing people. Ever since that conversation, the Caprivi has been stuck in my imagination like a foxtail. If I were ever to find a trace of the Pleistocene in the 21st century, this was the place. And now, five years later, I had finally made it.
The Caprivi’s one main highway was lined in roadside signs depicting wart hogs, elephants, impala, and wild dogs. The signs were triangular and outlined in bright red—reminders that you’re driving through feral, unfenced bushlands, and it won’t matter whether your truck has four wheels or 18 if you hit a 12,000-pound elephant. On the road, Nick explained that the area had seen near continuous military action from 1966 until 1990 during the Namibian War of Independence—a conflict that killed over 20,000 people. Because of the war, the animal populations had been nearly wiped out. On his first visit there in the mid-1990s, the only wildlife Nick saw were four zebra and a handful of impala.
“What happened to the animals?” I asked.
“All sorts of things,” he said. “They were killed for meat, killed for sport, blown up by landmines. Poaching was rampant, so whatever animals remained learned to give the area a wide berth.”
“But things are better now?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” he said, smiling, never taking his eyes off the road.
Later in the drive, Nick told me we’d be spending the night at his friend Dan’s safari camp and going for a bush walk the next day.
“I hope you packed some hiking shoes,” he said, smiling again.
I laughed, thinking he was joking. “Wait, are you serious?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m serious.”
I had not packed any hiking shoes. On my only previous trip to the African bush not only had I never hiked but I’d rarely left the vehicle at all thanks to guides like Nick telling me it was too dangerous. The only thing I’d packed besides flip-flops was a pair of sneakers called “barefoot shoes” that can be rolled up like t-shirts and stuffed into a duffel bag.
Dan’s campground was located on the banks of one of the many branches of the Kwando River. We arrived in the late afternoon, and before we’d even parked, Dan handed two beers through my passenger window.
“So this is the guy we’re feeding to the lions?” Dan said with a smile, nodding towards me.
“That’s him,” Nick said.
Dan was from Northern England, his accent like wading through molasses, turning water to wuuu-tah. He was in his early 40s, short, muscular, and ruddy from years spent beneath the African sun. Thinking he was only visiting when he came to the Caprivi 12 years earlier, he had never left.
That evening, the three of us sat around the fire roasting sausages and drinking Namibian lager and South African pinotage. The Kwando River wended through the flat open plains away from us, dipping in and out of view through the yellow-green reeds that crowd its banks. As the light died in the east, the water became a string of bloody pools, reflecting the vermilion clouds above.
Perched on one elbow by the fire, my mind wandered while Nick and Dan argued about the Premier League 5,000 miles away. I thought of the ostrich egg that rests like a cantaloupe-sized moon on my shelf back home—old paper yellow, smooth as ivory. My most cherished possession. My dad lived in Addis Ababa for two years in the 1960s, long before I was born. He was deputy director of the Peace Corps in Ethiopia shortly after the organization was established by President Kennedy. It was a detour from the rest of his career as a marine biologist and professor. He was 35 at the time, the same age that I am now, and at some point, he got his hands on an ostrich egg and kept it for the rest of his life.
My therapist had pressed me about why it felt so important that I go on this trip, despite my guilt about my carbon footprint, my worry over the cost, my confliction at being a tourist—my greater confliction at being a white tourist.
“I want to know what it feels like to be on the food chain,” I had told her.
“Hmm,” she said, her eyes boring into me.
“It’s a place I’ve been trying to get to for years.”
She watched me. “Uh huh.”
“My dad used to live in Africa.”
A flash of light across her eyes.
“He was stationed in Ethiopia, but traveled all over the continent.”
“Did he tell you stories from that time?”
“Some, but I was too young to ask him about it.”
My dad was 55 when I was born. I was 19 when he died. My greatest regret is not pressing him for his stories from the more than half a century he was on the planet before I arrived. Just as I’m haunted by the megafauna who once roamed California, I’m haunted by my father’s life. In the 16 years since he died, I’ve searched for his stories—not retracing his steps, but living new versions of them. Filling in the blank spaces with adventures of my own. I went to sea on an old research vessel in my 20s, just as he had done long before I was born—a time in his life I know nothing about. I became a biologist, just as he had been, though we never talked about his career—he retired when I was five. And though Namibia and Ethiopia are over 2,000 miles apart, it was that ostrich egg that first enticed me to the continent where it was laid by a 200-pound bird before being taken home by a young man whom I look so much like but only ever knew when he was gray-haired, spectacled, mistaken by everyone for my grandfather.
A week after he died, my five older siblings and I laid out his belongings across the dining room table and pulled numbers from a hat to see who would get the first pick. I pulled number one. All eyes were on me as I scanned the relics of a 74-year life. Paintings, clothes, books, Coptic crosses, mother’s china, school rings, his glasses, camera, binoculars, passport, and, floating above it all, that freshly risen moon, still yellow on the horizon. I felt unworthy of it. I pretended to deliberate; ran my fingers along the frame of a Mexican painting. My three oldest siblings had actually lived in Ethiopia. No one had spent less time with that egg than me.
The ostrich egg had always rested in the same hulking abalone shell, making them a package deal. I lifted them from the table and quietly left the house, avoiding eye contact. In the backyard, I picked a handful of magnolia leaves and placed them below the egg like a nest to keep it from clinking against the shell on the drive home. I did it with all the care of a child making a bed for its first pet. When my mom came out to tell me it was my turn to pick again, she found me hyperventilating in the grass.
“So you ready to hear the plan for tomorrow?” Dan asked, snapping me back to the banks of the Kwando. I sat up taller, nodded to him, then took a long pull from my beer.
Dan explained that he’d recently started taking his more intrepid clients on walking safaris through the bush, but had never camped out before.
“We thought you’d be the perfect bloke to test it out on,” he said.
“And that’s safe?” I asked.
“Should be fine,” Nick added quietly, staring into the flames.
“Alfred will keep us safe,” Dan said.
Alfred is a local ranger who’d be joining us on our walk. He’s an Indigenous Namibian of the Lozi Tribe, born and raised in the Caprivi. Imagining the four of us setting out the next day, I recalled a grisly story Nick had told me five years earlier about four bush rangers who were deep in the wilds when their truck broke down. They knew no other vehicles were patrolling the area, and they’d have to walk out for help. The men were unarmed, and as they made their way across the plain, a far-off pride of lions spotted them, bursting out in long strides in their direction. The men ran to a lone acacia tree—the only thing taller them. They climbed as high into the tree’s spindly branches as they could, knowing all the while, as any bush ranger would, that lions can climb trees. Over the course of the next three days, the lions pulled the screaming men one by one from where they clutched to the boughs of the acacia, eating them alive in the feathery shadows below. All but one of them were killed before a vehicle finally came along. That last remaining man, crazed with terror and thirst and sun exposure, never recovered; he was mad for the rest of his life.
“Sounds like a plan,” I said.
The next morning I hopped into the bed of Dan’s pickup and we drove to Alfred’s village—a small cluster of circular huts with rush mat walls and pointed thatched roofs. Waiting in the shade of a tree in fatigues was Alfred. He walked to the truck slowly, nodding at Nick and Dan in the cab before hopping in back with me. I reached out my hand and introduced myself, and Alfred shook it limply.
“Alfred,” he said in his deep voice.
Alfred was in his late 50s or early 60s with long sinewy arms and a severe face. He had a puckered scar on his right cheek that looked like someone had long ago hammered a nail into it. The scar and his fatigues made me think of the war. Dan had mentioned the night before that Alfred had been a soldier. Had he killed anyone?
“Is this where you’re from?” I shouted as we sped down the road.
“Have you camped in the bush before?” I yelled.
“First time for me,” I said, pointing to myself.
Alfred hid his face in his hat. And perhaps not only from the wind.
I wouldn’t have answered my questions either. Here was Alfred, a man whose ancestors had watched their homeland get carved up and traded around by Europeans like it was a bargaining chip in some deranged board game. Alfred, a man who spent the first half of his life fighting for his independence against South Africa’s apartheid government, one of the most racist regimes in modern human history. At the same time, the Angolan Civil War, dubbed by the United Nations in 1993 as “the worst war in the world,” pushed against and bled into the Caprivi from the north—each of these conflicts a thumb pressing into Alfred’s young eyes. And finally, after winning his independence—and living through God knows what—here was Alfred, still being asked to risk his life to babysit three white men on a bush walk. And for what? Because the man from California had flown halfway across the world searching for an authentic experience? Because the man from California wanted to know what real danger felt like and had spent more money than Alfred would likely ever see to find out? Money which mostly went into the pockets of airline executives and fossil fuel companies and barefoot shoe manufacturers—and the wallets of Nick and Dan—before Alfred saw his pittance.
A few silent minutes passed before Alfred asked if I had a cigarette. It was his lucky day. I hadn’t bought a pack in years until I landed in the capital city of Windhoek a few days earlier. I long ago made a pact with myself that I would only smoke while traveling to ensure that the cigarettes that killed my father wouldn’t kill me too. I fished the Marlboros out of my bag and handed them to him, glad to have something to offer our guide. He asked me for another cigarette every 20 or 30 minutes for the next few hours, until he finally asked for one and then put the whole pack in his pocket without either of us saying a word.
We parked at a ranger station at the entrance to Mudumu National Park. The plan was to walk directly on the outside of the unfenced park boundary through communal conservancy land, because it’s prohibited to get out of your vehicle within the park. Not only are there the obvious animals that can kill you—lions, buffalo, leopards, elephants, crocs, hippopotamus—but there are also those killers more difficult to see—the black mambas and spitting cobras, the puff adders, vine snakes, and boomslang.
Alfred and Dan walked into the small ranger’s post. I thought they must be in there getting a gun. We’d be crazy to do this without one. But when Alfred and Dan stepped out of the station a few minutes later, they carried no gun.
We started walking on a narrow dirt track that runs parallel to the park boundary. Already I could feel every small pebble through the paper-thin soles of my shoes. After a quarter-mile we stopped, and I learned that Alfred is a man of more words than I’d thought. He asked us all to remove our hats and began a prayer in his native tongue of Silozi, which lasted at least five minutes. The four us faced each other, heads bowed. I looked at the folded hands of my three companions, all of whom I barely knew. I thought of my mother. I thought of standing at the airport sidewalk in San Francisco only a few days earlier and how I’d promised her I wouldn’t do anything stupid.
Alfred concluded his prayer and we started walking again, this time leaving the dirt track and lighting out cross-country. We waded through shoulder-high grass, thick and tall enough to conceal any number of 400-pound cats. My body felt carbonated, like all my nerve endings had come loose in my bloodstream. I had wanted a real adventure, to touch a wilder, less human-centered world, but now that I was getting my wish all I wanted was to flee.
A baboon scurried through the grass and skipped up a small tree. Before I knew what it was, my arms were out in front of me in a karate pose. Nick and Dan laughed. Alfred never stopped walking. Moments later, a lone wildebeest barked at us, kicking up clods of dirt before bolting off.
I thought of the bush rangers again. How the lions must have slept in the shade of the tree after eating each man. I imagined myself as one of them, clutching a branch, staring down at the ribcage of my comrade resting like a wet basket in the dirt between the dozing cats. How when night came I fought back sleep, nodding off a few times, nearly falling from the branches. How my vision swam when the first lion woke again in the morning, fixing me with an amber stare. And as the other cats slowly rose, gently rubbing their faces and long bodies against their sisters and mother, how I cried and pleaded for them to leave us alone. The big one with the head like a pile of tawny thatch was the last to stir. And the youngest daughter, still needing her practice, was the first to get on her hind legs and reach into the branches. The awful shrieks of my friend once she had him by the calf, pulling him into that mayhem of claws and fangs and golden fur.
“So we’re really not bringing a rifle or anything?” I finally asked Nick, unable to hold the question any longer.
“Apparently not,” he responded.
Unlike much of the Caprivi, which is spongy with floodplains from the Okavango, Kwando, Chobe, and Zambezi Rivers, the land we were hiking through was a dry savannah with low rolling hills. The grass was golden, topped with soft, feathery seed, and the only water was in shallow clay pans that dotted the landscape like oversized puddles rimmed in gray mud. Between the muddy pans were occasional thin woodlands of mopane and silver leaf terminalia trees, hunched and thirsty.
Dan carried his phone out in front of him while he walked, following a GPS program, trying to keep us heading in the direction of camp. Alfred stopped often to sniff the air, or toe at some elephant shit with his boot. He’d crouch down to puzzle over faint tracks in the dirt, or consider a snapped tree branch still hanging from its fibrous bark. He was reading the landscape like I might read a newspaper, sensing when elephants had last passed through, or informing us that a herd of kudu had recently been drinking from a waterhole. It was a relief knowing Alfred was keeping tabs on the story unfolding around us. A story we were now part of, if only for a few days. One that we had evolved for millennia to be part of, and yet here I was, an anxious visitor, an alien on my own planet, just as so many wild animals have become aliens in places where humans tend to feel most at home.
In the late afternoon, after hiking ten miles through the heat of the day, we arrived at the largest pan yet—still only the size of a small pond. We stopped and made camp in the thin woods on the far side.
Once settled, Alfred, Nick, and I sat on our bedrolls while Dan made a round of gin and tonics. Alfred lit a cigarette. Dan handed me a drink.
“We don’t have much tonic,” he said, smiling. It was rigor mortis stiff and exactly what I needed.
“Let’s go check the next two pans,” Dan said, downing his drink in a few quick swallows. Neither Alfred, Nick, nor I budged when he spoke.
“Come on,” he urged us, “we got a bit skunked today, didn’t we? It’s a great time of day to see game.”
We all groaned as we stood back up, but off we trudged, to the next watering hole. Not ten minutes later, as we were making our way through some thick brush, Alfred shot a hand up, signaling us to stop. Nick whispered back to me: “Big herd of zebra ahead, and a few giraffe.”
I crept forward to see. In a clearing, just beyond where we crouched, was a mixed herd of some 60 zebra plus four giraffes. They stared keenly in our direction, and before any of us had moved, they were off, stampeding past us in a swirl of dust. The ground quaked beneath our feet, the zebra like squat linebackers pummeling the earth, while the giraffes sashayed high above them.
The dust made an amber filigree of the evening light where it cut through the tree branches. When the animals were gone, and the ground had stopped shaking, my heart continued to stampede. I thought of the war that had ravaged this land only a few decades earlier—of how the many creatures of this world are just waiting for the opportunity to wander back in, stop, sniff the air cautiously, take a step forward, then another, until they return by the thousands to reclaim their home. It felt hopeful to be reminded that life really does come back when given the chance. Even if not always: the black rhino never returned to the Caprivi after the war.
I thought also of the continent where I was born and the animals that once filled that land with thunder: the American bison—the national animal of the United States. In the 1500s, over 30 million bison roamed North America. By 1893, only 400 remained. “Kill every buffalo you can,” Colonel Dodge famously ordered his troops in 1867. “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”
The atrocities that occurred during Europe’s colonization of both Africa and North America are too numerous to name, yet something more final seemed to take place in North America with the arrival of Europeans—they didn’t just see a wealth of resources and human labor to exploit, they saw an entire continent to claim as their own. The land itself was the prize, which meant the people already living on it were in the way of that prize—their very existence a threat to Manifest Destiny.
Unlike Africa, the strategy in North America was to settle, to stay forever, so when the white people arrived, they never stopped arriving. This explains why African nations have been able to win back their independence from their colonizers over time, while in North America no such movements have yet been possible for Indigenous people. This permanent settling also explains why Africa has held onto so much of its megafauna while North America has not—my European ancestors had little appetite for coexisting with animals higher on the food chain than themselves. That, and in the case of the buffalo, they were severing an artery to a way of life they were hell-bent on eradicating.
The two waterholes we visited were empty of animals, but both were surrounded by a mottle of fresh elephant tracks that looked like meteor-pocked moons in the gray soil. Alfred sniffed the air.
“Few hours ago,” he said.
It was getting dark and we started back towards camp on a well-used animal trail, the dirt turning a soft lavender under our feet in the gloaming. I stopped.
“Is that a…”
“Lion track,” Nick said matter-of-factly.
It was the size of a salad plate in the soft sand. Nick stooped down to examine it.
“Probably from this morning,” he said.
A fizz of electricity up my spine. We started walking again.
“Remember the story you told me the first time I met you?” I asked Nick.
He stopped, turning to look at me. “Which story?”
“The one about the rangers who got treed by the lions,” I said quietly.
Nick smiled. “Best not to bring that up right now,” he replied, and kept walking.
Ten minutes passed before Nick spoke again. “In a place as wild as the Caprivi, where the animals rarely see people, the chances that lions would attack are extremely slim,” he reassured me. “It just isn’t worth the risk for them.”
“I see,” I said.
“But,” he went on, then paused.
“But?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, stopping again to look at me. “The only real thing to worry about is an old male who’s been kicked out of the pride and might be missing a claw or a tooth and can’t hunt so well anymore. You definitely don’t want to run into an old crust like that. They can be desperate enough to try anything.”
Back at camp, Alfred started a fire and Dan put chicken and potatoes in the Dutch oven before pouring us stiff, lukewarm gin and tonics, one after another. There was a full moon that night, and as we ate our dinner, the dull yellow orb rose through the branches of the trees. It looked like my ostrich egg.
I thought of my father and the complicated legacies our parents leave for us. That egg has become my most precious heirloom, yet how did I come by it? This inheritance, which is appropriately biological, and not some valuable stone or a thing made by human hands, but an egg, the place where life begins, formed inside the body of a flightless bird who lived within the borders of a land called Ethiopia, found and taken by my father, a white man from the United States. And not just any egg, but one that appears larger than life, mythical even, but in reality, is just another piece of this world.
He was part of the original leadership team of the Peace Corps, which at the time must have felt truly noble and important, yet the subsequent decades have judged—and correctly—as an early iteration of what Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole has dubbed the “white-savior industrial complex.” Should my father have taken the egg? Probably not. Should he have been in Ethiopia at all? Hard to say. Should I be here now, 55 years later, a white tourist drinking gin in remote Namibia? I’m not sure.
As I sat beneath the moon that glinted through the mopane trees above our camp, something struck me for the first time. Since I was a kid, I had always imagined my father stumbling upon an ostrich nest on the ground and stealing one of its eggs—a highly dangerous thing to do, as a kick from an ostrich can be lethal. Even so, I pictured him as young and brazen and covetous of such a rare thing to own. But as I thought about it further, I realized that my father never would have taken a viable egg from a wild bird’s nest. Never. He had been rehabilitating injured and orphaned animals since he was a child, keeping a Cooper’s hawk in the garage, a river otter in the bathtub, a rattlesnake in a tank in the guest room. My dad, who taught me as a kid that centipedes deserve to live just as much as I do—not to bring me down to the level of a squirming, stinging insect, but to teach me that there is no hierarchy on the value of life, and if anything, he was exalting centipedes to the station of his own child, where all life belonged.
I realized I had no idea how he had come by that egg. Just that my original imagined story must be wrong. Perhaps it had been a gift? Perhaps it was from a nest he knew had been abandoned? I’ll never know, because I never asked him while I had the chance, but I was suddenly certain he didn’t steal it.
My father’s stories may be irretrievable to me now, but there are other stories I might still hear if I’m perceptive enough to listen. Stories from the world he taught me to love and care so much about, those roared by lions on riverbanks, the dust storm stories kicked up by zebras and giraffes, the moon print stories written by invisible elephants in the clay, the quiet story of Alfred, who doesn’t need to speak to tell me he’s seen the worst of this world. Stories of survival, of regeneration, of hope. Much needed antidotes to the torrent of bad news that currently fills my head—extinctions, coral bleaching, climate refugees. The Caprivi had different tales to tell, and I knew I’d never regret having come all this way to hear them.
“I got to take the day off today,” Nick said, breaking our collective silence. “With the amount Sam was looking around I knew he wouldn’t miss a thing.”
“I thought your head was gonna fall off, mate,” Dan joked.
We all laughed, even Alfred.
“Alfred, may I have a cigarette, please?” I asked.
“Finished,” he said.
A piercing cry rang out nearby, followed by a scuffle, and a few short, disheartened brays. We all listened, silent. A minute later, a booming call that started low before rising to a high-pitched yip repeated just on the other side of the trees from our camp.
“Hyena,” Nick whispered. “Must have gotten something.”
A few minutes later, a gang of curdling giggles and gleeful screams filled the night as a clan of hyena descended on whatever had just been killed by their kin.
“You don’t hear that every night,” Dan said.
Alfred lit another cigarette in the dark.
I never did see a lion in the Caprivi—only the roars on the first night, and that lone paw print during our walk. But two weeks after returning from Namibia, I was driving home on a dark backroad in the middle of the night. Coming around a corner, I passed what I thought was a dead mountain lion on the edge of the road and slammed on my brakes. I put the truck in reverse, praying that I hadn’t seen what I thought I had. Once the animal was back in my headlights, my fears were confirmed. It was indeed a mountain lion, but it wasn’t dead—the lion lifted its head from where it lay across the white line of the road and stared in my direction, panting.
I left my headlights on, opened the truck door, and slowly approached the cat, worrying my presence would only add to its stress. But as I walked up to the injured lion, it didn’t appear to even notice me. I circled it slowly, examining its long, sleek body—tawny fur, the white of the muzzle like two cotton balls beneath its nose. The back half of its torso was crushed. I could see fractured ribs poking perversely against its abdomen, like a bedsheet pulled over a pile of sticks. Its breathing was rapid, ragged.
I bent down beside the lion. Its face and head were unharmed. There was no blood. Its eyes were wide and rimmed in a delicate line of white fur, staring at something I couldn’t see. This was a young lion, probably only two or three years old, its paws disproportionately larger than the rest of its body.
I tried to think of a way I could help this wounded animal, but nothing came. If I had a gun, would I put it down? This cat knew how to die without me. After spending its short life sneaking down vineyard rows at night, getting snarled at by domesticated dogs, hiding by day in culverts and small strips of woodland, only to finally get struck by the blinding lights of a speeding car, dying might be the most natural thing it would ever do.
Suddenly the cat stood up, and I did too, fast, surprised by how quickly it had moved. It managed to rise onto its front paws, but its back legs wouldn’t budge. They seemed molded to the road. The lion swayed for a moment before slumping back down with a rasping exhale. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, the cat managed to drag itself inch by inch off the road, onto a narrow strip of grass between the shoulder and a barbed-wire fence. I was relieved it was off the asphalt now—that it had found some actual earth to lie on, with earth scents and earth dampness. Once there, it stayed still, heaving with shredded breath. A few feet behind the cat’s broken body was a large American flag hanging limply from a mailbox post; the red, white, and blue of its banner tawdry in my headlights.
I sat cross-legged a few feet away from the dying animal, my face cupped in my hands. The day after we learned my father’s cancer had spread into all his major organs, he fell into a coma from which he would never wake. There was nothing I could do then but witness, no matter how badly I wanted things to be different. When death is near, an elixir seems to fill the body—that which ushers us from here to there. My father no longer seemed to be in pain, just gently emptying, his animal body taking over for its final act, knowing precisely what to do.
The cat seemed filled with this same elixir now, its honey eyes staring into something I don’t yet know. This lion and I had shared a mammalian world for a time—both of us hairy-bodied, meat-eating, milk-reared offspring of caring mothers, living on a land one of us calls California. But now the cat was leaving, and I was staying behind.
Winding my way home in the darkness, my eyes darted from side to side, not wanting to miss anything. Not wanting to hurt anything. The dull yellow beams of my headlights lit only the asphalt and painted lines of the empty roads. All else was lost in shadow. All else was crouching, hiding—a land vibrating with ghosts, both dead and alive.
Sam Keck Scott is a wildlife biologist, conservationist, and writer. His work has appeared in Orion, The National Geographic Society, and Camas, and is forthcoming from Outside. He lives in Northern California.
Header photo of Dan in the tall grass of the Caprivi Strip by Sam Keck Scott.