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A lion stands over a kill in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, as more than a dozen spotted hyenas plan their next move to take it from him.

Canon EOS-1DS, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS at 190mm, 1/30 sec at f/5.6, ISO 1250

Today I share this photo, taken ages ago, in Honor of World Lion Day, because to me it symbolizes the indomitable spirit of the African lion. The year was 2004 and Alison and I were on safari in Kenya with our friends Stacy and Greg. Dusk was approaching and we were just about to head back to camp, but when we noticed hyenas moving rapidly, purposefully, across the savannah, we knew we had to follow them to see where they were headed.

Before long, we came across an epic struggle between a lone male lion and a pack of spotted hyenas. The lion and hyenas were contesting possession of a wildebeest carcass. There were at least a dozen hyenas present when we arrived, and their numbers would grow to more than two dozen during the clash. From the start, the light was extremely dim and I was only able to photograph the beginning of the encounter due to lack of light, yet the dramatic and high-intensity scene that unfolded before us remains a vivid memory to this day.

At first, the hyenas circled the lion, vocalizing like crazy. After a while, they decided to test the lion’s resolve. Every time the lion tried to take a bite of flesh from the kill, one of the hyenas would dart forward and try to nip the lion on his haunches. The hyenas coordinated their efforts; when the lion turned to deal with the hyena on his backside, another hyena would jump in from the front and attempt to steal a piece of the carcass. The lion was being harassed relentlessly from all sides, spinning back and forth, and swiping his massive front paws in powerful arcs that, if landed, could easily kill a hyena with one blow.

The battle went on for a long time and dusk turned to night. Our guide desperately wanted to return to camp, but we insisted on staying until the conflict resolved itself, one way or the other. I will save the entire play-by-play for another day, for the story continues like that of an evenly-matched 12-round heavyweight prizefight, complete with ups and downs, and surprising tactical maneuvers. However, we were able to witness the conclusion of the conflict, and happily rode back to camp having observed the lion emerge victorious.

Postscript: On the next morning’s game drive, we saw a hyena nursing a broken jaw in an area not far from the previous night’s clash. Proof, we took it, that the lion’s paw could indeed be lethal.

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