Remembering an African Lion That Defied Death

C-boy, an iconic African lion, lived a longer-than-average life for his kind, and was admired for his tenacity and fierce spirit.

Deceased: Adult male lion, roughly fourteen years old, with a dark mane, known to researchers—and to readers of National Geographic magazine—as C-Boy. Dead of natural causes, his body discovered by a tour driver in the backcountry of Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, in early June 2018. His demise mourned by those who knew and read about him; his longevity and force of character a marvel to same.

The category “natural causes,” in the case of African lions, includes the kind of murder and mayhem that occurs routinely among competing members of the species. As the lion expert Craig Packer once told me, “The number one cause of death for lions, in an undisturbed environment, is other lions.” This was five years ago, when photographer Mike (Nick) Nichols and I were in Tanzania, doing fieldwork for a story on lion behaviour and ecology. C-Boy, a handsome male in his prime, with a black-fringed mane, became the central figure of that story—“The Short Happy Life of a Serengeti Lion”—because he stood as an exception to this mortal rule.

C-Boy feasts on a Zebra in Serengeti National Park.

Several years prior, C-Boy had barely survived a gang attack by three other males, who tried to kill him over mating rights to a pride of females. Those three ambitious males, along with one other, were known as the Killers. A field assistant on Packer’s long-term study, Ingela Jansson, witnessed the three-on-one brawl from nearby in her Land Rover, saw C-Boy’s wounds, and figured he was a goner. That was nine years ago this month. But C-Boy slouched off the field of battle and, with his sole coalition partner, a less disputatious Lothario known as Hildur, wandered elsewhere to seek new territory, new females, and new prospects.

Myth holds that cats have nine lives. C-Boy had at least two. He endured the immediate attack, escaped a lingering death from infected wounds, and later became the starring character of our story. Why did Nick and I choose to focus on him? Because he was everything an African lion should be: resourceful, cantankerous, patient, proud but pragmatic, seemingly indestructible, continually imperilled, and gorgeous to behold.

During our fieldwork, the Killers turned up in an adjacent area, showing interest in another pride among whom C-Boy and Hildur had been fathering cubs. They were pushing again for new conquests, the Killers, threatening to expand their domain. Another assistant on the Packer study, a young Swede named Daniel Rosengren, spotted them at dawn one morning, as I rode along, where they lay on a grassy stream bank, nursing facial wounds from a recent fight. Whom had they fought? Our guess was C-Boy, again. Had he survived once more? If so, in what condition?

What makes lions social? Are they really lazy—or just very patient? Craig Packer, director of the Serengeti Lions Project, has spent decades deciphering the riddles of one of nature's most familiar creatures.

There were no answers through a long day of fruitless searching. Nick’s team couldn’t find him and neither could we. Late that evening, Daniel and I equipped ourselves with night-vision binoculars and sleeping bags, then rolled slowly along behind the Killers in his Land Rover for the entire night, trading shifts of sleeping and watching, while the lions prowled, rested, and moved again. I called it the Night of the Long Follow.

These ambitious lions were on the march through C-Boy and Hildur’s territory, and we wanted to see where they went, what they did, and whether their daring incursion—plus their battle wounds—meant that they had killed their way to preeminence hereabouts as well. Dawn came, the Killers walked boldly away down a two-track road, and for two days afterward, there was still no sign of C-Boy. In a journal entry, I recorded him as “missing, suspected dead.”

But he wasn’t dead. On the third morning, near a group of rock outcrops known as the Zebra Kopjes, we found him, unscathed and lusty, mounting a ready female. In the journal for that day, December 17, 2012, I wrote: “O happy lion!” His mane showed dark and virile in the early morning light. He was very much alive. But even C-Boy couldn’t live forever.

Last week I got an email from Daniel Rosengren, now employed as a roving wildlife photographer by the Frankfurt Zoological Society. Daniel confirmed what I’d heard elsewhere. “Yes, C-Boy was found dead by a tour driver who knew him well,” he wrote. “I can’t really say much more than that. He had apparently already been dead for a couple of days when they found him (following the vultures that ate the carcass).” There was no sign he’d been speared by a Maasai herdsman, intent on protecting cows, or shot by a poacher.

C-boy lived longer than the 12 years consider the maximum for male lions.

“He was about 14 years old,” Daniel wrote, “touching the record age for a male lion in all the history of the lion project.” Twelve years is generally the maximal expected lifetime for a male. C-Boy’s partner Hildur, also pushing the limits, was amazingly still alive.

It was saddening, Daniel said, to realize that C-Boy is gone. “But at the same time, he lived a longer life than expected for a male lion. A life that almost ended close to a decade ago when the Killers got him. He got a second chance and certainly made the best of it.” Daniel added: “I wish that I could have seen him one more time.”

I wished the same, and knew I couldn’t, so I did the next best thing. I opened the August 2013 issue of the magazine, to the spread on pages 28-29, and there was Nick’s magnificent black-and-white portrait of C-Boy, with his dark-fringed mane, staring back at me through the Tanzanian night. It consoled me with the reminder that C-Boy’s life, short or long, happy or fraught, embodied a magisterial will to survive.

Lead Image: C-Boy, with his characteristic dark mane, in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. He was beloved by those who knew him.


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