It was a cry of such loneliness and despair that everyone who heard it that night vowed that they had to act - and act fast. The lioness named Lady Liuwa was so lonely that she had come to humans, camped in the Liuwa National Park in Zambia, looking for company.
The gutteral roar was the unmistakable call of friendship. She was the last surviving lioness in Liuwa - and her loneliness was enveloping her - her dreams of belonging to a pride and of motherhood long gone.
The extraordinary story of how Lady turned to humans for companionship and love - and how they, in turn, fought to find her a family - has become one of the most moving wildlife films of all time. It began in 2004, when Namibian filmmaker Herbert Brauer arrived at the National Park to make a wildlife programme.
The Lion Queen: Lady Liuwa at the Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia
As he began filming animals from his open-topped truck, he noticed a single lioness in the distance, watching his every move. Local rangers told Herbert that her entire pride had been slaughtered by poachers. Lady had somehow managed to survive, and was now the last lion left in the National Park.
From then on, the lioness appeared to be waiting for him as went about his work. She began to tentatively follow the filming truck, sitting at a distance and watching as they focused their cameras on the wildlife. Then, one day, she made an extraordinary move. Bounding up towards the truck, she suddenly dropped down onto her back and rolled over, purring deeply. 'I was so shocked,' says Herbert, 'that it took me a couple of seconds to realise what I was seeing. Here was a wild animal who was greeting us with an unheralded display of friendship.'
But Herbert quickly realised that there was more to this behaviour than a simple show of affection. Lady was lonely - and the film crew were her only company. 'She began to follow us each day,' he says, 'and would sit happily nearby watching us complete our filming. You could sense her contentment that she had found company at last.
'It's the most unnatural thing in the world for a lion to be relaxed with humans around. Her only experience of humans had most certainly been a violent and destructive one - with memories of the poachers who had killed her pride. But, despite this, she was willing to trust us, and accept us.'
Then one night, as Herbert and his crew relaxed outside the tents in their camp, they heard a noise in the bushes. Slowly, but surely, Lady walked towards them. To a man, everyone froze. But Lady appeared oblivious to the tension. She simply stopped ten yards away from Herbert, dropped down on her vast stomach, and purred deeply.
'As soon as I saw her, I was strangely unafraid,' he says. 'I somehow sensed that Lady had come into camp just to find me. When she dropped down and relaxed, we all realised that she just wanted to be near us.'
Friendship at last: Liuwa is now mating and will hopefully fall pregnant soon
And so an extraordinary ritual began. By day, Lady would roam the wilds, always on the lookout for the film crew. At night, once they had returned to camp, she would creep in and settle down to sleep just yards from their tent. Humans had become her only comfort - and, despite every wild instinct in her body, loneliness was driving her closer and closer to the only friends she knew.
In 2007, another fresh face arrived at camp - Craig Reid, the newly appointed Project Coordinator for Liuwa National Park. Craig, 37, recalls, 'As soon as I arrived, Herbert - who had returned to the Park to monitor Lady's progress - and the other rangers told me about Lady, who had become a local legend.
They said that she would come into camp at night to say hello, but nothing could have prepared me for our first meeting. As I stood outside my tent, a huge lioness appeared and strolled up casually to within ten metres of where I stood - I was frozen to the spot. All my years of experience taught me to be extremely wary of lions, but it was clear that she was totally relaxed and happy. She looked me up and down, and then settled
nearby, rolling and purring. I had never seen anything like it in my life. It was clear that she viewed humans as her friends.'
Our story might have ended there - as a quaint tale of a lion who enjoyed human company. But one night, Craig and the rest of the camp heard Lady give a distinctive call. Craig says, 'She was calling out to us in a low roar, a special sound which lions produce when they want to make contact with other lions. It was clear that she was calling us - a cry of friendship. But it sounded so lost and so mournful, and that's when we all realised that this lion was desperately lonely.'
'It was clear that Lady viewed humans as her friends'
Haunted by her cries, Craig and Herbert hatched a plan to find her a mate and bring him back to Liuwa. In September 2008, a team set off to find a lion for Lady. The expedition, to the Kafue National Park in central Zambia, which was 400 miles away, started well. A glorious and fit young male was spotted on his own - and sedated by the vet with a dart gun. He was then loaded onto the back of a truck and taken on the long journey to Liuwa, where the team had built a special, safe enclosure.
Craig says, 'Lions have extremely strong homing instincts, and we couldn't just let him loose in case he tried to find his way home. Our plan was to leave him to wake up beside some food, and then spend a few weeks letting him become used to his surroundings - and hopefully Lady, who was roaming the outer park.
'We were all so excited for Lady's sake. It was like a truly personal mission. We all desperately wanted her to be happy, and to end her awful loneliness. When we went to bed that night, we were all physically exhausted, but buzzing with excitement about the future.'
But when Craig and his team rose the next morning and raced to the enclosure, tragedy had struck. The healthy young lion had woken from his sedation, panicked and choked to death on regurgitated food. Herbert was distraught, and the entire crew fell silent as his healthy young body was cremated. Craig says, 'It was absolutely devastating. We had put so much into bringing this lion to Lady, only to find him dead. Of course, we felt so guilty. We all felt that we had let Lady down, and that a beautiful young
animal had died unnecessarily. 'We don't think Lady had ever seen the young male lion. But that night, she came into camp and started to give soft cries. I don't know if it was our imagination, but she seemed so mournful. It was almost as if somehow, she knew that her chance of companionship and motherhood had died. Her sorrow just added to our own horror.'
The team decided that they must try again. This time, they chose the rainy season, some eight months later. 'We decided to take two young male lions this time,' says Craig, 'because Liuwa is overrun by hyenas, who might snatch any cub that Lady gave birth to. With two young males, she would have more protection and the three of them might form a natural pride.'
It was a muted team, their nerves jangling, who made the journey to Kafue National Park in May this year. Craig says, 'All we could think of was the tragic outcome of our previous attempt. We brought the two males back, and placed them in the enclosure, hoping that the fact there were two of them might make them panic less.' But when the lions awoke, the initial signs were not good. Confused and agitated, they threw themselves against the electric fence surrounding their enclosure. The crew could only watch, horrified, as the lions injured themselves.
Then, something extraordinary happened. Out of the depths of the wild stepped Lady, who stopped - and stared. 'We didn't have a clue how she was going to respond to other lions,' says Craig, 'because we had never seen her interact with her own kind. We sat and stared at Lady - and she sat and stared at the new arrivals. Her presence seemed to calm the young lions, but we were all so nervous.' That night, for the first time in years, Lady failed to appear in camp. Craig says, 'We raced to the enclosure the next day and there was Lady, sitting watching the two lions, and looking incredibly happy.'
Did you know?
Lion's eyes contain a special coating that channels all the available light directly to their retinas - enabling them to hunt by starlight
The plan was to keep the young lions within their enclosure for several weeks, so that they could become used to the territory and reduce the risk of them attempting to find their own way home. But, on day six, disaster struck once more. 'When we arrived at the enclosure, there was a hole in the fence and the two lions were gone,' says Craig.
'We felt physically sick. We knew that if they tried to make their way out of the park to get home, they would almost certainly be shot dead, either by the poachers who roam outside the park, or by terrified villagers. We immediately sent out a search party. Luckily, one of the lions had been fitted with an electronic collar while under sedation, so we were able to pick up a radio signal half an hour later.
'It had to be the longest half hour of my life. We raced to find the males - and suddenly we saw them. They were both sitting under a tree - and there, a few metres away, was Lady. As we sat and watched over the next few hours, it became clear that Lady wasn't going to leave her two new friends. If they got up and moved, she followed. If she moved, they followed her.' Lady turned and looked at the crew, before turning back to face her new friends - who appeared to have accepted their new home after quickly forming a new pride with Lady. From that moment on, her interaction with humans ceased. She was no longer alone.
Craig says, 'We still see Lady with the two males. We've seen them mate, and we are hoping that Lady will fall pregnant soon, because, at nine years old, her biological clock is ticking. We would love her to have a cub and to experience motherhood. We will never forget her purring, rolling and playing, and the incredible friendship that she shared with us. Now, we just want her to be happy with her new family.'
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1233172/How-lonely-lioness-love-little-help-friends.html#ixzz0YmABDdSJ
- The Last Lioness is on Nat Geo Wild on 11 January at 9pm