• Petra Vandecasteele

Lessons From a Lone Lioness

Updated: Oct 10, 2019

Interview with Herbert Brauer, Namibian born wildlife cameraman of the acclaimed and award-winning National Geographic documentary 'The Last Lioness'.

When Herbert arrived at Liuwa Plains National Park, Zambia, to do a documentary on gnu and hyena, the last thing he expected was to spend bonding time with Lady Liuwa, the last lioness of the park.

Herbert with Lady Liuwa in the background

Trophy hunters and poachers had exterminated all of the park’s lions, except for one – now known worldwide as Lady Liuwa – who continued to live an unnatural solitary existence. She was known to be elusive; few people had seen her. However strange it may seem, during Herbert’s visits to the park, Lady Liuwa would appear regularly. One night, when it was already dark, she followed close behind him as he walked back to the camp. Amazingly, she would continue to seek his company during his many stays at Liuwa Plains NP. During the day, Lady was often on the lookout for the film crew and at night she often slept only a few metres from their tents. She greeted Herbert with purrs and playful rolls or just relaxed near him.

"At night, Lady kept calling for a mate, but it was her purring when she was in the camp that made us understand how much she was looking for company. We knew something had to be done to help Lady find a mate,” says Herbert in a typical German accent. The documentary "The Last Lioness” is a story of trust and hope. It shows a very special bond between a man and a lioness, and how their mutual trust has led to some extraordinary events.

"Lady has been a great teacher,” says Herbert. "She has taught me self-confidence and has reminded me that I should do things because I love them and because they create a connection with the life on our planet. I realised she did not only represent wild animals, but that she also symbolised the Earth’s energy. Lady Liuwa helped me to love my planet so much more deeply than I thought I did.”

It took 4 months for the film crew to get the opportunity to shoot the scene in which we see Lady walking behind Herbert. "We weren’t ready to film when it originally happened,” says Herbert. We had to wait a very long time for another spontanous moment to occur and we had to be extremely careful not to put her into a mindset that would ‘train’ or condition her to do what we wanted her to do. In the filming of "The Last Lioness” the real challenge for me was to monitor my own involvement in Lady’s life and never create any scenario to make her actions more interesting or dramatic to get a better story or shot.”

"It’s not about showing how close she came to me,” Herbert continues, "but instead, we wanted to focus on the trust that grew between the two of us. I also didn’t want to show scenes that would distract from the essence of the story for the sake of sensationalism. Like when Lady challenged me. The second cameraman who was standing a mere three metres behind me was so stunned, he forgot to film...”

Herbert finds it very important to accept and respect Lady as a complete wild animal and not to antromorphise her. "I allowed her to come very close to me, but by the tone of my voice she knew what she could and what she could not do. On the day she challenged me, I realised I was seeing her as what I wanted her to be, not the wild animal she was.” There was just one choice ... life or death, no grey area. I also realised that if I didn’t have 100% trust in myself I was probably going to die. When she jumped towards me, I bounced up to her, arms spread and roaring like a lion to intimidate her. This saved my life. I had to wait until she challenged me before I realised how much faith I have in myself. Another lesson learnt...”

Why did she choose Herbert? "Because I was open to it and not afraid of her,” he reckons. "I had never had this intuitive trust with any other lion or lioness.” Lady then also started to approach other people. What she did was unusual, but natural for her. It’s an experience that touches people deeply. Herbert says that while some people appreciate what happens, others are at a total loss. "A professional hunter seemed rather worried; he didn’t have his gun with him. A group of potential investors were distraught by what had happened. To what extent do these people see themselves as part of nature?”

Herbert does a lot of intuitive work, but it also involves experience, as well as being very logical. When you’re out in the bush, no two days are the same especially when filming wildlife. The film crew has to go with the flow and that can be anything from working right through the night, or not working during the day to a few hours in the morning and again in the evening. There is no such thing as a strict daily routine. "Your lunch gets interrupted, because a gnu is giving birth. You can’t ask her to hold on until you’re finished,” he laughs out loud. Herbert has a keen sense of humour and never misses an opportunity to joke or pull one’s leg. "We have to take into account the light of the moon, predators are too visible when there’s a full moon. Or the wind that suddenly picks up and keeps on pumping which makes it difficult to film with a long lens. It has also happened that Lady went out on a hunt during the day and then I stayed with her that whole day, not just to film, but also to observe her. We also had to be very careful to make sure that the prey didn’t associate our presence with hers. She would often lie next to the vehicle when she wanted company. We would then drive back to the camp where there’s always something that needs to be done anyway: cooking in the boma, discussing daily activities, fixing tires or maintaining the vehicle...”

Commercial pressure can lead to unethical behaviour, so you need to keep up your guard and not let that happen. And, don’t give up; for one of our documentaries some of the most important shots were only filmed during the last three days of a five-week assignment.”

Herbert is a strong believer of being in tune with the land and asking for permission instead of trying to force things. "I’m impatient by nature, give the sunset ten minutes to be stunning and if it’s not, I’ll be upset and leave it at that. I had to learn to go with the flow and trust that things happen or not for a reason. When I came to Liuwa it wasn’t to film Lady, but it just happened. She came to me.” He says his attitude is reflected in his interaction with nature. "If I’m not getting what I’m looking for, I need to find out what my part in it may be. Once I change my attitude, I often get an immediate response. So, I constantly check my intention, my motivation, how my immediate environment responds to this and what can I do to improve on that. Nature is a great teacher: it reflects your mindset, so you had better be in tune with your emotions.”

Splendid Lady Liuwa

"At some point, I found it very difficult to accept my humanity,” he continues, "but then I realised that if I run away from humans, I also, in essence, run away from myself. Through Lady I felt the Earth’s energy. We are allowed to be here, but we trample, disrespect and mistreat the Earth, and yet, she has not retaliated, just like Lady after the trophy hunting, poaching and slaughter of her family.

The Liuwa lions were said to be some of the biggest and most magnificent lions in Africa; strong with wide chests from running through water. Lady was a lioness of incredible presence. She was very distinct from other lions: physicallly muscular with a beautiful, well proportioned face. "She had the physique of a female athlete, yet very feminine,” says Herbert. "I loved the way she walked, stopped and looked at you and then continued her walk. Everyone who saw her was awestruck.”

Lady knew that attacking people and their livestock was a no go area. Children have walked passed her when she was in the high grass; she never attacked, not even on an empty stomach. When she chased us in our car, she did it for contact and entertainment, not to hurt. "She used to run to our vehicle and lift her head when we stopped. She just wanted to hug us like lions do when they play and interact in a group. We could easily have misinterpreted that and said, "Look at this vicious animal.” She’s had many opportunities to attack us at the camp if she had wanted to; we were like sitting ducks.”

When the park introduced two males, Lady distanced herself completely from Herbert. "Her eyes changed after the males arrived,” he noticed. At first, she didn’t even go back to the camp, except for one night. "She stood there a few metres away, looked and walked away.” Later on, Lady still came to the camp, but less often. She seemed fascinated, no longer longing for company. She could finally enjoy the company of her own kind. She was no longer the last lioness. Lady died a natural death in August 2017.

Herbert believes that our deeper connection to the Earth needs to be re-established. Many people think they are not able to make a difference and many feel lost. But, even if all was lost, there is no reason why we should not make it easier for the next generation. Whatever we do – or do not do – always has an impact, either way. "If you have a dear friend with a terrible disease and she will die, will you give up on her? You still love that person and still care for her. You’d be amazed at how great a difference you make.”

Read the story of the last lioness

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