Male lion keeps watch at night

Photo: © Michael Nichols/National Geographic

A portrait of a fierce feline

National Geographic August 2013 coverThis August, National Geographic is treating big cat lovers to a rare glimpse of one of Africa's fiercest predators.

In The Short Life of the Serengeti Lion, leading researchers and ambitious journalists document daily pride life and try to pinpoint what makes these felines such compelling animals:

Tigers are solitary. Cougars are solitary. No leopard wants to associate with a bunch of other leopards. The lion is the only feline that’s truly social, living in prides and coalitions, the size and dynamics of which are determined by an intricate balance of evolutionary costs and benefits. Why has social behavior, lacking in other cats, become so important in this one?

The dark-maned male pictured above is C-boy, a prominent character profiled in this story set in Tanzania's iconic Serengeti National Park. Because the leading cause of death among lions is being killed by other lions, C-boy must maintain a vigilant watch day and night to defend his interests.

The photos are the hard work of award-winning photographer Michael "Nick" Nichols, who has devoted more than two years in Africa to document these majestic predators. To capture such amazing images, Nichols and his team utilized a wide array of creative tools, including infrared cameras, robots, helicopters, camera traps and remote-controlled cars.

In addition to the magazine article, Nichols' one-of-a-kind portfolio is being showcased in a new digital storytelling experiment that uses a combination of video, audio and stills to immerse viewers in the sights and sounds of lion life.

The magazine generously shared more photos (below), and if you're itching to learn how to take your own stunning lion photos, you can watch the video below to see the high-tech tools in action:

* * * 
 
Young lion cub eats a zebra carcass

Photo: © Michael Nichols/National Geographic

Cubs of the Simba East pride: Too young to kill but old enough to crave meat. Adult females, and sometimes males, do the hunting. Zebras and wildebeests rank high as chosen prey in the rainy season.

* * * 
 
Lions mating in the Serengeti

Photo: © Michael Nichols/National Geographic

C-Boy mates with a Kibumbu pride female. After fathering cubs, a resident male can be displaced by other males. His young offspring will then be killed by the new males or left to die.

* * * 
 
Cubs and lionesses hang out

Photo: © Michael Nichols/National Geographic

Older cubs like these Vumbi youngsters are raised together as a crèche, or nursery group. Pride females, united in the cause of rearing a generation, nurse and groom their own and others’ offspring.

* * * 
 
Pride of lions basking on a rock in the Serengeti

Photo: © Michael Nichols/National Geographic

The Vumbis rest on a kopje, or rocky outcrop, near a favorite water hole. Lions use kopjes as havens and outlooks on the plains. When the rains bring green grass, wildebeests arrive in vast herds.

* * * 
 
Male lion eats from a zebra carcass

Photo: © Michael Nichols/National Geographic

A male often asserts his prerogatives. C-Boy feasts on a zebra while the Vumbi females and cubs wait nearby, warned off by his low growls. Their turn will come.

* * * 
 
Lions eating a wildebeest carcass

Photo: © Michael Nichols/National Geographic

Large cubs of the Vumbi pride and a grown female (fifth from left) feast on a wildebeest. The darkest, moonless hours are prime hunting time because the cats can see better than their prey. These black-and-white photographs were made with infrared light to minimize disruption to the lions.

* * * 
 
Female lions get in a fight with male lion

Photo: © Michael Nichols/National Geographic

Dry season is hard on everyone. Vumbi females, stressed and fiercely protective of their young, get cross with C-Boy, though he’s one of the resident fathers.

* * * 
 
Catie Leary is a photo editor at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.