African wild dogs number between 3000 and 5500 in the whole wild world, and today there’s one less than there was before. We were hot on the tracks of a young leopard who was proving elusive, when we suddenly found ourselves pretty much in the middle of a pack of these gorgeous dogs. We followed the adults and five young pups, driving hard over everything in our way to keep up with them, as they ran through the scrub, clearly in hunting mode. Their highly civilized social structure, which is fiercely protective of young pups, the elderly, the sick and the injured alike, forms a fascinating contrast with their obviously feral instincts and pure gumption – we saw them leaping at a rhino probably twice their combined size and weight! The pack continued on its way, and not wanting to lose sight of such a rare animal, we followed.
We had just entered a small valley, while the dogs, ahead of us of course, were making their way up the other side. The first strange thing I noticed was that they were all looking back into the valley, and then started running back down. Before seeing anything I remember hearing someone saying “Oh my god, a leopard is attacking the wild dogs,” and then I saw it. The leopard, who we later found out was the Maxabene 3:2 Young Male, otherwise known as Pinky – named so because of his extraordinarily pink nose, had charged straight into the pack, targeting a young pup. We had seen this pup minutes before frolicking with its siblings, tumbling here and there on the road, but now, with one great swipe of his paw, the leopard had incapacitated it entirely.
It was an attack born of desperation and was not to go unavenged – the entire pack turned and pounced on the leopard, refusing to let him finish the job. They got him down on the ground, as I watched in horror, trying through the tears that filled my eyes to bring my camera around to capture the tangle of bodies. He writhed and wriggled somehow out of their grasp and bounded up a tree out of reach within seconds. My heart was in my mouth and I almost didn’t know where to look, till a sudden high-pitched scream filled the air and someone yelled “Hyenas!” My camera moved almost before my eyes, and my finger was pressed down hard on the button, trying to capture digitally events that were moving too fast perhaps for my memory. With the pack focused on the leopard, hyenas had appeared within 20 seconds, sunk their teeth into the injured pup, killed it and begun to make off with it. The pack worried the hyenas for a few seconds, snapping at their haunches, but soon realizing there was no hope for the pup, they cut their losses and ran. The safety of the four remaining pups was paramount.
The hyenas brought the carcass within 5 feet of the jeeps, and began their little feast. There were three, but hierarchy within a clan dictates that the alphas feed first and so it was that two fed and one watched right till the end. The smell of death pervaded the air, reaching even my blocked sinuses, and the sound of bones crunching interspersed with their horrific shrieks is something I will never forget. The shock seemed to have numbed me, as I made sure my camera was steady as I recorded the hyenas tearing the carcass of the puppy to pieces. I watched and recorded as one hyena tore off a paw and stood with it sticking sideways out of his mouth, while another ripped flesh from bone, the poor pup’s head flopping limply from its powerful jaws. I almost couldn’t breathe but the recording went on.
In the meantime, the wild dog pack had disappeared but the leopard was still up the tree in front of us. Once a certain calm prevailed, he slowly made his way down, and began creeping towards where the hyenas were devouring the carcass, their paws, chests and muzzles spattered with blood. He moved ever so slowly and carefully, and though we could see him clear as day, the hyenas hadn’t a clue he was around. Still, they picked up the carcass and moved to a spot further away, while we watched the empty belly of this desperately hungry leopard heaving with each breath. The third hyena reappeared suddenly, forcing the leopard up another tree. Grasping at every flash of a photographic opportunity, I recorded him watching the hyenas take the kill that was perhaps rightfully his further and further away. I knew he had to come down some time, so my camera remained trained on him, and of course, come down he did. The hyenas were far away by this time – his chance, however slim, was gone.
We chose not to follow the grieving dogs, the starving leopard or the feasting hyenas, because each of them deserved their peace. Mike has said time and again, that whether we see it or not, there is no doubt that animals mourn. It was time to let the pack mourn the death of the fourth of their litter of eight, while the leopard searched for scraps for his meal and the hyenas gorged. Another thing Mike says fairly often is that The Lion King did for hyenas what Jaws did for the Great White Shark. Though it’s clear that hyenas outrank, outfight, and outsmart most other predators, it’s hard to let go of the prejudice against them, specially when you hear them shrieking – but let go we must. They won the day’s fight fair and square.
It’s a harsh world out there – survival of the fittest, they say. We go about our daily lives uncaring of others, perhaps to the extent of ruthlessness. But the beauty of bush, coming back to pearls of wisdom cast by Mike, is that they kill because they must eat – there is absolutely no deceit in it.
Londolozi as a whole is impossible to forget, and perhaps one would say our luck has been extraordinary, but I prefer to believe that a lot of it has to do with Jerry and Mike and the skill and passion they bring to their day-to-day work. They’ve been our guides to the animal world – its love and loss, gentleness and brutality, life and death – embodying the indomitable all-encompassing spirit of the African bush.
Written by: Sanjana Manaktala (Londolozi Guest)
Photographed by: Sanjana Manaktala and Brian Datnow (Londolozi Guests)