I have been working in the bush for almost seven years now (with a few gaps in between) and have been incredibly lucky to see some remarkable things. These special moments include watching a giraffe give birth, seeing tiny one-day-old lion cubs, and witnessing wild dog pups emerging from their den site for the very first time, but there was one quintessential sighting that had always eluded me… The infamous battle of lions killing a Cape buffalo.

It may sound a little twisted that one would wish to see this but to me it’s one of the oldest and hardest fought battles in the African bush and although I would never wish any animal to die, these hunts occur regardless of whether I’m there or not. So I believe if I want to truly know and understand this place then I need to witness the full spectrum of these animal’s experiences. I knew that it could be pretty gruesome and rough to watch but I wanted to know how it would make me feel.

It may also seem crazy that after seven years this dream had not been fulfilled (I’m even a little embarrassed to admit it) but I’d just had bad luck in this regard. Either we would be on the hot tracks of a pride of lions and find them just as the last breaths were leaving the buffalo, or I’d see lions leaping onto the back of the buffalo and just when I thought it was all over, the rest of the herd would turn and as one force, drive the lions back again. It seemed to me that it was just never to be for me.

So when James Tyrrell and I sat with the Tsalala Pride just a few days ago and they lounged on some boulders in the river while their cubs played, I had zero forethought that it would be the morning ‘my luck’ would turn.

In fact even when the two lionesses lifted their heads in a curious manner, got up and started moving with purpose in the direction that Ranger Don Heyneke had just seen a small herd of buffalo, I literally scoffed and uttered the exact words,

“I don’t believe in buffalo kills anymore”.

We soon lost view of the lionesses as they jogged into some palm thickets and we raced the vehicle around to see if we could find what they were hunting. Sure enough when we rounded the corner a small group of buffalo stood unsuspecting in full view. I thought to myself, “well at least this will be interesting”. I had got to the point where to believe it would actually happen had just got disappointing.

A few seconds later the lionesses emerged from the brush at a lope and the buffalo scattered. A majority of the group went one way and left a cow behind, isolated. The lionesses took turns attempting to leap on her back as the other one distracted her from the front. The lionesses were wary of her horns and despite the weakened condition of buffalo at the moment, the cow still managed to swivel a few times, protecting her rump. During one of those swivels though, one of the lionesses took the gap and managed to leap on her, dragging her down to the ground.

In normal conditions, two lionesses would have taken much longer to bring down such large and strong prey but with the drought still persisting, the buffalo are thin and weak, herds are fragmented and there is far less chance of other buffalo risking coming back to defend a fellow herd member. This is why I was so shocked when the lions took another thirty minutes to actually kill the cow.

Despite her thrashing horns and attempts to get back up, the lionesses just wouldn’t go for the throat; the area they normally clamp down on to suffocate their prey so that they can begin to feed without risk of injury. In this situation though they began feeding below her front leg and rump. The cubs even rushed in and began to try to open her up before she was dead.

To be quite frank, I was a little mortified by this. I didn’t find myself thinking that lions were cruel or wanting to get involved because I respect nature’s way but I certainly didn’t get enjoyment out of the experience. There was a look of sheer terror in that buffalo’s eyes and at one point she turned and began to lick the area of her shoulder where the lions claws had punctured her flesh. It was such a small moment in the greater scheme of the morning but it struck me. It was an action that seemed so bizarrely unnecessary when she really had much bigger issues to deal with. It seemed as if she was just trying to get some sort of relief and this was all she was capable of mustering and this struck me as so incredible harsh. I understand how integral death is to life and that the lions needed to make this kill in order to sustain themselves and that the cubs need this meat to survive and grow but to not have found extreme empathy for this terrified creature in the moment would have felt like I’d lost some part of my humanity.

I think what I learnt here was that things really do happen when you least expect them. That to want something and then really let go of your attachment to the intention is when it comes into fruition. But that you should be careful what you wish for too. I really am grateful for the fact that I was given the opportunity to bear witness to this remarkable scene but I suppose I was more profoundly affected by it than I previously would have imagined. Another reminder that there really is just so much that nature has to teach me if I remain open to it.

Video by James Tyrrell

Filed under Featured Wildlife

About the Author

Amy Attenborough

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Amy has a rich field-guiding history, having spent time at both Phinda and Ngala Game Reserves. This diversity of past guiding locations brought her an intimate understanding of different biomes across South Africa, and she immediately began making a name for herself as ...

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13 Comments

on The Buffalo Kill That Took Seven Years

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Gillian Evans
Guest

I too always thought I would like to witness this – having seen buffalo taking out young lion cubs in Kenya – but that is an agonising way for that buffalo to succumb to the lions. Glad you didn’t show any more footage! Did the lions not go for the strangle hold because they knew the buffalo was too weak to defend herself?

Amy Attenborough

Hi Gillian. Yes I think this was the case exactly. They knew they could begin feeding and even have the cubs close by without too much danger. The buffalo did make a valiant effort though and nearly managed to stand on a few occasions but I think the throat grip would have been far more crucial had the buffalo been in better condition!

Peggy
Guest

Breaks your heart…

Kristine Dong
Guest

Wow, I oddly needed this today after our election. It helped in some sick way. Thank you.

Jeff Rodgers
Guest

As beautifully and sensitively told as could be for this intense story.

Amy Attenborough

Thank you Jeff!

Wendy MacNicol
Guest

I agree. It is heartrending. People say to me “Get over it. It is the way of the Bush.” I understand that. However, I don’t have to watch the agony. Who wants to see any creature or human suffer? People die from cancer. Our daughter did a few years ago. I HAD to watch this because we were there every day helping because she died at home. There are no words to express what we saw and witnessed. I love watching wild life in the Bush. However kills are just NOT my scene. Wendy

Amy Attenborough

Hi Wendy. I completely understand why you wouldn’t want to watch a kill even though you understand that it’s nature’s way when you relate what you’re seeing to the grief of losing your daughter. I’m so sorry for your loss. I do hope nature has brought you beauty, happiness and healing instead. All my best, Amy

Vicky Sanders
Guest

Oh wow! Seven years in the making! I am happy (?) you finally witnessed this quintessential, action-packed African battle. I, also, realize how extremely lucky us WildEarth fans are, as while on SafariLive we have witnessed many buffalo kills over the past two years. Sometimes even the buffalo wins the battle & manages to live another day. It is a sight to behold. I love the stalk, the hunt, and even the battle to the ground. But, yes, the killing & dying part, the bellows of pain, are very difficult to witness, After the lionesses have suffocated the buffalo (ours usually go for the nose & drown it in its own blood, ugh), to me it is just meat, nourishment for the lions. We do have to keep perspective. You’ve got the first kill out of the way. I think they become a little easier after awhile. I’m hoping it is not another seven years until the next one.

Tim
Guest

One would need to be pretty insensitive not to be moved in some way or other. The kill is surely the pinnacle of the safari experience. I do wonder though whether the suffering is as intense as the visual spectacle or whether the animal goes into a state of shock where the pain levels are diminished to a more bearable level ?

Amy Attenborough

Hi Tim. It really is so hard to say. You would certainly hope so though! I think what bothered me was the look in the buffalo’s eyes but I’m not sure how much actually pain she was feeling at the time. As little as possible I hope!

Gillian Lacey
Guest

When we were at Londolozi in April we were very fortunate to have Jerry Hambana as our tracker. I asked him what he loved most about the bush and his answer was “the animals” and then I asked what he least liked about the bush. His answer was a lion/buffalo kill. The noise of the buffalo in extreme distress; the length of time it takes to kill the animal; the fact they start eating before the animal is dead and the cries of pain. He said he would never get used to it or find it easy to watch.

Jill Larone
Guest

Very sad — not something I ever want to see.

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