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