A few weeks ago we released a video on the transformation of the bush after the drought. Without having been here during the heart of the dry times, it’s almost impossible to appreciate the change that Londolozi – and indeed the whole area – has undergone.
One of the focus points of the video was the local buffalo population, whose numbers suffered a severe drop during the 2016 drought through a combination of malnutrition and predation. Where huge herds once roamed, sometimes 2000-strong, we were seeing fragmented groups, seldom numbering more than 20, as the buffalo scoured the landscape, desperately seeking any grass they could find. For the most part they were to be disappointed, as almost everything had already been consumed by other grazers or termites, and what little remained was dry, coarse, and of limited nutritional value.
Large buffalo herds are usually comprised of smaller family groups which will remain together within the larger herd structure. This is often evident when a herd is lying up to rest, and smaller clumps of individuals are easily discernible. During normal wintes at Londolozi the herds increase in number, as smaller groups congregate on the better feeding grounds, merging into much larger aggregations. During lush summers the big herds will then often disband slightly as good grazing is to be found all over the reserve, only to reform as the bush begins to dry out.
2016 obviously saw a break in the normal movement and behaviour of the buffalo in the Sabi Sands, as skeletal individuals abandoned any attempt to form large herds, splitting up with only survival in mind. Survival, unfortunately, was what a large number of them were not granted, as the lions picked them off one by one, the buffaloes’ bony frames unable to muster the energy to defend themselves from attack by the big cats. There was so little meat on each buffalo taken down that the lions would regularly make multiple kills during the day; sparse cover meant visibility across the landscape was at an all-time high, and the keen-eyed lions had no trouble in spotting other weakened buffalo in the distance, often moving off a partially consumed kill to make another one.
Fortunately, nature being cyclical, the rains did eventually return, and the end of 2016 into the early parts of this year saw the most incredible transformation of the bushveld. Grass flourished where once was only bare soil, pans filled up and the riverbeds all flowed again. Whilst some things burst into life almost overnight, other aspects of the environment have taken longer to adjust, the buffalo population being one of them. We have seen a slow regrouping of individuals into larger and larger herds, and although the population took a dent during the drought, I doubt it will take too long to recover, as with the buffalo regaining their bulk through plentiful grazing, the lions have for the most part reverted back to tackling easier prey species.
Within a year or two we should hopefully be seeing herds of well over 1000 marching through the grasslands once more.