A few afternoon’s ago my radio sounded with this message, “stations, I have located an African rock python with an impala lamb kill!”

Garrett Fitzpatrick and Life Sibuyi, another ranger/tracker duo, had spotted a python coiled tightly around an impala’s suffocated body and its dislocated jaws engulfing the head of the antelope. The patient hunt and fatal strike were estimated to have happened just a few minutes prior to this. Being a fresh kill, tracker Rob Hlatswayo and I knew what was coming next… We had to get there as soon as possible if we wanted to see this snake feed. We knew that to watch a python utilising its strength and power to swallow a newborn impala was very rare. Rob had heard the radio update too and without any discussion, we shouted, almost synchronously, “Aye-fam, boetie!” meaning “let’s go, brother!” in the local Shangaan language.

This was the scene we were met with upon arrival. The snake was wrapped tightly around its prey, having already devoured the head and shoulders of the impala lamb.

We arrived at the scene and our jaws dropped almost to the floor of the Land Rover at the spectacle in front of us. It was as if we were in the real-life version of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. A python of about 2m in length was maneuvering its body expertly around the small antelope, aiming to break it down into a soft pulp so that it could ingest and then digest it. The lamb’s head was already inside the python’s gape but the largest and most difficult section of the antelope’s body was yet to come. The midrib of the antelope is the widest area and the area that needed most of the reptile’s energy and effort to swallow it.

Watch the video below of a python kill filmed here on Londolozi a few years back to get a sense of how they eat their prey.

Having done most of the hard work, the python approaches the legs of the antelope. From here it wasn’t long before the impala was completely gone.

The snake had a formula; it would adjust its grip, tighten and break bones, then build up enough power starting from the tip of its tail and sending it in a wave-like motion to its head. Then it would push itself and its jaws over more of its prey. It repeated these actions for about forty minutes until the entire midrib of the impala lay inside the body of the snake.

Just the hooves of the impala remain unswallowed. This meal is likely to keep this python fed for a couple of months.

Lastly, it ate the legs. This wasn’t too difficult for the snake to ingest and within about ten minutes they were gone, leaving only the hooves. The hooves provided the snake with more of a challenge. Using an array of different stretches and elongations of the spine and neck, bouts of head-cocking, mouth opening and closing and awkward neck movements, the slow-growing hard keratin of the hooves disappeared into the throat of the snake.

Throughout the epic episode we had borne witness to, the colour and shape of the snake was very clear to all of us on the vehicle. The writhing movements of the snake along with its exposed bright white underbelly made it stand out from the surrounding soil and grass. However, as soon as the kill had successfully been devoured, the snake turned onto its belly and became dead still. This eliminated the previously clear view of the snake. The white of the underbelly was gone and all we could see were those brilliant python patterns where thirty seconds ago a writhing mass of movement had been. The patterns and colours almost completely camouflaged the animal into its surrounding environment. If we had driven past at that point, we would have had no clue as to what incredible natural event had just taken place. Now we understood how this reptile had made the kill. It must have chosen a specific position based on the general movements of a slow-moving herd of impalas, probably grazing as the event took place out in the open. The snake must have waited there patiently for hours until an oblivious impala lamb hobbled over into the python’s strike zone. The rest, as they would say, is history.

Filed under Wildlife

About the Author

Bruce Arnott

Field Guide

Bruce grew up on a plot of farmland in the midlands of KwaZulu-Natal. He always had a passion for the bush and the outdoors, having been camping and fishing since he was a young boy. He attended school in the Natal midlands after ...

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7 Comments

on Python Devours Impala Lamb

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Marinda Drake

Wow! This is a once in a lifetime sighting. You never know what you see out there in the bush.

Darlene Knott

That has to be one of the most incredible sightings ever! I just cannot imagine! I have not seen many snakes on my many safaris. I certainly have never seen anything like this. I would say I don’t want to, but then again, it is nature at work, and has to be jaw dropping (so to speak) to watch. Thanks so much for sharing this, Bruce. It is etched forever in my mind!

Callum Evans

That is such an incredible sighting!! To see a python is rare enough but to see one hunting??!! I’ve also heard of two sightings when a leopard approached a python feeding (on an impala or a duiker) and it forced the snake to disgorge its prey.

Denise Vouri

Unbelievable! That had to have been the sighting of the week. The video really gave credence to how a snake can catch and consume its prey. It’s straight out of National Geographic. I can hardly wait for your next adventure.

Samantha Hamilton

INCREDIBLE! What an amazing sighting. Please tell Garrett and Life my expectations for my next visit are up! haha – kidding!
What luck!

Wendy Hawkins

Wow what an amazing sighting! I felt as if I had been there watching Bruce, your blog was so interesting – I love pythons – Thank you

Joanne Wadsworth

Stunned. I didn’t think this was possible! Great storyline Bruce, photo’s along with the tell-all video.

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