Certain rangers are known for their affinity for certain animals. Mike Miller was a lion man, through and through. Mike worked as a ranger at Londolozi from 2009 to 2011, and if you wanted to see a kill, he was the guy to go on drive with. His tally of successful hunts witnessed during this time far exceeded that of any other ranger, mainly due to his dogged persistence, sticking with prowling lions well into the night when other vehicles had long since returned to camp for dinner. Mike’s hulking 6’6 frame also lent him a certain amount of credibility when it came to decision making. When he told guests they were going to wait with the lions for however long it took until they got something, I imagine it would have been quite an intimidating prospect for the guests to have objected!
Anyway, the first kill I ever witnessed was thanks to Mike. I was still training as a ranger at the time, and fellow trainee Dan Buys and I were coming back from drive one evening when we saw the spotlight of a vehicle moving slowly past the boom gate at camp. Being pretty wet behind the ears at the time, and basically useless, we hadn’t been listening to our radio properly, and had missed Mike’s update that the two Tsalala lionesses had been found and were heading for the airstrip. He called us into the sighting, radioing that the two lionesses were definitely hungry and on the hunt. True as Bob, in less than 20 minutes the lions had caught and begun devouring a young wildebeest on the Northern side of the airstrip. That evening actually became pretty crazy after that as the Sparta Pride killed an impala about 200m away, a little further down the airstrip, and about 25 hyenas descended on the scene out of the darkness. With two prides growling and feeding within sight of each other, hyenas running everywhere and chaos reigning, it was as about as hectic a sighting as you can get. That’s a story for another day, but I clearly remember Mike radioing Dan and I afterwards and asking with a wicked inflection in his voice “How much do you love lions NOW?!”. A lot, was our enthusiastic response.
I learnt from Mike that patience was the key to witnessing a successful lion hunt. Sometimes they won’t kill for days, yet if you are not there waiting with them as they get up and move off into the night, you will see nothing. I am sure many visitors to Africa’s shores are actually disappointed with their first view of a lion, passed out in the shade, fast asleep. The highlights package that Discovery Channel and National Geographic tend to be can raise expectations slightly too high.
A few days ago we left camp on a chilly, windy morning, hoping to find a leopard. I was just outlining the plan to the guests when Mike Sithole shouted “Lions!” from the bonnet. The three Tsalala lionesses were curled up in a little huddle near the airstrip, trying to stay warm in the cold breeze that was blowing. Seeing relatively saggy bellies, and seeing no reason that the lionesses would want to stay in the exposed spot they were in, we decided to wait with them for awhile, confident that they would move. Sure enough, about 20 minutes later, the characteristic yawns and stretching began, indicating their intention to get going. They crossed the airstrip at a slow walk, when suddenly the mood changed.
As one they stopped dead, heads turned up into the wind, listening intently and smelling the air. We could not see what animal they had scented, but when one lioness ducked into the thicket line, another ran back around behind us and out on a wide loop to come in from the opposite side, and the third one began walking straight into the wind, we knew the hunt was on!
All we could see was the tailed lioness in the distance, making her way carefully and at a crouch across the open area near the airstrip parking bay. All of a sudden she broke into a trot, kicking up puffs of dust as she began accelerating, and right on cue, four wildebeest came bursting out of the undergrowth about 50m head of her. Just as we thought that she had missed completely, mis-timing her run, a loud impact smack was heard from the bushes followed immediately by a bleat of distress from another wildebeest. Putting my foot down, we raced forward, coming through a gap in the Bushwillows to see the other two females in the act of bringing down a wildebeest yearling. It was the sub-adult lioness that had made the hit, proving her growing prowess as a hunter, but in her inexperience she failed to get a proper grip on the wildebeest’s throat and it was a while before it’s struggles ended once and for all.
It was an amazing lesson in how suddenly things in the bush can change. From sleeping lions to one of the most dramatic scenes anyone could ask for when viewing wildlife in barely 10 minutes.
We watched the lions feed for awhile, and as we drove away it struck me that we were less than 100m away from where I had seen my first lion kill almost three years ago. It was the same lions, bringing down the same prey, at almost exactly the same spot. I couldn’t help but think of Mike and his question to me back then; “How much do you love lions NOW?”…
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell
Filmed by Joy Bryan (Londolozi Guest)