I don’t want to write too much about this sighting.
Because I can’t.
Short of saying it was the single most awesome sighting I have probably ever been witness to in the bush, there are no real words to describe how unbelievable it was. Without surround sound and the most sophisticated of rifle microphones to capture the incredible noise, without the dust billowing out from under lethal paws, without the palpable fury emanating from every individual animal that was there flooding into your system from only a few metres away, it is impossible to appreciate the emotions one experiences when confronted with a scene like that.
I’ll try to let the photos and video do it some sort of justice, but in words, here is what happened…
The Sparta pride had been spending time in the deep south, so ranger Don Heyneke and I took our guests on an expedition to find them. Tracker Mike Sithole found fresh dung of a black rhino within half an hour of us leaving camp, and at about the same time tracker Judas Ngomane, who works with Don, found tracks of the pride down in our south eastern corner, heading for the Sand River, which forms Londolozi’s boundary in that area. Suspecting that the pride may have crossed out of our property, Mike and I stayed on the tracks of the black rhino (a very rare animal in these parts, and one that I’ve never seen on Londolozi) while Don and Judas followed the pride’s tracks.
20 minutes later, with the Londolozi Tracker Academy moving in to lend invaluable assistance, we were still following tracks of the rhino when Mike recommended I take the guests for coffee while he stayed with the other trackers to follow the trail. Getting back to my vehicle, I learned via the radio that Don and Judas had in fact found the lions, and they were on a buffalo kill!!
I decided to head straight there, leaving Mike and the Tracking Academy on foot looking for the rhino.
When I arrived, all was relatively peaceful. A few hyenas skulked around the place and one lioness was feeding on the buffalo whilst the rest of the pride dozed nearby. Although a number of hyenas were calling, and a couple more of them were filtering in, no interaction was taking place. Yet.
One of the hyenas was briefly bullied into submission by a bigger one, and his squeals served as a stimulant to the lions, in particular the young males, who suddenly charged out of thickets towards the clan, their natural animosity towards hyenas suddenly aroused, despite no imminent threat.
Barrelling straight into the clan of hyenas (now numbering more than ten), the lions soon dispersed them, and presently retreated back to the kill whilst the hyenas headed to a nearby waterhole.
The sun was getting hotter, things calmed down, it seemed like the action was over…
Deciding to let the lions sleep the morning away, as it looked like they were about to do, we began heading out, but just as we turned away from the scene, a single lioness began making her way towards the waterhole. Alone. Isolated.
Followed by her sister, neither lioness noticed about 7 or 8 hyenas lying behind a nearby bird hide. As one lioness approached the water for a drink, the other remained behind in the clearing, looking about her, and the hyenas saw their chance and moved in.
They didn’t have the numbers at first. The lioness lowered herself to a crouch, and her flattened ears and lashing tail were sure signs of her anger. The hyenas put on a bold front as they faced the lioness across a gap of about 20 metres, but neither species made a move. One or two of the hyenas let out their eerie whoops to summon reinforcements, and within moments, the number of hyenas facing off against the lioness had grown. More were pouring in. Something had to break. It did.
The lioness cracked first. Charging forward, she leaped at the hyenas, but pressed together as they were, they realised they had the numbers to confront her on equal terms, and as they didn’t back down, the lioness’ courage failed her and she broke off the charge, diving into a buffalo thorn tree.
The hyenas surged in to attack her, and she fled, with the hyenas in hot pursuit.
While they chased her past our vehicle into a nearby Tamboti thicket and roars and dust clouds billowed forth, the second lioness had meanwhile made her way back from her drink, and found herself cornered by an angry mob of advancing hyenas. She was attacked without mercy, and was forced to pin her tail under her to guard her rump.
The commotion had not fallen on deaf ears however, and from the direction of the kill the rest of the pride suddenly came tearing in, led by the young males. Chaos ensued as lion attacked hyena and vice versa, and we had front row seats to some incredible action.
Once things had quietened down and the lions had regrouped next to the waterhole, the hyenas suddenly saw their gap, and as one, rushed to the now abandoned buffalo carcass, about 200m away in the thicket. They began gorging themselves, but the noise of their cackling and laughter carried easily to the pride, who came roaring back to reclaim their kill.
The young male lions approached the carcass – now covered in bloody hyenas – seemingly hesitant at first when confronted by more than 20 of their deadliest rivals. They became bolder, and without warning charged in at the shrieking clan, scattering them left and right. The noise was indescribable! I couldn’t hear my guests exclaiming in disbelief and awe, less than a metre from my head, the din was that deafening!
The young male lions, offspring of the mighty Majingilane, and choosing this moment to try to emulate their all-powerful fathers, carried all before them, and after a few moments of back-and-forth, had reclaimed the carcass for their pride.
I’m actually getting too excited by writing this, reliving the sighting in my mind by playing the video and the looking at the pictures. The action wound down from there and I will too, leaving you to enjoy the clip.
I’ll probably never see this kind of interaction here again, or if I do, not for a long time.
One thing is clear; the iconic rivalry between the two super-predators of Africa is as strong as ever!
Written by James Tyrrell
Photographed by James Tyrrell and Andrea Campbell
Filmed by James Tyrrell, Andrea Campbell and Russell Samson