WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT. NOT FOR SENSITIVE VIEWERS
Lions sleep. A lot. In fact, to find lions not sleeping is relatively uncommon, and one of the reasons one heads out for game drive at first light is that you have a better chance of seeing them at least walking around before the soporific heat of the African day ushers them into the shade to snooze until nightfall.
Such was the case last week, when tracker Mike Sithole had an absolute stormer of a day, tracking and finding the Sparta Pride, a female cheetah, the Ximpalapala female leopard and a single Mhangeni lioness during the course of two game drives.
Mike’s heroics aside, the Sparta pride were settling in for the day’s slumbers when he found them, and after watching for a short while, we figured there was not much more to see, so we began the drive back to camp. Simon Smit was left with the lions for awhile, but within 3 minutes of our vehicle leaving, he was on the radio to me, recalling me to the sighting as there was a group of buffalo steadily approaching. The lions were relatively thin and therefore hungry, so knew there was the chance for some action. We had seen the same group of buffalo about half an hour before at a nearby pan, and quite unusually there was a female with the buffalo bulls, old and skinny, who we had immediately singled out as a potential target for any predators. As it happened, the lions were about to do the same…
Arriving back at the pride, we could see the bull buffalos approaching about 50m away, unaware of the presence of the lions. One of the young Sparta males was seen sneaking off in an encircling maneouver to the north, but before he could launch an attack, the lead buffalo had caught sight of one of the lionesses, and the herd immediately began their retreat. As far as we could tell, the lions didn’t follow, apart from a single male who trotted about 80 metres before climbing a termite mound to stare after the running bovines. We stayed with this male, hoping he would take up the chase, but he simply stood and listened.
Suddenly, Mike’s urgent command to be silent came from the back of the vehicle.
The rest of us heard nothing.
“Mfo, Famba!”, he said. “Brother, GO!!”. Mike’s exceptionally good hearing had caught the sound of a distant buffalo in distress before even the male lion had, and as I started the engine to race towards the noise, the young male heard it too and broke into a trot.
Now we knew the game was on!
Rounding a corner hot on the heels of the jogging male lion, very close to the pan we had first seen the buffalo at, Mike was (of course) the first to catch sight of the bellowing shape in the bush. It was the old buffalo cow, who the lions had immediately singled out as their target, pinned under three of the pride as the others closed in. Her distress cries had not gone unheard however, as out of the thicket the big bulls, having recovered from their initial fright at the lion’s appearance, came charging back in to the rescue of their comrade.
Buffalo hunting is very much like a boxing match for lions. Two iconic prize-fighters of the African bush, together in the ring, trading blows until one is the victor and the other is the vanquished. We were to have front row seats to the ultimate heavyweight battle.
The lions scattered as the bulls rushed in, leaving the cow to regain her feet, but things were only just getting started. Having recognized the obvious weakness of the cow, the Sparta pride were not about to let her go. Experienced buffalo hunters, having been honing their skills over the winter months this year, the lions knew exactly what to do. This was going to be a war of attrition, nothing more.
Each time the buffalo tried to retreat, the weakening cow lagged behind, and the pride took advantage of these gaps to hit her over and over, launching multiple attacks. Time and again, the cow would be hauled in by the lions, and two or three of them would hurl themselves onto her back in an attempt to drag her down. Each time this happened, her terrified bellows would summon the big bulls to her rescue once again, but each time the lions were repulsed, the cow would take longer and longer to rise to her feet.
After about five take-downs, she simply lay on the ground for a good 5 minutes, too weak to rise. The lions were circling ever closer, but the big bulls still stood in a defensive ring around the now injured and bleeding cow. She eventually rose for what was to be the final time, and in a last ditch attempt to get her to safety, the bulls nudged her along with them as they began accelerating across a clearing in a desperate attempt to flee. The cow’s energy reserves failed, and as she began to lag behind, one of the male lions jumped onto her rump, dragging her back down, while the buffalo bulls, realising that it was a lost cause, continued their headlong flight.
The final dramatic act in the tragedy played out before our eyes, right in the open, as the old cow, by now almost accepting of her fate and too weak to offer any kind of resistance, eventually succumbed.
A kill is in many ways the Holy Grail of wildlife sightings to witness, but when faced with the reality and not seeing it on a documentary from 5000 miles away, is can be a traumatic thing to experience. The sounds and smells, the dust billowing, the thrashing of bushes and the terrified wild eyes of the prey will forever be indelibly imprinted on the minds of all those who witness such events. The emotions and stimuli are intensified in a lion versus buffalo sighting, as the whole thing can take an awfully long time to play out to its conclusion.
The brave cow in this case was doomed from the moment the lions saw her. While her spirit was surely filled with resistance, her old, sick and frail body could not quite match her determination to survive, and even 10 big bulls couldn’t help her avoid her fate.
We were speechless as the lions settled down to feed. No superlatives can describe an event of this magnitude. From sleeping lions one minute to the ultimate battle of the African plains the next, everyone on the vehicle knew that no matter how many times we returned to the bush and how many game drives we went on, what we had seen on that morning would forever rank as one of the most incredible scenes we would ever be privileged enough to witness.
Written by James Tyrrell
Photographed by James Tyrrell and Simon Smit
Filmed by Kate Hardie