We, as humans, always tend to be more intrigued by the sheer beauty of leopards, the raw and immeasurable power of a lion and the perplexing, yet perfectly synchronised hunting methods of the wild dog and hyena.
Documentaries about these above-mentioned animals quite frequently show them successfully hunting various prey species. What they don’t show on all these documentaries though is, all the times these predators actually fail in their efforts to hunt specific species. Most predators, with the African Wild dog being the exception, only succeed around about 20 % of the time when hunting.
Prey species including the impala, blue wildebeest and nyala are extraordinarily adapted to avoid being hunted by even the most illustrious predators! Lets face it, everybody visiting the bush wants to witness a kill. In my experience though, an animal that escapes a pursuing predator brings a certain warmth to my heart, knowing that the animal will live to fight another day!
Impalas are the most successful herbivores at Londolozi. They are medium sized antelopes and are staple prey of all the larger predators found in the reserve. For a short period of time during the impala lambing season, it is a gluttonous feast for most predators, due to the fact that the young lambs aren’t as adapt as the adults to avoid predation. During this month-long period even raptors such as the martial eagle is big enough to carry off an impala fawn.
One summer morning, in the middle of the impala lambing season, I witnessed a leopard stalking a herd of impala! The leopard had a perfect opportunity as it had successfully managed to negotiate its way around tree squirrels (which by alarm calling will often give away the position of an ensuing predator) The impalas were congregated in an open area very close to a thicket. These impalas were as per usual vigilant and aware of their surroundings. Seconds later one of the impalas caught a glimpse of the leopard! It immediately raised the alarm with a powerful snort. Next moment all hell broke loose! The impalas scattered in all directions, using a technique called stotting to try and escape the now running leopard.
The impala kicks its hind legs nearly to the vertical and lands on its forelegs, rebounds, and brings its hindquarters down before landing again. There are quite a few theories why they exhibit this type of behaviour. The most likely though is that it gives the predator the impression that the impala is very athletic and in good condition and therefore very tough to catch.
They evaded the powerful stealthy predator and left me in awe of their athleticism and manoeuvrability.
The Blue Wildebeest:
The blue wildebeest is a large antelope and the adults are one of the primary prey species of lions at Londolozi. Calves, when born are on the menu of most of the predators. The calves are however able to stay with the herd from a very young age. When born, calves are able to stand in 10 minutes and run within the hour! Their breeding season coincides with that of the impala. This in itself is a form of avoidance because of the amount of calves and lambs in abundance during this period.
I’ve been lucky enough to see lions meticulously stalk blue wildebeest on several occasions without success. On one occasion a herd of blue wildebeest were feeding on open grassland in the Southern part of Londolozi. They were joined by impalas and zebras (two animals they very often associate with). The pride of lions tried to flank the animals by spreading out, which is a very effective technique and one lions employ frequently. The lions had their eyes set on one of the female wildebeest that had strayed away from the herd… The lions jumped out of their prone position and the hunt was on! The wildebeest reacted very late and we all thought it was going to be a one horse race. The wildebeest utilised its massive shoulder muscles to accelerate to a top speed of 80km per hour (they are the third fastest land mammal in the world!) to leave the lions in the dust and licking their wounds!
Footage of young impalas and wildebeest playing:
Even though they are not the most aesthetically pleasing animals to look at we should not undermine these funny looking beasts! They are one of the only species that has improved the range of their distribution over the last couple of years, and the above story proves why.
Nyalas, have adapted perfectly to the pristine, majestic riverine areas around the Sand River that flows through the heart of the Londolozi. These animals are traditionally abundant in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa.
The nyala relies heavily on its camouflage and lack of noise whilst moving through the bush. Dusk is perhaps the best time to witness how effective its camouflage is and on one game drive we had just the opportunity. Two nyalas were feeding, completely oblivious to the danger that lurked no more than ten meters away from them. Leopard! Everything was in the leopard’s favour, the wind, no other animals were around to sound an alarm call and we thought we were on the verge of witnessing a kill. As the leopard erupted out of its stalking position the nyalas ran into a thicket by using their hunched backs and thin bodies to slither and stoop through the thick bush! Three seconds later the bewildered nyalas just stood absolutely motionless in the bush. We saw the leopard had lost sight of them and it was absolutely unaware of their whereabouts.
The leopard, still very much in hunting mode went into a stalking position again and moved silently through the bush, the leopard crawled past the one nyala barely more than two meters away from it without noticing its quarry.
The nyala’s stripes on its body saved it this time around, the late afternoon sun rays shining through the canopy of the thicket had broken the outline of the sleek nyala and the leopard could not pick up the shape of the animal in the riverine thicket.
Footage of a Nyala birth in the confines of Varty Camp:
Animals bedazzle us on a daily basis with their habits and the way they survive on a warm, starlit night in the African bush! Their ability to survive the onslaught of lions, leopards, hyenas and all the predators that lurk in the night is astounding, and it leaves me dumbstruck every time I see an animal evade the sharp claws and teeth of a predator in full flight.
Written by: Werner Breedt.
Photographs: Simon Smit, James Tyrrell and Amy Attenborough