Whilst on drive on a recent winter morning we came across lion tracks in the sandy soil in the southern parts of Londolozi. It had been drizzling slightly, unusual for this time of year, but providing tracker Elmon Mhlongo with a valuable clue to determine when the lions had walked there. The lion tracks were the same colour as the surrounding sand, and were covered with small dots. “They walked here last night, before the drizzle – you can see the rain drops on top of the tracks”, says Elmon, as he followed the tracks down the road. He pauses and places his hand next to a single track, which is the same size as his hand. The track was made by a large male lion. Elmon points out two more sets of tracks just off in the distance, made by two more males. The three lions had most likely walked here together the night before and we had some catching up to do if we wanted to find them. Male lions can cover huge distances at night and usually walk in one general direction when marking territory. The trail was clear for a while, but then the lions suddenly changed direction, heading off in the same direction from where they came from. Just ahead on the road were tracks of a large herd of cape buffalo, which explained the lions’ sudden erratic behaviour.
We drove around, anticipating where the buffalo tracks were headed and trying to find higher ground which would allow us to scan for the backs of the buffalo dotted across the stunted round leaf teak forest. Through our binoculars we spotted the buffalo in the distance. This had been the opportunity we had needed to catch up with the lions. If we could get around to the herd, there was a possibility that we could find the lions trailing them. As we drove around we checked on top of termite mounds, which lions will often use as vantage points when trailing large herds of buffalo. We were only about a hundred yards from the buffalo when Elmon spotted the lion tracks again in the road, this time no older than a half an hour. The tracks paced up and down the road, leaving evidence that one of the lions had indecisively tried to stalk the herd, but had not been successful. Hunting buffalo is no easy feat for lions. A buffalo could feed three male lions for a few days, but one wrong move from the lions could send nearly four hundred buffalo, each weighing close to 1600 pounds stampeding in their direction.
We watched the herd of buffalo, completely unaware of the three lions that were almost certainly stalking them in the surrounding bushes. A few dominant bulls and their cows passed by our vehicle, some with small calves trailing directly behind them. Suddenly, some of the buffalo had gotten wind of what we could only assume was the lions. We were surrounded by a cloud of dust and the sound of thundering hooves as the herd stampeded away from where we had thought the lions were. We waited. There was silence. The dust subsided and still no lions appeared. The buffalo were long gone and the lions had almost certainly decided to lay up in some shade. As a result we didn’t find them. Well not just then at least.
We were completely immersed in an ancient battle between lions and buffalo that has been going on for as long as the two species have coexisted. Using the skill of local trackers like Elmon, we are able to slowly unravel the intricate details that start to paint the full picture of what goes on out here, which can be nearly as exciting as seeing the lions. We did eventually find these lions later that day. They were the three Talamati males that we assumed to be around four years old and, although have managed in the past are still been relatively inexperienced at hunting buffalo.
We live amongst lions here. That in itself is a statement that makes me feel extremely privileged. Historically lions roamed most of Africa and extended into Syria, Israel, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran and even northwest India. In the early 1800’s there were estimated to be nearly 1.2 million lions in these areas combined. By the 1940’s this number had dropped to 450 000 lions. This decline in the population was largely due to habitat loss and as a result, prey decline. Even diseases such as canine distemper and tuberculosis have caused a decrease in the population. At the time of writing, about 25 000 lions now remain in Africa, and of these, probably between 3000 and 4000 of these are males. Statistics such as these make us truly appreciate the opportunity that we have to follow the daily lives of lions and emphasizes the importance of providing large conservation areas where wild lions and herds of buffalo can roam free and continue the battle between horn and claw.