Last week we had the privilege of witnessing one of the great battles between two of Africa’s fiercest rivals. The afternoon commenced with a plan to spend some time with a herd of more than 500 buffalo which were passing through Londolozi’s south-western grasslands and had been seen earlier that morning. A spectacle on its own; however none of us could be prepared for the epic battle which was to transpire.
Although these large buffalo herds are seen relatively frequently there are often periods during which they are not encountered at all for a few days. A large herd like this needs to be constantly moving in search of grazing and water to sustain themselves which is why we thought we would take the opportunity to view them while they were there.
Within half an hour of leaving camp Talley Smith, who was already with the herd, updated us that there was also a pride of lions trailing these buffalo. Without hesitation we headed straight to where Talley had found the herd and were joined shortly afterwards by rangers Dan Buys and Sandros Sihlangu.
Towards the end of the dry season when nutritious grasses are scarce, grazers like buffalo can become more vulnerable as they lose condition. Lions will regularly trail these herds for hours and even days waiting for any weaker animals to be separated from the group, offering greater opportunity to view incredible interactions between these two age-old rivals.
On arrival we were greeted by a wall of enraged buffalo facing off with seven young lions – six of the Mhangeni breakaway pride (three males, three females) along with a young Talamati male who had been spending time with this pride. While the buffalo clearly demonstrated their displeasure at the presence of the pride, the lions seemed quite content to lie around and watch the herd whilst not taking any chances. The remainder of the herd continued grazing behind this standoff, knowing that as long as they kept in a tight grouping the lions would pose little threat. Lions risk their lives even in an attempt to bring down a lone buffalo never mind the collective force of a herd this size.
Within minutes of our arrival, a few of the old buffalo bulls decided they had had enough of the lion’s presence and would make the first move. Charging at the complacent lions, they easily separated the pride and forced three of the young male lions up onto a termite mound and one into a fallen over marula tree.
For the next half an hour the herd of buffalo continued its relentless pursuit of these lions. Eventually the lions accepted temporary defeat and focused their attention on a herd of wildebeest and dazzle of zebra which were grazing nearby and seemed unaware of the pride’s presence. After stalking for some time the lions were spotted by a pair of reedbuck which sounded their unique whistling alarm, resulting in the zebra and wildebeest swiftly running away. This was actually the first time I had heard the alarm call of this seldom-seen antelope.
Shortly afterwards, however, a new opportunity presented itself as the pride spotted two female buffalo that were separated from the rest of the large herd by at least 200m. Immediately tracker Bennet Mathonsi turned to me in excitement, aware of what drama could potentially ensue.
The three lionesses immediately began a stealthy approach towards these two lone buffalo followed closely behind by the males. We kept our distance, not wanting to interfere in any way, and waited in anticipation.
We watched the pride get to within 15m of the two cows before launching their attack. It was a rare opportunity to witness this interaction during the day and in such open terrain.
After the initial chaos it emerged that the pride had split and boldly gone for both buffalo simultaneously. Within minutes, one of the buffalo had been brought down and seemed to have given up the struggle as two of the lions clamped their jaws around its muzzle. The other buffalo was not going down without a fight and we watched in awe as the pride tried to bring down the second buffalo.
This continued for about fifteen minutes and it seemed as though the young lions had succeeded when all of a sudden Bennet spotted a cloud of dust in the distance moving towards us. The large herd, which were by this point about half a km away, had heard the bellowing distress calls and were stampeding in our direction.
The scene soon turned into chaos as a sea of slashing horns moved back and forth as the lions tried to hold on to their hard-earned meal. This back and forth interaction continued for some time with neither side giving in. Eventually the herd of buffalo managed to chase the determined lions off, at least far enough for a portion of the herd to escort one of the injured buffalos to safety and then return for the next. Both buffalos were severely injured, possibly even fatally so, but managed to stumble to safety while the herd surrounded them, continuously fending the lions off.