Seeing a kill take place when on safari is often viewed as the Holy Grail of wildlife sightings. The reality of the event, however, can be slightly more upsetting than people imagine, especially when it comes to two of Africa’s iconic rivals; buffalo and lions.
Whilst a leopard taking down an impala is generally a quick and silent affair – a few kicks and the impala’s struggles cease – when their cousins the lions take on Africa’s biggest bovine, it can be a drawn out contest which doesn’t really leave one feeling ebullient.
I drove some guests recently who were determined to see some action. A kill of any kind was top priority, and with lions hunting buffalo at the moment as if it’s going out of fashion, we reasoned that our best bet was to sit with a hungry pride and hope for the best. The Tsalala breakaways (Tailless lioness and four sub-adults) had been found in the morning, and so on our first drive we opted to wait with them and see what they got up to. As luck would have it it was a windy and cloudy night; perfect conditions for hunting. Sure enough, it wasn’t too long after nightfall that the five lions got up and began moving through some open areas, looking for hunting opportunities. Unfortunately, with there being so little grass cover around, general game was scarce in the area, and the pride eventually entered a particularly dense thicket through which we couldn’t follow. Tracker Freddy Ngobeni was adamant that we’d find them in the grasslands the next morning, where the buffalo herds have been spending time, and he was right on the money, as one of the other vehicles found them at around 7am, still with empty bellies.
Although buffalo herds dotted the area, and the Tailless female in particular seemed intent on having a go at one of them, the younger lions seemed slightly hesitant to follow her, and they all settled down to sleep, at which point we left them.
Decisions made in the bush can go either way, and instead of heading back to the lions again that afternoon, which was an option, we opted instead to look for the mating pair of leopards that had been found in the Tugwaan drainage line, as our guests had yet to see one of the spotted cats. To my horror, after much time spent on foot as Freddy tracked the pair, I got back to my vehicle at one point to hear a radio update that the same lions we had been following for two drives were now up and heading towards a nearby buffalo herd. Radioing ranger James Souchon for a full update, I asked how far the pride was from the herd. “Uh… about 30 metres,” was the response. My heart sank as I knew what we were about to miss, and sure enough, about 15 minutes later the lions had taken down an adult cow in the open. We, meanwhile had to abandon the tracks of the leopards as it had just got too dark to follow on foot anymore. So not only did we NOT find what we were looking for, but I then had to break the news to the vehicle about what had happened with the lions. We headed there anyway to watch the pride feed for a bit, and it was still a great sighting, although slightly marred by the knowledge of what we had missed.
The safari continued, with a couple of great sightings over the next two drives, and then the last morning dawned…
I was down on deck at Varty Camp early to make sure the coffee was ready for when the guests arrived on deck, and one of the security guards came running up to tell me how lions had just taken down a buffalo in front of Founders Camp, a few hundred metres upstream. It sounded pretty exciting, so I figured it might be best to get everyone into the Land Rover and drive across to see the aftermath. As I left the deck to check that everything was ready with the vehicle, I glanced down and noticed a lone buffalo cow standing in the bushes about 50m into the river.
Reaching the carpark barely a minute later, tracker Joy Mathebula was running up to me exclaiming, “The lions are killing a buffalo in the river!”
“Yes,” I responded, “they’ve already got it at Founders Camp. The security guards told me.”
“No, no!” he came back, “they’re taking it down right now! Listen!”. I stopped and stood quietly, and sure enough the unmistakeable bellowing of a buffalo in distress was emanating from the riverbed, right where I had come from barely two minutes before. Racing back to the deck, I saw the railing lined with guests and rangers, all focused on the thickets just in front of camp. Moving to the front of the crowd, I couldn’t believe my eyes, as there were the two Tsalala lionesses (the remaining mother and female from the core pride, not the breakaways who we had spent time with previously), just having brought down the buffalo cow I had seen before heading to the car park. The cow was on her side and still struggling, while the lionesses attempted to subdue her. Before I had even registered what I was seeing, I was sprinting to my guest’s rooms to race them to the deck in order to watch the drama unfold.
WARNING: GRAPHIC FOOTAGE
Within five minutes we were all assembled on the deck, and to our amazement, the older lioness left off the killing attempt before the buffalo was dead, in order to fetch the five cubs of the pride, which came scampering out of the thickets in tow behind her only a few minutes later. What further added to our incredulity was the fact that then the second lioness also left off her asphyxiation attempt on the buffalo, allowing the cubs to claw at its back whilst it was still alive and almost certainly able to swing its lethally sharp horns around. This was a potentially fatal move as a cub could easily have been gored to death. Fortunately, it seemed that by now the buffalo was just too weak to make any more effort, and when the younger lioness next administered a suffocating bite the buffalo breathed its last.
As incredible as it had been to witness nature in its rawest form, to see the drawn out struggles of an animal is never a heart-warming experience. Ultimately, all who were there that day were grateful when the buffalo’s struggles ceased, and although the scene had an air of sadness hanging over it, it was important to recognise the importance of the death of the buffalo cow in contributing to the survival of the pride and their cubs.
For three days the pride fed, lounging in the cool shade of the Matumi trees in the river by day and feeding during the cooler hours of the early mornings and evenings. Eventually the Matimba males joined as well, and we enjoyed incredible sightings of the whole spectrum of lions.
Although the pride is well known for hunting buffalo in the river, I have never in my six years at Londolozi been privileged to witness such a dramatic sighting from the deck of camp. None of the guests who were there will ever forget it, and morning coffee on the deck will from now on almost feel like there’s something missing…
Photographs and Video by Fred Schilling, Londolozi Guest