Recently we have been reporting extensively on how the lions of Londolozi are on a high, enjoying the plethora of weakened buffalo and other prey scattering the land. Being the most dominant predator in these parts they tend to not have too much to worry about in terms of competition but as is so often the case in the bush you can just never guarantee when the tables will turn. Recently we bared witness to what can happen to the ‘king of the jungle’ when they find themselves outnumbered, in this case by a huge clan of hyenas.
Tracker Sersant and I were walking in a dry river bed, following tracks of a female leopard that had killed something and dragged it to a tree. We found the hoisted duiker kill but there was no leopard in sight and so we were scouting out the area to attempt to find where she had gone. This was incredibly fortuitous because while we were walking we were not distracted by the sound of the vehicle and as we quietly moved on foot we heard the distant and very distinctive chattering of hyenas. Hyenas make a wide variety of sounds which differ depending on whether they’ve got food, if they’re contacting calling to each other, if they’re in distress or if they’re marking territory. The noise that we heard was the unmistakable, excitable sound of heckling and from what we could hear there were a lot of them!
We rushed back to the vehicle and headed in the direction of the commotion, deciphering that it was coming from close to a hyena den site we were familiar with. When we got there the scene we were met with was sheer chaos. A single lioness was surrounded by over twenty hyenas who were circling and intimidating her. At first she crouched low to the ground, growling and readying herself, making sure hyenas didn’t circle round to the back of her where she couldn’t defend herself. It was incredibly intense and we all sat with baited breath because we knew just how dire her situation was. Should some of the hyenas manage to grab hold of her, there was no way she would have been able to fend off the entire clan. It took a while for the hyenas to build up the courage but once one of them had rushed in and bitten her on the rump the others descended.
They would avoid attacking her from the front because of the power of her jaws and paws but the sheer number of them meant that some could distract her from the front while the others tried to attack from the back. On a few occasions they managed to get a hold of her but luckily she was able to keep swivelling, fending off the most imminent threat. At one point the lioness even managed to grab hold of one of the hyenas and hold it down for a few moments before she was forced to release it to defend herself again.
Eventually she managed to break from the circling hyenas and was chased through the clearing. Hyenas, although slower than lions have incredible stamina and it looked like they were going to catch her as she retreated. Fortunately, she found a tree that she managed to scale and although typically large and clumsy in trees, she was able to get out of the biting range of the hyenas and into safety.
The hyenas circled the base of the tree for a while, eventually becoming bored and moving off. What was incredible was that the sound of the commotion also drew in two other lionesses. As they came running in, the treed lioness leapt from her hiding place and began to run from the new arrivals. We were startled at first, assuming that they were from different prides and commented on just how unlucky this lionesses’ morning had been. After trailing the heckled lioness for about a kilometre the pursuing lions began to roar, which caused the single lioness to stop, slowly turn and head back towards her pursuers. Before we knew it and rather perplexingly they were soon head butting and greeting each other affectionately. What we assume is that the lioness who had been treed was in such a state of stress that she had not even recognised her own sisters in the moment and had thus retreated, only relaxing when she recognised the familiar sound of their roars.
Luckily she escaped with just one surface gash to her side and a cut on her lip, apparently completely unscathed other than that. As Heinrich Van Den Berg so adeptly states “royalty runs the risk of losing not only perspective while sitting on a throne. Many a life and tail have been sacrificed for the sensation of authority”. It’s a reminder that sometimes even the most dominant predators and those at the top of the food chain can find themselves as the underdog and in this particular situation, we were grateful that the underdog got away unscathed.