Things don’t always go according to plan – especially for lions. This became evident a few days ago on afternoon safari.
Elmon Mhlongo and I had come across the Tsalala Pride resting up in the shade, very close to camp. We couldn’t see much apart from a few flicks of the lions’ tails, so we decided we’d come back a bit later, once it had cooled down and the pride would most likely be a bit more active.
After spending some time along the banks of the Sand River, we stopped for a gin and tonic and to admire the sunset. Our thirsts quenched, we decided to head back to the lions and see if they were showing any signs of moving. Ranger Nick Kleer had a similar idea and called us on the radio announcing his intentions.
Nick arrived at the clearing a minute or two before us, and immediately radioed in in breathless excitement that the two lionesses of the pride had caught a wildebeest bull, which was still standing! By the time we arrived the wildebeest was down on the ground with the two adult lionesses holding it down. The older lioness had the wildebeest by the throat, trying to block the windpipe, but the size of the wildebeest didn’t allow her an easy grip. The second lioness had her claws dug into the wildebeest’s back, anchoring it to the ground. All five cubs, still too young to make any significant contribution, were climbing on top of the wildebeest, full of excitement at their impending meal.
One thing was for sure, the wildebeest was not going anywhere. Five minutes went by and he had started to tire. His breathing began to slow, becoming deeper. He stopped struggling. I looked at Elmon who said, “I think its over now”. His words had not yet gone cold when we heard a rumble coming from the river as a family group of elephants came walking toward the scene. The herd of about ten were grouped tightly together, with the matriarch in front and the calves in the middle. The matriarch slowly edged forward toward the growling of the lions, her ears held outward and her head up high. Suddenly, she charged at the lion, with the herd following close behind her. The lions had no choice but to abandon the wildebeest.
They scattered and ran for cover, cowering behind bushes, waiting for the elephants to move off. The wildebeest, too weak to get up, lay down between the herd of elephants and the lions. The elephants stood watching the wildebeest for a period just long enough to give thim one last chance to get up. With everything left in him, he rose to his feet and ran off as quickly as he could, towards the elephants. Panicked by this strange animal running toward her and her family, the elephant matriarch charged back at the wildebeest, which simply ran past her. By charging at the wildebeest, the elephants had caused the lions to hesitate and the wildebeest managed to get away, stumbling toward the river.
The herd eventually moved off and the lions began to regroup. The cubs, full of adrenalin, began to tackle each other to the ground and play. The lionesses put their noses to the ground and began searching for the scent of the wildebeest. We left them sniffing around the scene.
That night I lay awake, certain that they would find the wildebeest again. The lack of oxygen to the brain had made him dazed and he was stumbling all over the last time we had seen him. It was just a matter of time.
The next morning we went in search of the pride, expecting them to have caught the wildebeest again during the course of the night. We did find the lions, but not the wildebeest. He was found nearly four kilometres away from where the incident had taken place, feeding on some lush green grass and with nothing more than a few bite marks and scratches to show for his ordeal.
What was truly remarkable about this sighting was not only the incredible interaction between the three species, but the fact that despite all the odds being very much against him, the wildebeest, which was surely minutes from death, managed to get away. Although I don’t think that it was the intention of the elephants to save the wildebeest, I do know that if they had not been there things may have ended differently for the fortunate gnu.