A few afternoon’s ago my radio sounded with this message, “stations, I have located an African rock python with an impala lamb kill!”
Garrett Fitzpatrick and Life Sibuyi, another ranger/tracker duo, had spotted a python coiled tightly around an impala’s suffocated body and its dislocated jaws engulfing the head of the antelope. The patient hunt and fatal strike were estimated to have happened just a few minutes prior to this. Being a fresh kill, tracker Rob Hlatswayo and I knew what was coming next… We had to get there as soon as possible if we wanted to see this snake feed. We knew that to watch a python utilising its strength and power to swallow a newborn impala was very rare. Rob had heard the radio update too and without any discussion, we shouted, almost synchronously, “Aye-fam, boetie!” meaning “let’s go, brother!” in the local Shangaan language.
We arrived at the scene and our jaws dropped almost to the floor of the Land Rover at the spectacle in front of us. It was as if we were in the real-life version of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. A python of about 2m in length was maneuvering its body expertly around the small antelope, aiming to break it down into a soft pulp so that it could ingest and then digest it. The lamb’s head was already inside the python’s gape but the largest and most difficult section of the antelope’s body was yet to come. The midrib of the antelope is the widest area and the area that needed most of the reptile’s energy and effort to swallow it.
Watch the video below of a python kill filmed here on Londolozi a few years back to get a sense of how they eat their prey.
The snake had a formula; it would adjust its grip, tighten and break bones, then build up enough power starting from the tip of its tail and sending it in a wave-like motion to its head. Then it would push itself and its jaws over more of its prey. It repeated these actions for about forty minutes until the entire midrib of the impala lay inside the body of the snake.
Lastly, it ate the legs. This wasn’t too difficult for the snake to ingest and within about ten minutes they were gone, leaving only the hooves. The hooves provided the snake with more of a challenge. Using an array of different stretches and elongations of the spine and neck, bouts of head-cocking, mouth opening and closing and awkward neck movements, the slow-growing hard keratin of the hooves disappeared into the throat of the snake.
Throughout the epic episode we had borne witness to, the colour and shape of the snake was very clear to all of us on the vehicle. The writhing movements of the snake along with its exposed bright white underbelly made it stand out from the surrounding soil and grass. However, as soon as the kill had successfully been devoured, the snake turned onto its belly and became dead still. This eliminated the previously clear view of the snake. The white of the underbelly was gone and all we could see were those brilliant python patterns where thirty seconds ago a writhing mass of movement had been. The patterns and colours almost completely camouflaged the animal into its surrounding environment. If we had driven past at that point, we would have had no clue as to what incredible natural event had just taken place. Now we understood how this reptile had made the kill. It must have chosen a specific position based on the general movements of a slow-moving herd of impalas, probably grazing as the event took place out in the open. The snake must have waited there patiently for hours until an oblivious impala lamb hobbled over into the python’s strike zone. The rest, as they would say, is history.