Some days you just get lucky.
Chris Goodman and I were driving around near the Sand River when we heard a bushbuck bark down in the palm thickets. Knowing the Mhangeni pride had been spending time in the area, we drove to an open vantage point from which we could scan across some granite rocks, and were thrilled to see some black tail tips bobbing in the Phragmites stands. The pride of three adult females and one sub-adult were all there, and we sat and watched for about 15 minutes as they started to settle down.
Suddenly the frantic alarm-snorts of impalas erupted on the southern bank, and four lioness heads snapped up within seconds. Realising another predator was nearby, both we and the lionesses began moving in quickly to investigate. Chris and I were limited to the road network, but knowing that the lionesses would most likely also choose the road as their easiest river crossing point as well, we waited with bated breath after we had crossed for them to pop out behind us. We were not disappointed:
Moving up out of the river and into a rocky section, we followed slowly as the pride began fanning out, clearly searching. There was almost certainly another predator in the area – in all probability a leopard – and the volume of the alarms of the impalas seemed to indicate that it had had a go at them. Everything was quiet now, so either the leopard had missed and moved off, or it had succeeded and dragged the kill out of sight.
One of the lionesses had moved up and over the hill, while two more had gone further along the riverbank at about 90 degress to the first.
The fourth, that we were following, headed straight into the middle of the triangle that the other three were creating, and we were thrilled to see her suddenly drop into the classic feline stalking position; ears flattened, shoulders hunched and head and eyes absolutely fixed on some target that we couldn’t yet see.
We hung back, giving the lions space. We had lost sight of the first three, and now the fourth also disappeared, going completely prone in the long grass. Chris whispered excitedly, “They’re laying an ambush…”.
We sat and waited, hardly daring to breathe in the silence.
One impala snorted. Then a second.
Then the whole herd, that must have been just over the hill from us, exploded in snorts and alarms, and came tearing through the rocks and bushes across the slope about 50 metres from our parked Land Rover, straight towards where we had last seen the fourth lioness.
Most of the herd were past by now and looked like they were going to escape, until one of the last impalas deviated slightly from its course, looking like it had stumbled, when the enormous form of the lioness reared up from the ground and smashed it down:
We couldn’t move forward quickly in the vehicle with so many rocks around, but could see the other three lioness come racing in from where they had spooked and seemingly herded the impalas.
Excuse the hastily constructed diagram, but this is literally what happened. We were parked behind lioness # 4, waiting and watching while the other three had executed a textbook encircling manoeuvre, stalking round behind the impala herd and chasing them down to where they either knew or assumed their sister was going to be waiting. The actual takedown that one can just make out in the video happened at the red X.
How many times these lions have tried these same tactics and failed I can’t say for sure, but this particular hunt was executed perfectly and we were lucky enough to be there watching the whole thing from start to finish.
Ironically, just before the pride had got up and moved out of the river, we had been discussing the supposed intelligence levels of the big cats, lions in particular. Based on our observations over the years, Chris and I had been concluding that they weren’t as smart as many people thought them to be, but were instead operating purely on instinct, with stimulus and response being almost their sole driver.
How true that is, we still can’t say for sure. All we know is we got front row seats to what surely had been a planned operation. Or was it?
You be the judge…