By far the majority of the declarations about the local wildlife you’ll hear from your ranger/tracker team are empirical. That is, they are based on observation. Granted, there is a baseline of knowledge that needs to come from books and research (it’s difficult to look at a kudu and accurately estimate the average weight of a female of the species!), but true interpretation of animal behaviour comes from a long time spent watching wildlife in the field. You start to form an idea of their habits and preferences. Predators in particular – much like people – are still individuals, and often exhibit slightly different behavioural traits.
Some leopards might display an affinity for hunting warthogs whilst others have bushbuck featuring regularly in their diets. A lot of this is due to habitat and territory, and what species are more common in the area where the individual lives, but we certainly do find that some of the big cats are better at hunting some certain prey species than they are others.
So when we say that the Ntsevu females are jut not that great at bringing down adult buffalo, we aren’t making that statement lightly. Statisticians and researchers would need to examine the records to run the numbers of what has been taken down by the pride and when, in order to make the title statement conclusive, but I think many other Londolozi guides, as well as those from other lodges, would agree that this pride just hasn’t been living up to their promise.
Buffalo aren’t easy animals to bring down, let’s not shy away from that. Taking on a herd of a few hundred to try and isolate an individual is a seriously dangerous prospect, but other lions have met with great success in such endeavours. A few years ago the young Selati males were constantly trailing the large buffalo herd in the south-west, and every few days we would find them on a new kill.
The availability of other prey species might have something to do with it. The Selati males were essentially confined to those southern areas, being non-territorial at the time, so had to work out how to hunt buffalo quickly or go hungry. The Ntsevu pride by contrast have a much bigger area over which to roam. Zebras have been featuring regularly in their diet over the past few months, and I remember they went through a 6-month period as cubs in which they were raised almost exclusively on zebra meat, as their mothers the Mhangeni females were bringing down almost one a week.
Maybe the hunting behaviour is learned, maybe it has something to do with taste preferences. Maybe with 11 cubs trailing in their wake (the newer 4 are still being secluded in the Sand River), the lionesses feel the risk is too great to take on a herd of a few hundred large bovines. I don’t know. What we do know is that a couple of nights ago the pride walked the whole way across Londolozi to be within spitting distance of a large buffalo herd, then the next night walked the whole way back again without killing anything substantial, or even making a serious attempt as far as we could tell. Maybe they took down a calf and finished it quickly, then moved off, but why walk such a large distance for prey that is pretty much the same size as an impala? Surely it would have been an adult they wanted?
Who knows their reasons? Are some lions simply braver than others? Have they never been taught the knack of buffalo hunting? The Tsalala female to the north recently brought down an adult bull all by herself, so with 6 lionesses forming their hunting unit, the Ntsevu females really don’t have an excuse. Especially since they usually have a couple of the Birmingham males in tow.
The pride have brought down large buffaloes before, and I’m sure they will again, they just don’t seem as adept at it as other prides. Maybe in a year’s time when the cubs have doubled in size, so many hungry mouths to feed will necessitate their bringing down a much more consistent supply of large game, buffalo included.
Right now though, being the biggest pride in the Sabi Sand Reserve (if you count the cubs), having impala for dinner so often makes one feel as if the pride isn’t quite living up to their billing…
(That last statement was completely tongue-in-cheek).