Sometimes just before game drive while we wait for guests on the Londolozi Camp Decks or in the car parks, we hear noises from the wilderness outside that evoke immediate excitement. Noises that spark a burning desire to get out there as quickly as possible to solve the mystery of the stories that are unfolding. All we are given is a small piece of evidence that we can use to work out what may have taken place through the dark of the night.
One particular morning, the sounds of hyenas calling repetitively and intently echoed across the camp area. The calls painted a picture of hyenas with blood-stained fur facing off against lions. No lions were calling though… Maybe a clan of hyenas was grouping together to take on wild dogs? Or two clans had bumped into each other and were bellowing out territorial calls? Either way, there was excitement in their voices.
Through many years of experience, the Londolozi trackers can pinpoint amazingly accurately exactly where a sound is being emitted from, even at a few kilometres distance. I consulted with tracker Bennet Mathonsi with whom I work, and off we set to find out what was going on. We switched off the vehicle to listen from a crest outside camp to gain a better idea of direction. At this point, two other tracker/ranger teams were doing the same thing. Through triangulation and team work, it only took about seven minutes to find the scene.
A young giraffe (2-3 months old) lay on the ground, part of its body already consumed. The mother stood almost directly above her calf, leaning forward slightly in a protective stance. She was surrounded by about 12 hyenas, some of which had bright pink faces, covered in evidence from the scene. The largest two or three hyenas had quite clearly eaten some of the now-deceased giraffe calf. The commitment of the mother in protecting her calf, even after death, was inspirational. She stood right over the body and kept a look out in all directions, shifting towards any hyena that snuck up too close for her liking. It was too late though. She had already lost her calf.
To work out what may have happened in the scene, we observed the evidence and weighed up options. What we presume happened is as follows: the mother giraffe left the calf lying up in a clearing as she ventured off a few hundred metres to feed. Being a very windy morning, a hyena or two may have been able to get quite close to the solitary calf without being noticed. Hyenas are incredibly opportunistic, and although they do scavenge more than they hunt in this area, they will not hesitate to hunt when presented with a good opportunity. The hyena(s) may have taken a bite at the calf and realised that support would be needed to actually bring it down. This is when the incessant whooping would have occurred, as the initial troops would have been calling for assistance. With all the commotion, the mother giraffe would have come running back to defend her calf, using her massive legs to kick at the hyenas. In the process she may have stood right over her injured (or already dead) calf, possibly even making contact with the body (hence the blood on the forelegs of the mother). We cannot be sure of exactly what happened, but it all must have happened quickly as hyenas eat incredibly fast and could have consumed that giraffe calf within minutes had the mother not returned to help.
It was really a waiting game between the mother and the hyenas. Interestingly, the largest hyena – presumably the oldest with the most experience – lay covered in blood with its back to the whole scene, unlike the younger hyenas who kept edging toward the carcass only to be chased away by the mother. I passed the spot about six hours later on my way to the Londolozi airstrip and could see that the mother was still standing over the calf, hyenas spread out, waiting patiently in the shadows.
That afternoon there was nothing there. No hyena, no mother, no calf.
What a show of motherly instinct from the mother. And what a show of perseverance from the clan of hyena. Perseverance, it seems, does pay off…