I recently joined Trainee Rangers Kirsten, Patrick and Kyle on a morning drive.
We had two incredible lion sightings; the Birmingham male first and then the Tsalala female with her young daughter. It was a refreshing experience to see the bush through the eyes of a trainee and to appreciate their different perceptions of these sightings.
The following is their take on that morning…
KIRST: With various lion prides and male coalitions being viewed within close proximity at the moment, the lion dynamics are keeping the rangers in suspense. Every sunrise allows for the field team to head out into the reserve to try and piece together the events from the night before… Each track holds a small part of the story of the movements that have occurred through the night. Multiple prides have been viewed this week, so it’s never 100% certain which lion is roaring at the crack of dawn…
PAT: As a trainee, we refer to being behind the wheel of the Land Rover as being in the “Hot Seat” and the turn of events that were about to unfold before us didn’t cool the seat down at all.
There was a report on the radio that a lioness and her sub-adult offspring were found. We went straight there to find it was the Tsalala female and her daughter. After watching them for some time the adult lioness saw something moving in the thicket up ahead, and it was clear she was beginning to hunt.
KIRST: The Tsalala female emulates the life of a leopard, particularly by her elusiveness, and employs some unorthodox tactics by hunting regularly in the day, quite possibly to avoid added competition from nocturnal predators.
Thus, it was not surprising to watch her hunt that morning and because of the prime conditions – overcast (low light), thick vegetation (cover) and wind (to mask any sound she may make and swirl her smell). We watched her approach slowly towards a thicket where there was a herd of impala. We drove around the edge of the thicket line to wait and listen as we didn’t want to follow her through the bush and disturb her prey.
PAT: I began to think out loud as trained, suggesting we wait on a road that ran adjacent to the thicket where she went in. We turned off the vehicle to wait and listen.
KYLE: After about ten minutes we were all getting ready to leave when Jess suggests, “Why don’t we give it a couple more minutes?”. Not two minutes after these words were uttered, an explosion of sound erupts from the bushes to our right; the alarm calls of impala and the thundering of hooves precipitated a full-grown kudu bull bursting out of the Combretum thicket behind us; ragged and dazed, the splendour of his horns somewhat lessened by the fact that most of a bushwillow hung limply over an eye. “She’s missed” somebody mutters. This was shortly followed by a bellowing which could only mean one thing… “GO GO GO!!” yells Jess.
PAT: I quickly put the vehicle into low range and made my way towards the gasps emanating from the dense bush. Once we were about 10 meters into the thicket I switched off the vehicle to listen and pin point where the noises were coming from – it was only a few meters ahead of us!
This was one of the most incredible sightings I have ever had in the bush; the Tsalala Female had taken down a fully grown Kudu bull! Adrenalin engulfed me as we watched this scenario take place, and being in the driver’s seat really made me want this even more, to become a ranger. It’s safe to say that the hot seat was cooking a little extra as we watched this amazing lioness.
There was the Tsalala female; her jaws clamped firmly around the neck of a huge male kudu, pinning him down. While her daughter, being too young to actively participate in bringing down an animal of this size, dodged flaying legs as she tried to find her way to the soft underbelly, the easiest access point to the feast within.
KIRST: We have heard of how the Tsalala female is renowned for her uncharacteristic ability to bring down larger prey such as buffalo, nyala bulls and kudu on her own. Stories I thought, from some time ago… unlikely (my book-knowledge mind thought) but plausible I suppose (and certainly hoped).
KYLE: The kudu is soon dispatched and what follows is an absolutely captivating hour-long, slow-motion replay of what a large pride like the Ntsevu would do in a matter of minutes. The biggest difference I noted was the “manners”; no growling, no swatting or clawing, no fighting over choice portions – firstly it wasn’t anywhere near necessary with the amount of food available, but one can definitely understand that these two lions also wouldn’t want to advertise their kill in any way.
The cub started on the belly and had soon, for want of a better term, unzipped the animal while the mother decided to enter via the rear, cutting through the softer skin near the rectum, thereafter severing the tail entirely. The immediate focus of the pair’s attention was not, as I thought would be the case, the hefty chunks of meat on and around the flanks or rump but instead the intestines, likely for the high fat content as well as the high nutrient value; the intestines being laden with partially absorbed simple sugars recently broken down by the specialised digestive system of the kudu. Following that, the pair moved on to the internal organs; the liver and kidneys – concentrated sources of vitamins and minerals – as well as other viscera were quickly prised out and devoured. By this stage both bellies were already noticeably distended, but the pair barely paused to take a breath!
At one point the mother made a half-hearted attempt at dragging the carcass further into the thicket, a strategy often employed to keep the kill away from the keen eyesight of any vultures passing through the area (once gathered en masse, vultures are a dead give-away (excuse the pun) to any other opportunists in the area such as hyena or possibly any of the other lion prides or coalitions nearby) but the massive horns of the bull snagging on Combretums put that idea to rest and the Tsalala female soon returned to gorging herself. Soon thereafter both mother and cub – by now full to bursting – lumbered off a short distance where they would settle for the day to digest.
KIRST: I know you aren’t meant to make too much of a personal connection to these animals but it’s impossible to not appreciate and admire the incredible physical strength and resilience that this lioness possesses. Maybe it’s that she defies what the books say about lions, or how she repeats stories of her mother and grandmother before her. Maybe it is because she is alone with her single cub and there is a sense of compassion for her in comparison to the other prides. I am unsure what it is, but in that moment watching first-hand what this lioness is capable of, I can’t help but respect her even more than before and maybe admire her strength, determination and willingness to survive.
I suppose she fosters resilience out there and that is maybe something we can all learn from.