Late one night while heading back to camp after dinner in the bush, we came across a pride of lions on the airstrip. At a first glance, it looked as if something big was lying beside them. Our initial thought was that maybe they had just killed a wildebeest. However, as we got a bit closer, we saw that what was beside them wasn’t a wildebeest at all. It was smaller black and white and still moving around. For a second I couldn’t believe what we were seeing and it was only once we had stopped the vehicle and taken a second to absorb what was going on. The lions were surrounding a Porcupine!
Naturally, all of us got super excited as it isn’t often at all that you get to see a porcupine let-alone lions trying to kill one. Our excitement escalated when what we thought was only one porcupine turned into two, then three and then four! It turned out to be two adults and two baby porcupines, which I believe are called porcupettes. Our initial thought of it just being one, was part of the porcupines’ defence strategy where they all huddle together with their rumps facing outwards, forming one big impenetrable ball of quills.
Porcupines’ quills are modified hairs coated with thick plates of keratin and are embedded in the skin. When threatened porcupines use their quills as a defence mechanism against predators where they contract muscles within the skin to cause the quills to stand up and spread out preventing the danger from getting too close without being stabbed by the hard sharp robust quills. Against popular belief, they are unable to shoot the quills. Instead, they splay them out and back into the threat. The quills are incredibly sharp with barbs facing backwards and easily penetrate the threat and get embedded there as they dislodge from the porcupine’s skin.
The lions were very wary of the porcupines, each trying their luck at swatting the porcupines under their quills, only ending up with a few sharp quills to their paw or face. Eventually, the porcupine family took advantage of a lapse in the lions’ attention, and all made a run for the thicket. With the adults being a bit faster, they managed to make it away from the lions, but the two little ones weren’t so lucky. The lions had managed to separate the two young porcupines from each other and continued to pester them.
As a means to try and intimidate the threats, the porcupettes would shake their tails to rattle hollow quills at the tip which creates an intimidating sound and well as stomping their feet. Something I had only read about and was amazed to see. Knowing that they were both more vulnerable apart, the two youngsters kept trying to get back to each other with the lions constantly pawing at them keeping them apart. The will and determination of the porcupettes knowing that their only chance of making it through this relentless harassment alive was to somehow reunite. Fending off five lions was not going to be an easy task for a young inexperienced porcupette, but eventually, they succeeded and came together just as we had seen when they were with the adults. Nuzzling their heads together forming a barrier of quills around them.
We sat and watched in fascination, routing for the porcupines, when we noticed a 6th older lioness about 30 meters from the commotion, quietly contact calling the rest of the pride, almost as if to encourage the pride to move on as they were not having any luck. One by one the lions slowly moved toward the older lioness, leaving just the one young male still fixated on the spiky pair. Not wanting to fall behind, he soon gave in and joined the rest of the pride and left the two young porcupines to make a break for cover and in turn their survival, much to my and my guests’ relief.
This will definitely go down in my memory as one of the most exhilarating and intense sightings I have ever had, and probably one that I could claim to have been my best sighting yet. This once again highlights the incredibly spontaneous nature of the bush that continues to constantly keep me excited for my next game drive.