January 2021

Some amazing times


Some amazing times

As a field guide we are treated, every single day, to watching completely wild animals in their habitat going about their business as they have for millennia. A common question we are asked is, “What’s the best thing you’ve seen out here?” A question that is extremely difficult to answer, especially defining one distinct moment.

Being fortunate enough to work and spend most days exploring our incredible private concession, in the extreme east of the Kruger National Park, we have the ability to spend meaningful time with animals, meaning if we find lions in the morning, we have the ability to follow them around literally all day, wherever they decide to go.

To try condense a handful of these moments is no easy task, but here lie a few that have been etched into my memory:

Witnessing a kill first-hand is an amazing display of nature, not only is it exciting and provides heart-racing viewing, but it also shows the ancient nature of these predators, and how naturally this behaviour comes to them, it also shows how these animals fit into the ecosystem. Despite sometimes being gruesome and difficult to watch, on occasion a spectacle unfolds where the result lies in the balance. One occasion stands out in particular. It was a chilly winter’s morning as we heading up the N’wanetsi River, as we approached a bend we saw in the distance a great dust cloud. A cloud that could have only been thrown this high into the air by one thing, buffalo, lots of buffalo.

As we approached the herd that were clearly moving towards the river, we noticed some curious giraffe craning their outstretched necks to look at something at the rear of the herd. Lions! Seventeen members of the once “super-pride” called Shishangaan, named after the drainage system that they liked to frequent. As the young males and most of the females stalked from the rear, a handful of lionesses started to flank the herd of around 800 buffalo. We chose to follow the leading lioness where she came up in front of the herd and started to run, in a deliberate and obvious gait, heading straight at the herd. Upon sight of her the herd doubled back and ran towards the remainder of the pride who were now waiting in ambush.

The dust settled and the pride was on top of a fully-grown cow. As she struggled and the moans started to fade we looped around and found the shade of a tree from which to watch the lions as they would inevitably start to feed, paying no notice to the vehicle and our presence. They fed violently together, growling and scratching one another as seventeen mouths started to make quick work of the buffalo.

In the distance, we heard vegetation breaking and a faint rumble start, followed by a big dust cloud. The buffalo were coming back! The herd who were now missing a member had come back from the river and ran straight back towards the lions. The black, angry wall surrounded the now-timid cats and one by one they began to lose their nerve. Until only one lioness was brave enough to stand her ground at the carcass. Eventually even she ran and the big buffalo bulls at the front started to chase. Every lion in the pride was now running in circles as a handful of bulls tried to vent their frustration. The lions being slightly quicker and more agile seemed to be just out of reach as the massive bovines swung their horns menacingly at the retreating cats. At one stage a young male lion even ‘leopard crawled’ underneath one of the game viewers to hide away from the raging bulls.

As the bulls kept the lions at bay, the herd nervously approached the dead cow, and almost ritualistically one-by-one smelled her and tried to help her up. This to me was a very touching moment, to see the anguish and emotional connection within the herd, a connection I had up until this point, overlooked in buffalo social dynamics.

Slowly the cows and the young calves moved off safely away from the scene while the big bulls kept the lions’ attention. This standoff lasted for about 45 minutes and it was exhilarating throughout. Eventually the old bulls moved off, finally allowing the lions to return to their meal.

Another heart-stopping moment was watching three male lions (now recognised as the Kumana Males) try to take over the remaining member of Shish Pride, mentioned above. The males surrounded an injured female, and just when I thought she was in big trouble as two of the males approached her, she swung around and dished out one of the most impressive beatings I’ve witnessed out here. She fended off two much bigger lions single handily, swiping at their faces and biting any limb that came within range. At the end of the scrap, the males began calling and moving away before licking their wounds!

Eventually the newcomers managed to suitably impress the Shish lionesses, and not long after, the Kumana Males took full control of the pride and territory. Taking over as such old lions had its disadvantages however. Two of the three Kumana males have subsequently died, and only one of these old boys is around today. He still frequents the same area and has sired cubs with the Shish Pride females, but the nature of the game dictates that soon his vulnerability will be discovered by new younger, stronger males and he will be forced to concede power and territory over to them.

Another memorable moment in a very different sense was watching an elephant cow, just after giving birth, trying to help her calf to its feet. The newborn, still wobbling and covered in blood, tried to stand and instinctively nurse and follow its mother. The tenderness shown by the mother and the clumsy, trunk-waving calf walking side by side was so touching.

Suddenly the mother stopped and looked rather uncomfortable. She then released her afterbirth in a massive torrent followed by her placental sack. Being a very large animal it was substantial in size, and what amazed us was what she did next. After giving birth elephants usually move away from, or try to bury their afterbirth. They do this in order to remove the scent away from predators, thus giving her brand-new and very vulnerable calf a chance. Many people fail to witness this as elephants usually move off into a thick, secretive area to birth, or are completely surrounded by the herd. However, this elephant stopped with her hour-old calf and began to feed on her placenta. Behaviour that I’d never even heard of, let alone seen. She carefully worked the umbilical cord into her mouth before working on the placenta. It was fascinating, especially seeing her blood-stained tusks and watching an animal I’ve only seen feed on vegetation, consume something on the other end of the spectrum. After she’d consumed all of it, she made her way into the woodland, and completely relaxed with her wobbly little calf trotting at her side. Truly magical!

By Mike Kirby
Field Guide