Battle of the heavyweights

Kruger National Park | April 2020

The wet season is from October to April here, and the beginning of it is an extremely difficult time for some. The ever-rising daily temperatures, the diminishing water and growing distances between water and good grazing means largely nomadic species like buffalo are constantly on the move.

The guests and I stood sipping coffee, watching the sunrise together, as it crept slowly over Granophyre Ridge of the Lebombo mountains. The early morning rays kissed our cheeks and the day promised to warm up quickly, as it does at this time of the year in the Lowveld. We were discussing the target species for the morning’s drive with anticipation. A species we hadn’t seen and something that hadn’t frequented the concession for a few days was buffalo, large herds of Cape Buffalo.

We set out along the Nwanetsi River, knowing the buffalo would need to come in to drink, they had to, it had been too long now. We sat watching a pair of fish eagles, breaking up the quiet of the African dawn with their cries. Bingo! One of the guides radioed to say he had found buffalo, lots of buffalo, heading in our direction.

We moved further along the river, where this herd had been drinking regularly, and there we saw an enormous cloud of dust to the west. We watched this huge herd as they approached us in their almost trance-like state, and while doing so noticed a few giraffes curiously looking in the direction the herd had just come from… lions!

The Shishangaan Pride numbered around 17 lions at this time, and they were in hot pursuit. One of the older females darted around the herd and we decided to follow her. She ended up at the Nwantesi River, sneaking through the croton thickets, flanking the arrowhead of the herd. She patiently waited for some to start drinking and then she rushed the buffalo. She headed towards the middle of the column, splitting them in two and causing pandemonium in the process. She started to run, causing the buffalo to splinter further and she quickly deciding to pursue a small group of cows that were heading straight towards the rest of the pride.

As we managed to catch up behind the dust of the buffalo and the charging lioness, we found two young male lions awkwardly climbing onto the cow’s back, sinking their front claws into her flanks and jumping with their back legs to try get further up towards her face and neck, all the while dodging her furious swinging head and sharp horns. Two of the other lionesses hit her at full pace, causing the cow to fall to her knees and then to the side. I could not believe what I was witnessing, my entire guiding career I had dreamed of witnessing the battle of the heavyweights, and now here it had happened.

The cow was now engulfed with lions, snarling and trying to restrain this 600 kg bovine. What my inexperience swiftly taught me, is that it’s not like watching a documentary at all. You are a part of it, you can feel it. Your body is pulsing with excitement and adrenaline, the noise is overwhelming, the smell; like hot iron and stomach content. Then the feeling of sympathy, as one lion gets jealous of his feeding siblings and releases his grip on her throat to join the feeding. The cow bellowing almost louder than the lions were growling before another lioness took over the throttling.

We repositioned and got closer as the buffalo emitted her last cry and the lions settled down encircling the carcass and started to feed.

This, to me, is when the “bigger picture” sinks in, once the emotion of the buffalo has passed, and the realisation of the necessity to complete the natural circle of life. Through the emotional eye this seems a barbaric act. You are witnessing the utmost ferocity of Mother Nature.

We sat watching each lion feed and once satisfied, waddling into the shade one by one. As the morning heat started to increase and we thought the action had subsided, we saw dust… Lots of dust! The herd that had splintered and run from the lions initially had banded up and returned… They were heading in full force straight towards us and the feeding lions. The lions, realising what was about to happen stood behind the carcass and growled. It was sensational, like a Harley Davidson Bike Rally all revving their engines at once, and even above the deafening noise each buffalo still trotted in a menacing black line towards us.

My heart was in my throat, it felt like we were part of the pride. A few large bulls approached the snarling lions and stood in a line, shaking their heads and massive horns while snorting and taunting the lion. The huge tawny cats that had taken down the buffalo almost effortlessly now stood cowering and dodging the enraged, charging buffalo. Lions ran in every direction possible to escape the surprisingly nimble giant grazers, one even taking refuge under another Singita safari vehicle to escape the horns from all angles. All the while the majority of the young buffalo and their mothers had taken a wide berth around this encounter, to get away from the danger.

When the buffalo were satisfied with the lions distance from the dead member of their herd, they horned, smelled and touched the dead female, and while not trying to put too many human emotions onto animals, there was clear distress among these animals. Fearing the lions and being as uncomfortable as they were, yet they still nervously moved forward to smell the dead cow.

Eventually the buffalo moved off and the lions resumed feeding, and so did we after being in the same spot for well over 3 hours. This was a once in a lifetime encounter that I shared with the guests and colleagues who were there, and we were so privileged to have witnessed it.

Photos by Margaux le Roux