Buffaloes take a knock

Sabi Sand | September 2016

While the vast majority of mammal species have coped remarkably well with the extended drought that we are currently experiencing, two of the mega-herbivore species that have really felt the effects of limited grass availability, are the hippo and buffaloes. While the hippopotami in this area are doing somewhat better than those in the Kruger National Park, I have noticed a more than slight decline in the overall condition of the buffaloes in recent weeks. Apart from looking a little on the thin side, there also seems to be a reduction in their spirit. Even just the way the walk when making their way towards water for a drink, betrays the fact that they are indeed struggling. We certainly hope that rain will come soon, and that the condition of the buffaloes will again improve.

Nature may appear harsh, but it is fair, and it has its way of balancing things out. In his article, Ian Mey made brief mention of the balance between lions and buffaloes currently favouring the lions. As he mentioned, those buffaloes that do survive will be able to carry their genes forward into the next generation. Just in the past few weeks, I have witnessed three different buffaloe kills take place. The three kills were so different from each other, that it is worth briefly comparing them… and I will keep this comparison very brief. The first kill was a gruesome one to witness, as five of the sub-adult lioness of the Mhangene pride advanced on a group of several buffaloes bulls along the Mobeni stream one evening at dusk. Their chosen target was an already injured buffaloes bull (he had survived a lion attack a few weeks earlier). It took these five lionesses over an hour to subdue this buffaloes, as he was not giving up, and dragged the lionesses several hundred metres. The other buffaloe bulls in the group tried their best to assist their companion, and the lionesses found this quite disconcerting. It was only when four sub-adult male lions (also Mhangene pride members) heard the distress calls of the buffaloes and came to assist their sisters, that the job of killing the buffaloes was completed more swiftly.

The second kill occurred during a morning game drive less than a week later, when four adult lionesses of the Mhangene pride, along with all their cubs and three adult male lions, were moving fairly steadily towards the Sand River. They were not actively hunting, and seemed more intent on getting to the river bed. However, they came upon a fairly large group of buffaloe bulls. Expertly the four lionesses, showing a wealth of experience, quickly arranged themselves into hunting formation, and within minutes they were running into the group of buffaloe bulls. They selected their target, jumped onto his back as he ran, and within five minutes he was down. Suffocating the bull by closing off his nose and mouth in her jaws, a lioness ended his life much more swiftly than had been the case a few days previously, when the less experienced sub-adult lionesses had failed to find or apply the appropriate strangulation grip. Once the buffaloe was dead, one of the lionesses walked back to where the cubs had retreated during the chase. She called them and then escorted them safely to the carcass, cleverly giving a wide berth to the numerous buffaloes bulls that were standing around, looking on.

The third kill was again quite different, in that the four adult lionesses and two of the older cubs of this same Mhangene pride waited near the reeds of the Sand River bed, as a very large herd of buffaloes moved very slowly towards the water course close to the lions. To cut a long description short, the lionesses moved out of the river bed and boldly ran straight into the herd of hundreds of buffaloes.

We were able to see one lioness catch and pull down a very young buffaloes (probably a little more than a year old), but it seemed that the other lionesses were otherwise occupied, as she was left unaided to subdue this young buffaloes. It therefore took several minutes for her to finally get the buffaloes off its feet and suffocate it. It turned out that the other lionesses had killed at least two more young buffaloes within just a few hundred metres of the first kill. This spring, the number of buffaloes killed by lions has been unbelievably high, and it almost seems that often lions are not even bothering to hunt smaller animals. This is certainly not a typical situation, but is purely a result of the lions taking full advantage of the weakened state of the buffaloes. It is a time of plenty for the lions and they will ride their good fortune while it lasts, for the wheel of life will keep turning, and there will again be a time when 90% of lion- buffaloe interactions will end up with the buffaloes having the upper hand. Such is the way that Nature works!