Clash of the clans

Kruger National Park | July 2017

It was a warm afternoon when we came to the main area at Lebombo Lodge, just before tea. The view from the lodge is outstanding with the rocks from the granophyre ridge standing to attention in the background, all covered with impressive candelabra trees. The N’wanetsi River lies beneath the lodge, with the main area and all the rooms looking out onto the ribbon of green in the gold and brown landscape. As we were looking out at the beautiful view stretching out in front of us we noticed that there were quite a few vultures descending into the trees at the edge of the river in front of the camp.

As soon as the guests were ready the guides headed out on game-drive. Knowing that the vultures are often indicators of the presence of predators, some of the guides headed straight towards where they had seen the vultures descending. By now most of the dead trees in the area were adorned with these large scavenging birds. When the guides arrived at the site they discovered two male lions lying next to a carcass of a fully-grown, adult male giraffe that they had obviously killed either during the night or early that morning. The carcass had hardly been touched yet.

The two male lions at the giraffe carcass were two new nomadic males that we had started to see in the concession a few weeks before. Initially they were very shy of the vehicles, obviously not having had much contact with these strange metallic creatures with live inhabitants before. Over the days after we first saw them they slowly got more relaxed to the cars, realising that we did not harm them or steal their food.

These two “new nomads” arrived in the concession only a few weeks after the guides at SKNP witnessed the four dominant Shishangaan male lions killing one of another pair of nomadic lions that had come into their territory (read up on this encounter in our May report). This is dangerous ground for nomadic male lions, as the Shish Males are large, fully-maned lions that have quite a lot of experience fighting other lions and have protected their territory from other invaders for quite a few years now. These two new nomads are certainly “dancing with the devil” by coming into this concession. Fortunately for these two, the Shish Males have not been patrolling the southern edge of the concession very much but have been concentrating their efforts more to the west, where they have been guarding against the N’wanetsi Males (the male coalition that is often seen by the public towards the western end of the S100 public road and in the area near Satara camp).

That afternoon we returned to the area of the giraffe carcass and found the two nomadic lions feeding. Nearby, another male giraffe had walked up towards the carcass staring at his unfortunate comrade that was being eaten by the large cats. Needless to say, he did not come too close, lest he, himself, ended up the same way.
The next morning there were a few spotted hyenas in the area, but they did not venture closer to the carcass because of the presence of the two male lions. By the afternoon the numbers of vultures in the trees had increased dramatically. The two male lions had moved off from the carcass to rest, with their bellies full, and now a few hyenas were able to get at the meat. During the night, we could hear the giggling and laughing of hyenas, from the camp, as they argued over the carcass. The sounds that hyenas make, particularly when they are excited or agitated, is one of the weirdest noises that one can hear in the bush. Hyenas “whoop” and howl when calling or when communicating with other members of the clan. When they get excited, however, they start laughing and giggling. This is a very strange sound, almost reminiscent of a witch’s cackle. One can imagine that people living in reed and mud villages in the bush in the past could become quite concerned when they heard these strange sounds coming from the darkness at night.

These strange sounds, and the fact that hyenas are often associated with death, has led to there being many superstitions about these misunderstood creatures. Hyenas, furthermore, have very strange appearances, with their sloped backs, their mottled, often mangy-looking coats – particularly in older individuals, their big necks and chests and strong jaws with dog-like teeth. Some of the tribes of southern Africa believe that hyenas are often familiars to bad witches or witch-doctors and some even believe that these bad witches can change shape and morph into hyenas so that they can run faster and travel long distances without tiring.

During the night the two male lions returned to the carcass, but the next morning we saw them leaving the area. By now the hyena and vulture numbers had increased even more and, as the lions moved away, the scavengers came down to the carcass.

All in all, there were at least 25 hyenas in the area and more than 50 vultures in the trees surrounding the carcass. There were at least four different species of vultures including a white-headed vulture, numerous white-backed and hooded vultures and even two critically endangered Cape vultures.

The hyenas were obviously from two different clans (possibly the Nyokeng Clan and the H6 Clan) and a fight started between the two clans over access to the giraffe carcass. Individuals from each clan would gather in numbers and then run towards the carcass, whooping and giggling, with their black, bushy tails erect like battle flags. The hyenas at the carcass (from the other clan) would then take flight as the other hyenas charged towards them.

The hyenas who had just taken over the carcass would then feed for a short while, while those hyenas that had just been displaced from the kill gathered together and psyched each other out, gaining confidence to retaliate. They would then charge towards the carcass, chasing the other hyenas away from the meat, and for a short while they would be able to feed before the vanquished group gathered enough clan members to initiate a charge themselves. This continued for most of the morning as the two clans chased each other away from the banquet only to be able to feed for a short period of time before they themselves were chased away. It was amazing viewing! One young male hyena from one of the clans was particularly energetic and led the charge on a few occasions.

By the afternoon the hyenas had already reduced the carcass substantially and most of them had headed off into the shade with full bellies, or returned to their respective den sites. With fewer large predators near the carcass the vultures took the opportunity and descended from the trees. The large numbers of vultures at the carcass even persuaded the few hyenas that were left to leave the site.

During the night we again heard the hyenas laughing and calling, and the next morning when we went to go and check out the carcass there were only one or two hyenas chewing at the last bones, trying to get the marrow from within. Nearby, lying dead in the grass, we could see the young hyena that had led many of the charges the day before. Either the hyenas from the other clan finally got annoyed with him and managed to get hold of him or perhaps even the two male lions had returned and found him scavenging on the last bones. Either way it looks like he had pushed his luck a little too far.

It is amazing how quickly the scavengers (the hyenas and vultures) can eat and clean up the carcasses that they find in the bush. Literally they managed to remove an entire carcass of a giraffe (possibly up to 1 000 kg in weight) in three days. That is quite amazing! They are such important creatures in the savanna ecosystems, and are vital in lowering the chances of diseases spreading from rotting meat that would otherwise lie around in the bush.