lions on the rampage - by will lawson
Having just come back from leave, my first priority was getting back into the bush to breathe the freshest air on the planet! My second priority was to find out how our Southern Pride (the most active and largest lion pride which frequents our reserve) was getting along!
I was surprised on my first morning back, to note how crisp the air is getting now; which gave a natural nudge that summer is finally loosening its grip and the seasons are changing again. I have always preferred tracking in the fresh snap of a winter's morning. "Not long to go now" I thought, just as my tracker, Max, raised his hand while looking on the road. Fresh lion spoor (tracks)! On closer inspection, there was a smaller than normal track amongst the large tracks of 2 females; a cub! Excited, we followed on the trail of the 3. The trail quickly came to an end as they moved into thick bush, and, with the cub being estimated at only 3 months old, there's no way anyone would be heading after them on foot. We compromised and sent in one vehicle - however the bush was so dense (perfect to keep a small lion cub out of harms way!), we decided to stop the tracking exercise and wait to see them in more open surroundings.
Feeling a little despondent about the premature halt to an exciting morning, I regrouped to move my focus onto another aspect of the bush. But my focus was only able to shift momentarily as I was informed over the radio that the Southern Pride had just been located about a kilometre away!
Wasting no time and keeping the guests' spirit and anticipation at fever pitch, we set off in that direction. As we headed across the reserve I gave a detailed history of the lion prides in the area. I focused on the trials and tribulations that such a large pride must overcome to remain dominant in an area like ours with such a high lion density.
As we approached, and knowing full well that the lions were scattered within the open area around the next corner, I took a wide berth to avoid all the vegetation that may inhibit viewing potential, and it worked! As we rounded the arc, the area ahead opened up and there in front of us were 14 scattered lions. As the clouds momentarily broke they were showered with golden sunshine, almost on cue!! The reaction of the guests spoke volumes, and I could not help but feel it was like seeing a group of old friends!
We watched them relaxing and playing for a few minutes, and they then began to move off, heading down the road toward the next open area, As we rounded the bend following them, we, (lions and guests!) were confronted by an enormous white rhino bull! "What's going to happen now" I was asked by a guest. "Let's just sit back and watch!" I replied, knowing from past experience that some sort of interaction would ensue! It was both amusing and interesting to see the reaction of the staggered lions as each rounded the bend to see the bull standing strong 20 meters ahead of them; some actually did a double take! A couple of the young males (now just over two years old) took a chance and were quickly sent running by the bull, who was clearly in no mood for games. The others took their cue and gave him a wide berth and on they plodded, straight south.
By now the break in the clouds had turned from sunshine to drizzle, so everyone put on their ponchos to keep comfortable - and the lions continued without any discomfort, actually much the opposite! As they crossed the next open area in single file, two of the mature females leading the group halted. They both characteristically raised their chins looking down their noses in response to sighting some potential quarry. Pieter, a ranger in another Land Rover, stated on the radio that he could see some male impala further ahead. The pride advanced another 30 meters or so, and then their body language started to change. That was our cue - it was time to turn of the engines and let the girls get to work!!
The youngest members of the pride instinctively lay down, not wishing to give their position away, and one large female moved off to the left through the longest grass, away from the pride. A second mature female, moments later, slunk off to the right toward a drainage-line that ran behind where the impalas were happily grazing. We could quickly see the plan unfolding before us. We waited. It continued to drizzle as the females disappeared from view and two of the 2 year old males started to advance up the middle. With the rain masking the sound of any lion in the grass and the steady breeze accompanying it blowing directly toward us, the lions had it all in their favour!
Knowing full well the lions were still hunting, but everything going eerily quiet, I took the opportunity to fill my guests in on the tactics and strong social bonds that develop within a pride and which ultimately make them such formidable predators. I explained the role of the male as he came and casually sat close to our vehicle, and dispelled any myths of his laziness, highlighting his role as protector of the pride, not 'bread-winner'!
At this point, Max, my tracker, turned to me and said the impala had lain down. I knew that one impala at least, was not going to be getting back up again! Two minutes later there was an explosion of activity as ALL lions moved forward! The impala alarm called momentarily, then gave up quickly and bolted in all directions at speeds I have not witnessed from impala before! They literally flew! One impala seemed to sidestep every member of the pride and escape; however a loud moan came from the drainage line where we'd seen one mature female vanish into at the start of the hunt. All the lions began to run in that direction, and like one of the pride, we followed!
It was cacophony!! All we could see was a pile of lions! No sign of any impala, but we knew that there was one under them somewhere! Imagine, one Impala and 14 lions!! We timed it, 12 minutes! That's all it took, 12 minutes and the impala was gone! Reduced to a muddy patch in the grass! Unbelievable! Life and death rolled into one, right in front of our eyes! My guests were clearly in shock, not sure whether to smile or grimace! Either way, this was an experience that will not be forgotten!