There are few feelings that can come close to realising that you are witnessing something special, a moment in time that you are part of, not influencing but merely a spectator. The day started out like so many before it but would turn out like few others.
I’ve always loved morning game drives, the fresh cool mornings and the rising of the sun, the level of anticipation mirrored by an eagerness to get out there to see what has manifested itself under the cover of darkness.
It was always our plan to start off a little earlier than the rest to go in search of a pride of lions that were seen the night before. Given the fact that they had not eaten for the last few days, coupled with some scorching heat, we had a good chance of finding active lions. En-route to where they were last seen the night before, my tracker Sydney had pointed out some tracks belonging to a large herd of buffalo, which we decided to bypass given our plan.
A couple of hundred meters down the road, Sydney raised an open palm giving me the signal to stop. He took half a minute, immersing himself in his imagination and reading the signs of what lay before him, he turned and said, “The buffalo have changed direction, and they were in a hurry”. We were still some considerable distance since the last location of the lions the night before. Could it be a long shot that they had been chased by the pride? In his confidence, Sydney said “Give me a few minutes I need to check for lion tracks.” With all his expertise he didn’t need a few minutes, there it was, one lone lioness track that he proudly drew a circle around to show all that came after, a proud moment for any tracker.
“This lioness was hunting” he said as he scanned the horizon in the direction of the tracks. We followed the lioness tracks along the road before they veered off into the bush but starting to turn back from where she had come. We doubled back to where she was headed and picked up on tracks for the rest of the pride. We assumed that the lone female was setting a trap and was to chase the buffalo back to the others. We drove a little further and I saw Sydney’s shoulders go back, his head go down with a broad grin and a whip of his fingers. Having worked with him for more than two years, I knew what this meant and I waited for the words – “We got them!”
There they were, all 14 individuals – 5 adult females and 9 youngsters feeding on a buffalo cow that they had recently killed – a sight to behold. We notified the other guides who were helping us with the tracking exercise who then started to make their way. I then had a call from Little Bush Camp guide, Jessie, to say that he was not far from the sighting and that he could see a herd of buffalo coming straight towards us.
It was not long before a slow black mist of buffalos started making their way through the trees towards the lions. They had been spotted by the lions, and while the younger individuals backed off the kill, one lone lioness stood firm against the herd. To repel them, she charged into the masses causing them to retreat, realising she was quite some way from the rest, she returned but this was seen to be a sign of weakness by the buffalo who then pushed forward. Regrouping around the carcass, the lions waited for the buffalo to approach. The low growls trying to ward off the mass of horns. Even the young cubs could be heard vocalising, however this sounded more like a fearful yelp and would not intimidate the buffalo.
Buffalo and lions have a hatred for each other and it is highly likely that the fallen buffalo was a member of this particular group. Even though this buffalo was dead, the buffaloes seemed like they were intent on inflicting some damage to their mortal enemy. The lions would be thinking twice, especially since recently this pride had already lost cubs to buffalo. After things calmed down, the body language of the lions became a lot more relaxed with some continuing to feed while others lay on their sides close to the carcass. Despite their relaxed demeanour, there was an element of anxiety as one lioness walked past our vehicle with a slight limp and still feeling the effects of a buffalo’s horn that gored her a few months back. The mottled red scar on her back leg, clearly visible and a reminder to all of how vulnerable these apex predators can be despite their reputation.
Whenever the herd decided there was nothing to gain by this and decided to turn and move away, the eldest female of the youngsters, now approaching 2 years old, would see this as a sign of weakness and would charge into the herd, sending them running. The herd mentality had now changed from defending the fallen to self-defence and preservation and would push back against the pride. Often with a lone bull coming out of the herd and pressing forward against the barrier of claws and teeth. Only when they were a couple meters from each other would the lions growl and retreat. I have never seen lions and buffalo at such close quarters. This back and forth continued round after round like two evenly matched boxers sparing with each other.
Upon reflection, I could see that the lions were content with just one buffalo kill and the adult females were showing no intentions of bringing down another despite demands of the growing family members. The initiator of the continual charging, the young female, seemed to be a test, and understanding of your opponent and how to read their body language, when to press and when to retreat. Despite their actions to defend themselves, the buffalo were in fact giving an insight into their tactics in this deadly dance, this young lioness, a potential future leader absorbing all the lessons of an interaction of this calibre. The adult lionesses, at times, watched her push and retreat, every time her confidence growing, a young prodigy and vital member of a team of killers.
Eventually growing tired of this game, the buffalo moved off, a small moral victory for the lions who then celebrated by small head rubs, a way of reaffirming their family bonds and their continual commitment to one another in the face of an adversary. This war has continued over the ages and will continue to do so, providing that there are refuges like this in the future – the war between predator and prey, and something that is a true honour to witness.