Monday, September 2, 2013

It's All About the Kill - Part 1

It was an unusually quiet night overnight and I awoke to a calm, still morning that was pleasingly mild in temperature.  The sun never really broke through the clouds, though, so it stayed rather chilly throughout the day. Instead of stripping off the layers one by one starting around 7:30am and down to our base layer by 9am, we kept our full packages on throughout the morning ride.

This morning's drive was another viewing of all of the "Big 5", but it could be characterized more by the importance and role of "the kill" to the kingdom here. We started off by revisiting the hyena's sickly buffalo kill that occurred overnight on my first night that we observed that first morning. We had returned to it the previous evening and found it to be a mostly hollow shell but still had much of the skin, the legs still remained, and the skull and head were still mostly intact and completely recognizable as a buffalo. This morning, however, there was nothing left but about 1/2 of the rib cage and a "barely-there" skeletal remnant of the neck and head. The horns were the only thing that revealed this animal to have been a buffalo. In only 12 hours this carcass had been ravaged beyond all recognition - which was only 24 hours from the kill.  As our Guide, Formen, described, most of the carnivores of the wild kingdom had played a role in this 24-hour cleaning. The various 5 types of vultures had picked the bones clean of all sinew and meat remnants on and in between the ribs and all other places with a few other small animals having maybe had a piece of the meal. The hyenas had taken care of the rest - meat, skin and bones alike.

 Just on cue to illustrate Formen's point, a hyena showed up to start chowing down on some ribs.

She then moved to the pelvis that had been left laying on the ground disfigured from its natural position when it was held in place by the muscles and ligaments. Another hyena soon joined her. They fought over the pelvis, and the newcomer won.  The original on-site female relinquished herself to some ribs again. It was amazing to see an animal picked so cleanly in such a short period of time.

Then, it was off to a sighting of a leopard which was reported to be a difficult viewing. They were right...but they didn't have Formen!  She was in the very thick brush laying down with a carcass of her last kill. The other Rover full of people decided it was not worth the time and moved on. Formen, on the other hand, said "Let's just wait here for a short while . . .she will come out."  Always trust Foremen. Sure enough. After about 5 minutes of hearing her crunching on bones herself, she emerged. She lay out next to the brush to clean herself just like any cat. Her beauty was spectacular. We were a mere 10 feet from her. We watched her delicately and assiduously clean

herself, licking her paws and wiping her face over and over again, using one paw than the other.

Not long after that we found ourselves in the middle of the buffalo herd again. An immense sea of black bodies and grey-white horns. The buffalo are not particularly trusting animals - not like the cats we've seen - and are quite edgy about our presence. They raise their heads up from their grazing, stare you right in the eye, watch you intensely for 30-60 seconds, then move further away from you - often times in an abrupt head raise and uneasy trot in the other direction. Given that these are such large animals with rather intimidating heads of horns, I'm always hoping their abrupt and uneasy movements are always away from us.

As the herd moved towards the back past and right of us, our eagle-eyed guide, Formen, called us to notice the lions who had just appeared to our left on the top of the ridge. We could just see her head through the tall grass. We all gasped. Then another lion head appeared to her left, then another to her right - each about 20 yards from her on each side of her.  They all started walking towards us. Clearly they were stalking the herd of buffalo. We all delighted in what we believed was going to be a chase and meal attempt in our presence. Then a fourth lion head appeared on the ridge. Four!! We had 4 lions stalking the herd. Oh this is going to be great!!! The herd already seemed to have mostly passed by us though...we hoped this scene would still play out in our sights. 

The 4 lions eased their way towards us over the next few minutes and stopped on the edge of the dirt path on which our vehicle was standing. The lioness was just 10-15 yards from us. She started crossing the dirt path, but walking diagonally across the path towards our Rover. She passed the back of our Rover within 6 feet. More amazing photos secured. The 3 front lions continued passed us onto the right side of the field and started picking up their pace. There was the 1 female and 2 of the 3 males with her. But where were the buffalo? They were already nearly outside of our viewing range at that point. Then we saw 2 large bulls bringing up the very rear. I don't think that is what the lions were expecting. Formen said they were probably hoping to pick off a smaller buffalo towards the back of the herd so as not to get into a herd rush in which they could be trampled. Two large bulls were not what the lions were planning I'm sure. Nonetheless, they crouched, and took off after them and gave a brief chase. I was able to only see the very tops of their heads and backs as these 3 gave chase. The fourth had crossed the road at this point, but did not participate. 
If that stalking and chasing scene weren't enough to excite us all, here come a small herd of elephant over the very same ridge on which the lions had entered the scene. Are you kidding me?! This is incredible! How often do you see all of these animals in one space?! Again, the image of a documentary scene came to mind, yet I was witnessing this first hand. What would the lions do about the elephants we wondered...we couldn't wait to find out!  The elephants gave off a horn-sounding cry...they apparently smelled the lions and were none too happy about it. They took the path of the buffalo, across to the right and back behind us, never reaching closer than about 40 or 50 yards from us. 

Where were the lions at this point we wondered....leave it to Formen. I had wanted to follow the herd and the lions to see what if anything would transpire or if the lions had just given up and stopped following the herd. Well without agreeing to such, Formen started driving away from the last sighting of the lions giving chase, which had been a huge disappointment for me. I was thinking that Formen decided that was just a bit too risky for us, and I resigned myself to being quite overjoyed with the scene I just witnessed. Then after about a minute of driving, Formen took a right, then another right, and there they were....all 4 lions sitting on a mound raised up and clear from the brush from which position they could see the plains better. We had the most perfect lion sighting. 

They were all sitting next to each other in about a 6 foot by 6 foot space, looking about, seemingly reconsidering their next move and whether to follow the buffalo, exhibiting the affectionate interaction I've come to see in various lion stories now.  We couldn't have been more than 10-15 yards from them. It was just unbelievable. Of course, more amazing photos were taken.
This young group of 3 lions and a lioness were just not quite experienced enough to take on 1, let alone 2, large male buffalo, but luckily they made no mortal mistakes and would live to try another day.

For more information about the lodge at which I was staying for these incredible drives, see here: Tanda Tula

To see more of my photos while at Tanda Tula, see here: My African Safari Best Shots - 1 and here: My African Safari Best Shots - 2 

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