When Predator Turns Prey

Chobe National Park


June 9, 2016

9:30 am

Game drives are usually scheduled at godawful hours of five in the morning and then again at a more civilized hour in the evening just before sunset. So there we were huddled into our fleeces in the chilly hours of the morning, driving into the park before sunrise. Bumping over dirt roads, slip-sliding over sand ones, we startled some elephants beginning their breakfasts. And stared down some kudu and impala. A few birds rose squawking in the air but all else seemed quite. It was as if the animals were having a lie-in, smart creatures.

But come mid-morning it all changed. Along the road that lies next to the river, we could see a few game viewing vehicles crowded in at one point. Lions, they said it was. And sure enough, there on the bank were four lionesses, basking in the sunlight, opening one eye to take in the tourists in a lazy sweep and turning away to dismiss the lot. The closest one was no more than a meter away from our car.

But wait, one of them suddenly turns her head and looks to the river’s edge behind us. A couple of seconds later, so does another one. They are all on their feet now and they begin sauntering in that direction. They have sighted a herd of buffalo and are moving in. We might, just might be watching a kill! Seeing these majestic beasts was already a highlight but this? This took our breaths away.

Literally breathless we also turned, each vehicle jockeying for position. But the drivers of many of the game vehicles are on their walkie talkies and the word is out. Soon there are a few more vehicles crowding in. Too many apparently, because not long after comes the game warden’s jeep to disperse us. No, no, no!!! How can we be shunted off just when the kill was about to happen? Disgruntled, we had no choice but to leave. Caroline had left early this morning and Emily and Leena were leaving in the afternoon. But Frans and I were determined to go back.

What I had not known before is that Frans lives, breathes and dreams wildlife. Rides along bumpy roads looking for and then lying in wait quietly for wildlife to cross our path tend to be liberally laced with adrenaline. But I could hardly complain; I was a willing partner in this. Who knows what we would see? Perhaps we could see the lions gorging on the kill.


4:30 pm

Back in the park and back to the same area, we saw a couple of jeeps already stopped. Near the marshy area at the water’s edge, the same pride lay sprawled. The numbers are larger now – it appears to be six or more lionesses this time. But wait, they are up. They are intently looking at something. Oh and they are off. They are moving in! They have sighted a lone buffalo upwind of them grazing on the marsh grass. The buffalo apparently has no inkling of the danger and continues to wade in.

With no apparent communication, a couple of the lionesses move down to take up a crouching position to one side of the marsh. One swims across the marshy bit to the left, growling softly as she moves into the tall grass on the other side. Two others crouch on the near side, only their ears visible over the tufts. One more slowly lopes around the edge of the water hole and comes up on the rear of the buffalo. A couple of minutes and they have the buffalo surrounded. They spring on it, two from the back and a couple from the sides. The kill when it happens is over in a flash. Down goes the buffalo, with barely a bellow behind a clump of grass on the far side of the marsh. Heaving golden bodies swarm over it and the black ends of their tails twitch as they begin to gorge.

We watch, little knowing that there is more drama to be played out today. From the bushes to our right come a few buffalo, heading to the water to drink. A pair of the lionesses notice them long before us and they stare intently while the others continue to gorge. Will they kill again? What will happen now? Soon we as well as they realize that these are not just a few buffalo but a whole herd.

And this is no ordinary herd – there seems to be an unending stream of bulls, cows and calves as they come mooing and grunting and kicking up dust. There are easily some three or four hundred and the end of the herd is not even in sight. As they continue down, the leader of the herd seems to sense danger and stops. A massive bull, he stops and smells the air and then moves forward. The lionesses have stopped eating and turn. They are intent on the buffalo now. The giant bull moves forward as the herd behind him stops. It seems to be a standoff. There is no sound from the tourist vehicles as we watch with baited breath. The bull moves forward again and now there are others of the herd that move in after. Like a venerated battle-hardened general leading his troops, he faces down the lionesses. They are charging toward the lionesses! And the lionesses try to stand their ground fail. Prudence seems to be the better part of valour in the animal kingdom as well today. The lionesses soon turn tail as they are forced to abandon their kill. The bull buffalo charges again and again, followed now by the herd and the lionesses are pushed back further and further. In the haze of dust kicked up, we see the hapless lionesses chased off. Their twitching tails and bodies can be seen moving off to a safe distance, waiting for the buffalo to leave. Perhaps then they can safely go back to the remains of the kill. The king of beasts are vanquished today at least for the time being.

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