Friday, October 31

Anatomy of a Kill - A Kruger Waterhole in October

It’s the end of October and the rains are late. The waterhole has shrunk to a muddy fraction of its wet season fullness. The dry, straw coloured grass is more an illusion than fact. With a closer look one can see that it is not grass at all but the dry, sunburnt remnants of the black jacks, khaki weed and other “herbs” that were so effective at concealing the animals during the wet season.  

The earth at the waterhole’s edge was only a few months ago the muddy silty bottom a metre deep under the water. It is now baked into an unforgiving hardness that only gives rise to a choking cloud of dust under the cloven hooves of the antelope when they come down to drink. 

Across the waterhole to the left, a tense, milling mass of grey. Elephant matriarchs, aunts, cousins, sisters and their young are standing, bunched up, out in the open, far from both food and water, a picture of indecisiveness, uncertainty. The calves lie down on the dusty ground, tired of not moving, not drinking, not playing. 

A flicker of movement from the right, and the reason for elephant uneasiness is revealed. A lioness, superbly camouflaged by the dry reed stalks lies relaxed on a low rise, still cooled by the fast disappearing morning fog. More movement and four cubs tumble over her back and clumsily seek her attention. As the late morning air gradually warms, the rest of the pride slowly comes into focus. One young male lies on the far right, mostly obscured by the dead stalks, but obviously chewing on the remnants of an impala kill. Other lionesses, attended by their energetic and playful cubs, rest along the top of the rise. 

A herd of impala slowly threads its way down to the water’s edge on the far right. They are downwind of the pride so must be aware of it’s presence but seem oblivious? They must be confident in their ability to out run the lion or are they just too thirsty to care – or both? 

A white-backed vulture glides into perch on the dead tree rising high above the mud whilst at its foot the small shape of a black-backed jackal darts here and there with its nose alternately close to the ground or high, sniffing the air. 

Another young male lion rises to his feet and starts walking through the reeds to the waterhole edge. His short, blonde, tufty mane is ruffled by a light gust of air. He ignores the impala. The elephant herd silently, quickly, and unnoticed, fade away into the distant bush. 

 One by one, litter by litter, the rest of the pride rise and pad purposefully towards the water. They spread out along the far side of the water hole, fifteen cubs, six lionesses and three young “sub-adult” males. An amazingsight as they all drink, clustered together in four or five groups. Another white backed vulture flies in overhead, perhaps sensing an opportunity to get to what ever remains of the impala carcase.

Then to the disbelief of some and surprise of all, entering “stage left” come a group of six old buffalo, lumbering slowly but thirstily down the slope towards the water hole. They’re upwind and their eyesight must be dim, as they literally walk straight into the jaws of the pride. 

From the first raising of the lion heads to the drawn out finale, is a blur of dust, tawny feline shapes in rapid motion, desperate scattering of the large black buffalo, and the last frantic run of the selected victim. 
It seems an interminable two minutes for the eight lion to bring down the massive buffalo bull. To the onlookers it always seems possible that such a large animal will be able to shake off his attackers and get away, but no, the inevitable happens and he suddenly collapses, forelegs splayed out in front of him and he disappears from sight under the cats.

As the killers are still subduing the prone buffalo, the cubs file in from the left. They all look hungry, with hollow flanks, and are keen to get their share of the kill. The adult lion have obviously fed recently as the cubs are allowed in straight away to tear at the softer skin of the hind quarters and belly. 

At the waterhole, the impala return to the water’s edge, the vultures wait high on the dead tree, and the normal rhythm of life resumes. 

(to Kelly, Matt and Peter, who were there with me on this incredible occasion)

1 comment: said...

Sue, Our trip with you was the most memorable of my life. Encountering all those baby lions then witnessing the hunt and kill was a once in a lifetime experience. Thank you for guiding us on such an incredible trip!