Three epic days with the Charleston lion pride

Charleston lions climb a tree for a bushbuck; by ranger Pieter van Wyk

As the sun set on the 9th September, we decided that the vast open sand banks at Charleston North Crossing would make for a nice ‘shoes off and feet in the shallow water‘ sundowner spot. This idea was, however, short lived. As we started setting up, we noticed lions just 100 meters to our south. It was the Charleston pride, and all three members were lying on the sand looking inquisitively at us.

The ability to adapt in the African wilderness is tantamount to survival. So how did we adapt to this situation, you may ask? Easily – We simply had our G’nTs in the Land Rover next to the lions. A very pleasant and picturesque experience indeed!

A lioness from the Charleston pride; by ranger Pieter van Wyk

We decided that we’d spend some time with the cats, as earlier in the day a herd of buffalo had been spotted quenching their thirst in the river a kilometre or two south of our position.

As darkness fell, the lions got up, crossed eastwards through the river and started heading south towards the buffalo. We trailed them as they moved swiftly through the bush.

Roughly 20 minutes had passed when one of the lionesses suddenly broke into a jog towards the base of a large Star Chestnut tree. She looked up for a brief moment before ascending the tree with leopard-like ease. It was incredible to see her nimbly manoeuvre her way up, without any sign of awkwardness. She leapt from branch to branch until she was about five metres high, and at that point the reason for her arboreal actions became clear… up in the branches of the tree was an adult male bushbuck kill.

Charleston lions cross the Sand River; by ranger Pieter van Wyk

But the lion and the carcass were not alone! There was a third party in the tree too. The sound of growls from the very upper branches revealed the presence of a female leopard – none other than the Jakkalsdraai female. It didn’t take the leopard much time to decide on her plan of action, as after a minute she dashed down the tree (passing within centimetres of the lioness) and then bolted off into the night.

The two sub-adult male lions then approached the area as their adopted mother began to feed. It was now the turn of the two brothers to test their climbing skills, and they proved to be much less comfortable with the ambitious endeavour. But climb they did. Three lions high up in a tree with a leopard’s bushbuck kill… this was special.

Charleston sub adult male climbs towards the lioness; by ranger Pieter van Wyk

The tug of war begins; by ranger Pieter van Wyk

Two lions in a tree; by ranger Pieter van Wyk

Two lions in a tree; by ranger Pieter van Wyk

Vice-like grip of the bushbuck’s throat; by ranger Pieter van Wyk

Mine!; by ranger Pieter van Wyk

Three lions, a kill and a tree; by ranger Pieter van Wyk

It became even more entertaining when one of the males climbed higher towards the lioness to get himself a share of the spoils – this done with much growling and snarling between the two. The other male decided that this was not for him, and descended the tree (which entailed a three meter high jump from where the branches first forked). He would adopt a more hyena-like approach, and wait for scraps to fall from above. Co-incidentally, a hyena then came to the party and received an unfriendly welcome as the grounded young male lion chased after him. And as all this happened on the ground, the other two lions were engaged in a rather dangerous high altitude tug of war. Although there was only about a quarter of this small antelope left, the lions were hungry.

Lest we forgot to mention that while all this was happening, we could hear the herd of buffalo a few hundred meters to our south and east.

The lions had been up the tree for over an hour and half before we had to leave as it was getting late.

The following day we set out in search of the herd of buffalo, hoping that the lions would be on their trail. We found the herd crossing River Road, heading towards the Sand River along Sibuye Drive. Sure enough, the three Charleston lions were following them.

Herd of buffalo on Sibuye Drive; by ranger Pieter van Wyk

Herd of buffalo on Sibuye Drive, aware of the lions‘ presence; by ranger Pieter van Wyk

Lions are very patient predators, and they spent the rest of the day looking for weaknesses within the herd. It was a mesmerizing sight to watch the cats move through riverine thickets, pillared by massive trees like Jakkalberrys. They would then move out onto the open sand banks of the Sand River.

Charleston Lion looks for a weakness in the buffalo herd; by ranger Pieter van Wyk

It was only on the following morning that the lions made their move. They brought down a good sized sub-adult buffalo bull, only to be chased off by the rest of the herd.

As the lions ran south, they noticed a pack of eight wild dogs in the river and didn’t hesitate to set off after them. This did not last long, and the cats finaly abandoned their pursuit of the dogs to settle down next to the watercourse.

The herd of buffalo had the young bull protectively surrounded, but it was too late as the predators had managed to inflict the fatal blow before they were chased off. The lions knew it was just a matter of time before the buffalo moved off, and were content to simply wait it out.

While all this was going on, a female leopard and her cub were less than a hundred meters away in a reed bed on the opposite side of the water. They managed to move out of the area unnoticed by the other parties.

After about 20 minutes the herd abandoned its fallen comrade, and the Charleston lions moved in to reap the rewards of their hard-earned meal.

Charleston lion at their hard-earned buffalo kill; by ranger Pieter van Wyk

A bite of buffalo; by ranger Pieter van Wyk

Claws to flesh; by ranger Pieter van Wyk

Lions feast; by ranger Pieter van Wyk

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