Text, photographs, and video: Theo York
One of the great privileges of working and living in the African bush, especially at the likes of MalaMala, is that we’re granted the opportunity to spend long periods of time out in the field. These opportunities provide a platform of learning that no textbook or animal behavioural study can even begin to describe.
One such opportunity arose on the 30th of August whereby a group of rangers attempted to spend the night with one of our most endeared lion prides, the Eyrefiled pride. For generations they have dominated the central parts of our reserve and we’ve followed them through the good times and the bad. At present the pride comprises of three huge females (possibly the biggest lionesses you will ever see) and four cubs, now just over half a year old. These are the cubs of the two Matshipiri males who joined us from the Kruger National Park last year and have subsequently set up camp in the central regions of Mala Mala (which is another story on its own).
The night began with expectations soaring. Somewhat naively we thought that we would just pitch up to the last known position of the pride from that afternoon and find the lions grooming themselves and getting ready for their evening activities. On arrival to this area to the east of the Matshipiri River and some way south of the Hogvaal Donga (a small tributary river) we were disappointed to discover that low and behold our lions were nowhere to be seen. After much discussion and speculation as to whether our information was given and received properly by the last rangers on drive with the lions, we began to work the area as we would from scratch. Now with five rangers on a vehicle one can imagine that there were some strong opinions and suggestions as to how to go about things (all valid of course) but also five sharp pairs of eyes and ears that would not skip a beat. First things first, drive the roads around the area and look for any tracks crossing the road, nothing! Secondly, go into the exact last positon and work the most logical routes the lions would take from there based on any tracks or signs available (remembering it is now pitch dark), nothing! Thirdly, do a second loop in case you missed them the first time and most importantly keep your eyes peeled and your ears pricked.
It was just as our hopes of a night out with these lions was starting to dwindle that we all heard the unmistakable sound of elephants crashing through the bush. Not an uncommon sound as elephants are spooked at night due to their poor vision or just from being harassed by overzealous bulls trying their luck with the young females. However, this was all we had to work with at this stage and a full investigation was thus undertaken. It was clearly apparent on drawing nearer to this herd that something had most definitely upset them albeit, the bush was thick and the herd quite split up making it difficult to predict where their troubles were originating from. It was only due to a chance sweep of the spot light revealing two sets of eyes high above the ground that caught our attention (possibly just a bushbaby in a tree, but when that little extra sense tells you to have a closer look you have to oblige). This to our relief was one of those cases where a second look pays off, as two little cubs revealed themselves on top of a termite mound obviously seeking refuge from the now more than disgruntled herd of pachyderms. It didn’t take us long before stumbling upon the rest of the pride regrouping nearby after clearly being chased around. And so began our night with the Eyrefield pride.
After a much needed grooming session after the trauma of getting separated by the elephants, it was evident that the cubs became more and more restless in their playing, much to the apparent annoyance of the lionesses. It was this behaviour however that prompted the older of the females into an overdramatic stretch and yawn (as only felines can do), only to slip away into the darkness. With astonishment we watched as on cue the rest of the lions got up and followed her, not a grunt or grown or glance was passed, but for the undeniable connection shared between such closely knit sociable animals. What was to follow, was about an hour of driving through the bush doing everything in our power to keep up with the steady gait of the lions as they waded through the darkness with the ease of a creature so in tune with its environment as to be supernatural. There was a definite direction and purpose to their movement and again after some time as if they were one being the lionesses halted, raised their heads and sniffed the air drawing in deeply the smells and scents that are so far gone to the human nose.
It was at this point that more purpose and urgency was reflected in the lioness’s movements and again this made keeping up with them a formidable task. They had now began to zigzag their way through the Hogvaal Donga. It was not long before this proved even too much for the driving skills of Adi who was at the helm. For the second time that night our hopes began to fade after not being able to regain visual of the lions for the past quarter of an hour. It was just as we were about to decide on another plan to find the lions that the magic of this night was to emerge again, but this time in the form of an unambiguous sound, one that stirs the emotions, raises the hairs on your neck and makes the heart pump that little bit faster. No, not the sound of lions roaring (although it does too) but rather the characteristic bellowing of a buffalo being mauled by lions!
What unfolded in that dance of life and death was unanimously decided as one of the most gruelling battles we had all yet seen between lions and buffalo. The buffalo cow in question amazed us all (I think the lions as well) in her tenacity and will to survive. The key to her success was undoubtedly her resolve in maintaining her footing at all costs, her fearlessness in frontal defence and wit, regarding her impressive use of the dense thorny vegetation surrounding the scene. The lionesses on the other hand were absolutely spent after the exertion of the mêlée and with the lactic acid clearly running determinedly through their bodies they attempted to hobble after the scent trail of the buffalo. The pursuit however was fast abandoned and the point at which the hunt was called off was clearly evident in the change in body language between all the females. Again the mystical way in which all members of the pride acted in unison left us dumbfounded, all except the now over excited cubs who had been eager benchwarmers during this whole episode. The playful nature of these animals seemingly carefree always manages to surprise and it is with great difficulty that one has to remind oneself that these are the apex predators of the wildest of continents.
Now began the long wait and we were well prepared with snacks and warm beverages. Lying under the starlit sky listening to the sounds of the night play their tune eased our souls. It was now just after nine o’clock and predictions were made as to how long we would be sitting beside the recuperating felines, ranging from the next hour to another four. Most certainly no matter what times we could estimate the lions were now out for the count.
It was at 00:28 AM that the lions had moved far enough away from their resting place so as to be considered a full commitment to moving on (this was a mere 3 minutes shy of my predicted 12:31 estimate). Once again, it was now a matter of keeping up with the determined stride of the lions as they continued South towards the Kapen River. After some time it became a matter of trusting in the lions to lead us into an area that we were familiar with, whilst we had the stars to get our general bearing it was difficult to be certain of our exact whereabouts. Finally we popped out onto our first road and much to our credit we were all immediately able to ascertain approximately where we were, however short lived this would prove to be (it goes to show just how well the roads are imprinted in our minds). With little more than a glance to either side the lionesses lead their bundle of offspring straight across the road and into the bush.
The following few hours were spent much the same, in just trying to keep up and all that was worth noting was a brief half hour cat nap and the killing of the world’s unluckiest Red-crested Korhaan. This again took us all by surprise as everything happened so suddenly. We barely had time to register what was unfolding. The lioness in question (the youngest of the three females) had obviously caught the movement in the corner of her eye and immediately pounced on the unsuspecting Korhaan. Barring one of the cubs very boldly being able to snatch away a wing, the female was left to devour the bird which quite literally went up in a puff of feathers. Astonished again by the opportunistic vigilance shown by the seemingly nonchalant lions we watched this all unfold and much like the rest of the pride who had paused some distance away to allow for the drama to unfold. We sat and enjoyed the way in which the lioness negotiated her way around the feathers of the bird.
In the hours before dawn, the coolest of the night, it seemed as though the lions had recovered from the battle with the buffalo. The pace had quickened just enough so as to hint of the invigorated demeanour of the cats and once again the lionesses would all in unison raise their nostrils to the night sky on numerous occasions. Now after many hours of relative inactivity, our spirits started to lift once more in eager anticipation of something similar to what we had experienced earlier in the evening. But, by now we were merely chasing shadows as the lions began to eerily slink between the thickets. We were following the briefest of glances of twitching tails disappearing into the darkness until finally out of the rim of the spot light another dancing shadow was seen trotting away towards the Kapen River. The lionesses were clearly on the hunt again and with that final glance just as it had happened earlier that night, the pride of lions had outmanoeuvred us and vanished.
Assuming that it would not be long before the deafening bellows of a destressed buffalo would ring out over the seep lines of the Kapen River, we decided to switch off and wait. In hindsight a costly move on our behalf as too much distance came between us and the lions in an area of notorious difficulty. It was thus decided that we would try to make our way back to the road and work the area as we would from scratch. For the next two hours we drove the whole of Flockfield (one of the five original properties to make up Mala Mala), half in the hope of coming across the lions an half in fulfilment of our duties to patrol the reserve during the early hours of the morning as a measure of anti-poaching. By now we were all feeling rather beat and somewhat cheated, but in a last ditch effort as a passing thought we decided to have a look in the open area to the West of where we lost the lions on the northern bank of the Kapen River and once again the trotting cubs of the Eryefield pride magically appeared before us.
Dawn in Africa is a thing of wonder and awe. Everything seems to rejoice in the knowledge that another night was survived and yet another day lies ahead. The birds sing their songs of enlightenment and the animals of the day seek the first rays of sun to melt away the last chill and memories of the night passed. With this transition the last of the nocturnal animals slip back into their daily stupor, hiding away in their holes and dens. There is however one animal that doesn’t take to this new day as fervently as the rest and that is the lion. The boldness and astuteness that was so apparent during the evening seemingly draw out of the cats as the morning approaches, much to the reasoning of a night of lost opportunity. It was at this time that the pride of seven lions ambled up to a very familiar rock structure climbing their way to the very top just as the first rays of sun began to break through blanket of mist hanging over the Kapen settling in for a day on the rocks. It was here that we left our charges. Everyone passed their last glance over the lions and as we drove away a sense of gratitude and admiration filled the vehicle, nearly as much as the sleep in our eyes.
On reflection what we all took away from this life changing experience was a new found respect for Panthera leo. The continuous struggle of these cats on so many fronts is astounding, be it from the dynamics unfolding from the surrounding lions and the territorial pressures therein or simply trying to catch a meal and not be killed in the process. This is not to mention the vast majority of lions around Africa facing the greatest pressure of all, Mankind and its sickening hunger for the resources of the Earth without a second thought of the impacts on the environment. So next time you see a sleeping lion, be sure to know of the night it could well have had and instead of passing it by with little more than a second thought, rather just enjoy it for what it is, the apex predator of the wildest of continents.