Trip Diary: Red in Tooth and Claw

Posted on



Our South African friends left us this morning, going to another camp not far from Splash Camp‘s territory. In keeping with their tendency to make a game drive out of everything, we all piled into the safari vehicle for our usual 6am start. But this time, the departing guests brought all their luggage with them. We’d do the game drive toward the border between the camps’ areas, and their new camp would send a vehicle to meet our friends there.

Lioness and two teenaged cubs crossing a water field.
Lioness and teenaged cubs cross a water field.

The morning started off with a bang. Not half an hour into the drive, we encountered the other half of the lion pride who lives in this area — several lionesses, several teenagers, and one small cub. TJ said that there had been six small cubs earlier in the season, but all the lionesses were present, so the rest couldn’t have been left behind with one of them. Something must have killed them. Lion cubs have a very low survival rate in their first year. We found out more later about what had happened to the lion cubs… but I’ll get to that part of the story in a bit.

We were sad about the cubs, but we had a wonderful time watching and photographing all the lions. They jumped over water channels, and wrestled with each other and washed each other, and generally behaved like the cats they are. It was terrific, and we got tons of photos, but we were greedy and wanted a few more very specific ones, and that’s what got us into trouble.

We were in a very wet area, and the cats were walking past us, playing and tussling as they went. We kept wanting to move around front, where we could get into one position and stay there. It was hard to take good pictures when TJ kept creeping forward every few seconds. So we asked TJ if he couldn’t please go forward all at once to get ahead of the lions and then stay still for a while? He explained to us that no, he really couldn’t; we were in a very delicate location and had to be careful.

But because he wanted to make his guests happy, he tried anyway. The result was exactly what he had predicted: the safari vehicle got stuck in the mud. While surrounded by lions.

Six lions, all but one watching TJ and KP  trying to get the car out of the muck.
The lions watched with apparent amusement from all over the termite mound, while TJ and KP ran around trying to get our car out of the muck.

The lions, fortunately and expectedly, paid no serious attention to us. It’s not a good idea to get out of the truck while there are lions around, because some kind of random movement can theoretically draw their notice to your potential value as lunch… but as a practical matter it generally doesn’t. So TJ and KP left their shoes in the van, got out into the knee-deep water, and started working on unsticking us.

There was another vehicle also watching the lions, from the sister camp that shares Splash Camp’s territory. So the first plan was to try and hitch the cars together and let them pull us out. The problem was that the swamp was pretty broad. In order to get close enough to be hitched to our vehicle, theirs would have to edge far enough into our mud patch to risk getting stuck alongside us. So after a little fussing about angles and positioning, TJ just told them to keep out of the muck; we’d manage on our own.

And we did. Or rather, TJ and KP did. The rest of us sat in the van, contributing nothing but extra weight. They couldn’t let us get out; there were a dozen lions present, and even though it was very unlikely they would cause trouble, guest safety had to take priority for the staff. So they told us to stay there. And then KP raised the van on a jack, by hand, with all five of us sitting in it.

While KP was jacking us all up into the air, TJ was breaking down trees with his bare hands. Nobody ever said a guide’s job is easy. He needed logs, and only a few lay loose on the ground. So he gathered those, and then he made a lot more. There were enough dead trees around — courtesy of elephants, who kill random trees all the time — to give him plenty to work with, so he just kept yanking off large chunks of dead tree and hauling them back to KP.

After they had enough logs under the van, they jacked it back down again, passengers and all. Now, it rested on the logs, not on the muddy ground, which gave us enough traction to get our wheels turning and roll free of the ooze.

Things were less eventful for a while after that. We got to the spot where we were due to hand over our friends, and said our goodbyes. (Hope you’re reading this, friends! And that you had a fantastic time at your next camp.) We saw them off, then meandered back in the general direction of Splash Camp.

The vehicle stopped suddenly. I looked up. TJ was wearing a confused expression… something I couldn’t remember seeing on him before.

“I think I saw something in that tree,” he explained, uncertainly. “Maybe I’m imagining it, but let’s go look.”

So we went and looked, bubbling over with eagerness, because we heard what he didn’t say. There’s only one major African mammal who would be found in a tree: the elusive leopard. We’d been hoping to see one all week, and come up empty every time. Sometimes we saw tracks, or other indications that a leopard had been there… but no leopard. This was expected. It wasn’t like the elephants, where I had reason to think I would see them; most people come to Africa eager to see a leopard, and nearly all go home disappointed. I was no exception to the first, and I figured I probably wouldn’t be to the second, either.

As it turned out, TJ had seen something in the tree — but it wasn’t a leopard. It was a carcass of red lechwe — a grotesque thing with a head and a spine and little else left of it. It hung in the tree where the leopard had stashed it. There were vultures perched all around; they could smell the carcass and wanted to get at it, but the tree branches were too dense and they couldn’t reach it. So they just sat nearby and squawked occasionally in frustration.

Red lechwe males average between 75 and 80 kilos, according to TJ. A typical, fully grown male leopard weighs perhaps 55. Yet that leopard had hauled the lechwe, which weighed substantially more than he did, clear up into the tree, and hung it from an interior branch where nothing but himself could reach it. Strong leopard. Clever leopard. But still invisible leopard.

We sighed, resigning ourselves to yet another near miss. The carcass had been pretty well picked over, KP explained, so the leopard would likely not be back. We left the carcass in disappointment, and went on.

On the afternoon drive, TJ wanted to go back to that carcass. Just to see, he said. If it had fallen down from the tree, there’d be vultures and maybe a hyena on it, which could be interesting. So we went all that long way — about two and a half hours — just to see.

It was totally worth it.

TJ took one look from a great distance, and said, “The leopard is there.” KP was still on the tracker’s seat, so we drove right past the tree in order to give him a safe chance to climb off and get inside the truck. Then we went back to look at our leopard.

Leopard draped along a branch.
TJ’s leopard, draped over a tree branch.

Leopards are elusive at the best of times, because they’re largely nocturnal and solitary, and they hide in trees when they’re not hunting. This was far from the best of times to find a leopard, since the rainy season offers them so many options. In the dry season, they have to come to the few available water holes once in a while, but at this time of year they can find water everywhere. We would never have seen him, if TJ hadn’t spotted his kill and gone back to see if he’d return to it. The leopard was asleep when we arrived, but soon woke up and looked at us suspiciously for a few minutes, before deciding we were all right and climbing through the branches to where he had left his lechwe carcass. He began, casually, to munch on it. We remained, transfixed by the beauty and power of the big cat, until KP — who had kept his wits about him and was still doing his job — said, “Hyena on the left.”

Leopard munching on what's left of a lechwe.
The leopard munches on his lechwe carcass.

I looked eagerly to the left. I’d only seen one hyena before this, and it was at night, while the hyena was hunting, so we only caught a brief glimpse of it before it disappeared into the darkness. This one was scavenging from the leopard, or trying to, and it was very funny — it hung around beneath the leopard’s tree as if it were a dog begging scraps from the table. It was clearly hoping the leopard would drop a chunk of lechwe, and the leopard was just as determined not to. It was fascinating to watch the interaction between the two creatures, and thanks to TJ’s careful positioning of the van, we had a front row seat.

Hyena looking up at the tree, hoping that the leopard will drop something.
A hyena lurks at the base of the tree like a dog begging for table scraps.

All of this was wonderful to watch. But all of it came about because TJ spotted a dead lechwe in a tree. I didn’t think much about the lechwe at the time; it was simply the mechanism by which we located the leopard. But a bunch of things that happened later made me think about that lechwe. For several days, we’d seen mostly the peaceful side of nature… and it really does have one. Now, all at once, the Delta decided to show us its savagery.

In our last game drive, Wednesday morning (we were scheduled to leave Splash Camp on a bush plane just past noon), we started by finding jackals. Lots of jackals, in several cute little jackal families. Jackals mate monogamously for life, and we saw three or four pairs, each with last year’s pups frolicking around them. This year’s pups would be born around May. The babies were very cute, and one of them played with something — chewing on it, flinging it around, and trying to catch it all by himself.

Jackal cub playing with something.
Side-Striped Jackal cub, playing with… what?

His toy was a spring hare — the same kind of animal we’d seen alive a couple of nights ago, and exclaimed over just as much as we were exclaiming over the jackal right now. And rightly so; they were both entirely adorable. But fundamentally, spring hares are a staple prey for jackals. You can’t really have both of them safe at once; if you wish safety for the prey animals, you are implicitly wishing starvation for the predators. There’s no third way.

Ostrich in the foreground, two zebras further back toward the bushes.
Ostrich among the zebra herds, keeping lookout with its long neck.

We left the jackals behind. (There was a reason we saw so many jackals, which we didn’t find out right away.) We then encountered several zebra herds, each with its one resident wildebeest. I think there’s some kind of rule: every zebra herd has to have exactly one wildebeest — no more and no less. One of the herds had a couple of ostrich parading around nearby as well. Prey animals appreciate ostriches; they can see very far, so they’re good warning of approaching predators. It’s also one reason why the lone wildebeests like to live with zebra herds. It’s hard to get much to eat safely, when you have no other eyes to protect you. In a herd, whatever the species, others can watch your back sometimes.

A herd of zebra with one mandatory wildebeest.
All zebra herds have one mandatory wildebeest.

Also in that zebra herd was one beast who had a tremendous gash on his right flank. A hunting lion had grabbed him from behind, strafed him with a long claw that couldn’t quite find a grip… and was then shaken off as the zebra got away.

Zebra with a still-healing wound on its right flank.
Zebra who’s been raked by lion claws, with still-healing wound. This was one of the lucky ones; the wound didn’t get it killed by another predator before it could heal.

Nine out of ten predator attacks fail, across a broad range of species. Some are more effective than others — wild dogs, for example, succeed at a rate substantially greater than fifty percent, and cheetahs succeed about one time in two. Lions are roughly at the one success in ten mark…. but some of the failures leave scars.

Injuries are usually lethal in the bush, either directly or indirectly. An injury that could heal completely if the animal was safe and well fed can kill when it prevents a prey animal from running away successfully, or a predator from hunting until it starves. Not to mention the risk of infection out there.

Fortunately, this gash appeared to be healing cleanly, and the zebra was running with the others, fast and strong. So we had reason to hope he would live. We saw another zebra a few minutes later, with a much more dangerous injury. He was probably part of that same herd, but we found him on his own behind a group of bushes. He walked on three legs. His left front knee was hurt somehow; he wasn’t able to use the leg at all.

That injury was likely to be deadly. Hunting animals have a nose for the young and the old, the hurt or the weak; the easy prey. They’ll go for those every time. If this zebra recovered well enough to run again before a predator found him, he would live. Otherwise, he’d be somebody’s dinner.

All of this sobered me. I thought about prey animals and the balance between their need to survive and the predators’ need to eat. And then I saw another wrinkle: just as we turned homeward, we were summoned by another car which had found a cheetah. Not Mr. Special; we had driven beyond his territory today. This was a different male cheetah, and we went to see him. TJ recognized this cheetah by his slightly scarred lip. He’s had that for a long time, courtesy of some prey animal who fought back. Probably a juvenile zebra — cheetahs don’t try for adult zebras, but the babies can still pack a powerful kick.

Prey animals aren’t the only ones who risk their lives in the constant war between predator and prey. Predators face danger too, and most prey animals are capable of some fairly stout self-defense. The kick of an ostrich, or that of a zebra, can kill a lion. Buffalo sometimes hold their ground and turn on their attackers together, rather than fleeing. The predator eats by taking lives, but she also risks her own life for every meal.

The cheetah let us watch him a few minutes. Then he got up and disappeared into the bushes… limping. He, too, was nursing a recent injury, just like the zebra. He, too, would die if he didn’t recover quickly. A cheetah’s livelihood is his speed and agility; without that, he faces starvation.

Cheetah limping into the bushes
Then he got up and disappeared into the bushes… limping.

I hoped he’d recover quickly. Even though I knew that, if he did, he would go on to kill many other things I also liked and wanted to see live. But he was a magnificent creature. I didn’t blame him or the other predators for doing what they did; it was the only way they had to survive. I just felt distressed when I had to think about it happening to an animal I personally knew and liked, that’s all.

Finally, we headed back to the camp at high speed, because we had let ourselves run late to see that cheetah, and we need to pack and be ready for the plane. But TJ and KP saw vultures circling, and really wanted to stop and see what they were after. There was something dead in that patch of bushes, and after what TJ had found last time he wanted to check something out, I didn’t argue too much. (I did ask if we had the time, but TJ said yes so I trusted him. Again, he turned out to be right.)

After a little while, we found what the vultures were interested in. It was a male lion skeleton, with nothing left except a little bit of the head, and the bones.

TJ sadly told us the story behind it, which was a real mess.

The coalition of five male lions who rule this area were not originally locals. Before they ever arrived, three brothers held a territory close by, and were known by the guides as the “Zulu Boys.” They had attracted a good number of females, and were living well.

Then the five brothers who make up the Coalition moved in. They took over a territory on the Zulu Boys’ border. It was a good one, with lots of reliable water resources on it and great plant food to attract the herbivores they ate. A lot of the Zulu Boys’ lionesses chose to change sides. They moved in with the Coalition, and became their pride.

The Zulu Boys still had lionesses, and cubs of their own to raise, and a good territory with all the same features as the Coalition’s had. But they wanted their former females back, so they started raiding. They were the ones who had killed the five cubs who were missing from the Coalition’s pride when we saw it — an adult male lions will usually kill the cubs of a different male if he wants their mother. To humans, it sounds like a strange way to court a lady, but it makes sense in lion terms… that way, she’ll be ready sooner to have HIS cubs, and his genes will prevail.

So the Zulu Boys raided the Coalition’s territory and killed their cubs, in order to try and steal the Coalition’s females. At least that’s how the Coalition saw it. The Zulu Boys probably saw it as just trying to lure back their own lionesses whom the Coalition had stolen from them in the first place. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Anyway, the Zulu Boys came raiding again last week, but this time the Coalition males were there to meet them. They surrounded and attacked one of the Zulu Boys, leaving him badly wounded. He crawled away alone, and died in the bushes. The jackals and hyenas and vultures found him soon after. That’s why there had been so many jackals visible that morning. When we saw him, he’d been dead less than twelve hours, and he was already stripped to the bone.

So one gorgeous male lion and five promising young cubs are dead, because of a war between two prides. Only two Zulu Boys remain, but I suspect they won’t accept defeat from the Coalition of Five. They’ll keep raiding, and the Coalition may need to kill them all, in order to stop them from killing more cubs. Nobody ever said that lions’ methods were gentle.

Every once in a while, nature seems determined to teach us the hard lessons. Most things live because something else died; it’s a rare creature that can live wholly on fruit or nectar, taking from the plant without destroying it. The rest of us kill for our food, and we have to be able to accept the fact that that’s what we’re doing. And that someday, something will eat us in our turn.

Also, human beings did not invent war.

Next post: south into the desert. Can I handle it? Find out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *