HI, and welcome to my blog! I am a field guide in a private game reserve in South Africa and below you will find stories and pictures of my amazing job!

May 15, 2012

Kings of the Jungle

A crisp autumn morning greeted us as we left the lodge with the sky decorated in subtle hues of red and orange as the sun began its daily ascent over the horizon.  Our breath caused puffs of condensation as we exhaled the fresh pure air that only those of you that have experienced the bush could appreciate.  The day promised much after news that a hippo had been fatally injured during a mighty territorial battle the night before filtered through to us on the radio.  Such a feast was sure to attract much action over the coming days and we were eager to see what was to transpire.
As the sun cast its warmth over the bush, breathing life into the new day, the first raptors took to the air, effortlessly gaining altitude as they rode the thermals to survey the landscape.  Their keen eyesight soon picked out the large carcass and their immediate descent to the scene rang the dinner bell to their associates.  Within the first few hours, hundreds of vultures arrived on the scene, dropping out of the sky with their landing gear down to enjoy the spoils of the hippo’s demise.  The gashes sustained from the unfortunate hippo’s encounter the night before allowed them easy access to the soft flesh beneath the thick skin although on closer inspection, a large puncture wound told the whole story.  We theorized that the hippo, whilst mortally injured, had been run through by a particularly aggressive elephant, its tusks creating an irreparable wound channel deep into his flank.

One of many white backed vultues takes to the sky with our arrival

Vultures bicker with each other as the pecking order is established

The scavengers wasted no time as they tore into the hippo’s hide.  Vultures squabbled and fought over the 2 tonne carcass, their bloodied heads and cackling threats making for a wonderful spectacle as they slashed at each other to stand their ground: a true depiction of the harsh reality of life in the wild.  One animal’s misfortune had provided a multitude of opportunities for nature’s clean up crew to satisfy their needs.  With their crops full and their bellies swollen, the vultures milled around ground zero, littering the surrounding landscape with their presence.  Although dominated by the ever present white backs, many of the smaller hooded vultures also tried their luck, darting in and out of the melee, trying to avoid their more powerful cousins.  We were also delighted to record a few cape vultures amongst the sea of feathers.

A bloodied vulture looks down on one of the hungry hopefuls

As night fell, the vultures took to the trees and against the sunset, their silhouettes made for an eerie spectacle.  Like a committee of undertakers, they watched and waited, for they knew that nightfall would bring with it more dangerous competition.  Sure enough, as the shadows fell, the first hyenas entered the playing field.  Drawn by the promise of a free meal they arrived, sensitive noses held high, no doubt attracted from many kilometers away as the stench of death was swept across the bush by a subtle breeze.  That first night, only a few of natures’ most efficient sets of jaws ate their fill, their huge bite force enabling them to slice through the tough hide like a hot knife through butter.  The surrounding area was surprisingly quiet and devoid of the characteristic whooping and cackling of the hyenas as they chose not to announce their find to others and keep the windfall to themselves for now.

The powerful jaws of this hyena make short work of the hippo's thick hide

By the time the next morning came however, the predatory hierarchy had reached its next stage.  In the ethereal early morning light, we were greeted by the sight of the 14 members of the Southern Pride, their faces caked in blood and their bellies filled to bursting point.  The majority of the pride lay close to the hippo panting heavily, trying to get oxygen into their bodies to aid in the digestion. The cubs however were seemingly insatiable as they tore into the carcass with no remorse.  With the soft underside now completely open, the cubs we able to fully disappear inside the dead leviathan.  The hair on their faces was matted together with a mixture of dried blood and the fermented grass from the hippo’s stomach.  One by one they merged from the gaping cavity, their stomachs so bloated that they could barely keep them from dragging along the ground, and flopped down close to their prize.  However, every few minutes, eyes full of blood lust that only hungry cubs can exhibit, they would drag themselves back to the buffet table and force more of the protein rich meat into their extended stomachs.

A bloodied face watches us from within the carcass 

A hungry cub relishing their good fortune

Cubs emerge from within the hippo's stomach

By now 4 of the females had decided to leave the hippo, seemingly unimpressed with the food on offer and went in search of fresher meat.  They were followed for some time into the southern part of the reserve but lost in a particularly rocky area where no vehicles could follow.  One female was left behind on babysitting duty to ensure that the cubs were not denied more of their breakfast and to no doubt be present to repel the ever present threats of the circling vultures and opportunistic hyenas. 
With the arrival of nightfall, the hyenas, their boldness fueled by the cover of darkness, began their offensive.  We watched in the light of the moon, spot lights turned off, to immerse ourselves in the confrontation.  Their battalions, now far outnumbering that of the remaining lions, began to approach the battle field.  Their whooping war cries escalated to a crescendo as, one by one, they voiced their intentions.  Their challenge echoed around the surrounding area as they attempted to intimidate the cubs and their guardian.  However, the remaining female would not be intimidated.  Time after time, she launched herself at the loitering hyenas, growling and spitting, her superior size enough to send them scuttling back to the shadows.  However, hyenas are nothing if not persistent and within minutes, they rallied and approached the carcass once again.  We were sitting in the midst of a war as the interlopers stormed the fortress of the lions.  In scenes reminiscent of 300, the lioness and her young troops repeatedly repelled the hyenas’ advances and this continued deep into the night.

Matted, bloody fur clings to this cub as the sun begins to rise

Possession is 9/10's of the law....

With claws extended, this cub keeps a watchful eye on the loitering vultures

All this noise however did not go unnoticed…  The following morning when we arrival so survey the carnage from the battle that raged the night before, we found the cubs and female lying up away from the carcass and no hyenas on the scene.  As we approached, the smell of the decaying hippo filled our noses causing some guests to gag as the stench was wafted towards us by the wind.  Guarding the carcass and making light work of the remaining tough skin were the 2 Kruger males.  No doubt drawn to the area by the sounds of the previous night’s carnage, they now monopolized the remaining spoils; their superior size and strength enough to encourage all onlookers to keep their distance. They tore into the hide, neck muscles bulging as they ripped chunks of decaying flesh from bone.  Watching the saga unfold, and the level of respect given to them by their challengers, it became clear why they have been coined kings of the jungle.  Often considered lazy, it is at times like this when their true nature is evident and we watched with a modicum of fear and respect as they restored order to the chaos.  The look in a male lion’s eye when protecting a meal is one of the most intimidating sights in the harsh world of survival.  It’s as simple as kill or be killed.

The Kruger males eat their fill

The brothers check their surroundings for approaching competition

The story did not end there though.  After leaving the males, we went in search of a large herd of buffalo that had been seen close to the river.  With some good work done by Zulu, my tracker, we found them grazing in some thick bush alongside one of the drainage lines that snake through Sabi Sabi.  We patiently waited for them to emerge on to an adjacent open area and sat quietly as about 200 head of buffalo appeared from the surrounds.  I placed the land rover at the far end of the clearing so as to experience the full drama of the herd approaching us.  As we waited for the bovine floodgates to reach us, a rustle in the grass attracted our attention.  As we examined the area, we noticed 4 feline faces perfectly camouflaged in the drying grass intently watching the brown mass in their wake.
We could almost see them salivating as their favourite quarry was heading straight into their trap.  Eyes focused, muscles tensed, they waiting without a sound for the right moment. The buffalo’s progress was slow and I could cut the atmosphere with a knife.  For a few long minutes, the lionesses waited, bodies pressed flat into their cover as the unsuspecting buffalo approached the playing field.  Eventually one lioness led the charge.  She exploded from her cover, sending the buffalo stampeding in all directions in wild panic.  Soon she picked out her target: a calf that had become separated from the bulk of the main herd and now found itself in no ma’s land.  Now that the lioness had her goal in sight, she closed the gap quickly and within seconds was snapping at the heels of the bellowing calf.  With incredible agility, she leapt on the back of the calf, her weight and momentum sending them both crashing to the ground.  She clung on to her catch trying to clamp her strong jaws around the calf’s throat to stifle its petrified screams as they tumbled through the grass in a cloud of dust. 

A lioness launches her offensive

Oxpeckers scatter as the lioness sigles out her prey

However, the calf’s cries had not gone unnoticed.  In a wonderful display of unity, a few members of the herd quickly forgot about their own plight and rushed to the aid of their fallen comrade.  Faced with a sea of angry buffalo brandishing unparalleled levels of aggression and some of the most feared horns in the animal kingdom, the lioness was left with no option but to release her meal and run for her life as the tables were turned.  Many a lion has been killed by a protective buffalo and fleeing was her only option.  After evading the rampant rescue squad, she padded back to the rest of the group and they settled under a tree to wait out the harsh African sun, no doubt planning their strategies for the coming darkness.
We had been lucky enough to witness a plethora of incredible interactions and confrontations.  From the unfortunate demise of one male hippo, a whole play had been written for us and we are the silent observes as the main characters fought for centre stage.  The best part about all of it is that the script out here is spontaneous and infinite.  There are no stage prompts, no predictable storylines and the participants have no direction.  It is reality TV at its best.  The harshness of nature is both shocking and inspiring and to have front row seats twice daily is a worth the price of admission alone.