I have always been told that after the rains, the bush erupts in a frenzy of territory-marking and reclamation of domains, as the storms wash away all previous signs of ownership and dominance. As a result, the post-rain slushiness can often bring about some of the most startling sightings. The other morning, this theory was proven.
I received a radio call while sitting at my desk:
“Jem, Jem…the lions are hunting by the solar panels. Want to take a look?”
A no-brainer, really. I grabbed my coat (it was still drizzling), and jumped into the land rover with the two Grahams and Glen. As we splashed our way over to the solar farm we spied in the soggy grass four very wet lions, half-heartedly eyeing up a rather jumpy group of zebra. Each lion was chewing on the drenched vegetation: this can relieve an upset tummy, much as it does for domestic cats and dogs. Clearly they had all had a rather big night.
The lions began to grow restless, and one by one they trooped after a leader female across the floodplain, heading straight for Room 1. We spotted a slate-grey umbrella bobbing up and down along the boardwalk towards the room, and hastily called camp to keep all of the housekeepers away from their normal duties. The lioness veered right, however, and walked purposefully towards a group of lechwe grazing further away. We were busy watching this feline parade and trying to identify each individual (they were all of the Maporota Pride), when we heard a distinct whooping from near the airstrip. One of the lions, an old and rather haggard looking male known as ‘Mr Gummy’ because of his lack of teeth, stopped and glanced in the direction of the familiar battle cries. It was hyaenas, and lots of them.
We called Callum on the radio, as he was out with guests, and he confirmed that he was sitting with about 25-30 hyaenas who were mobbing another male lion. We all looked at each other, huddling in the drizzle, and Graham promptly turned the vehicle around. Saying goodbye to the sluggish cats moving across the plains, we made our way to the cackling sounds. We found Callum and his guests still watching as the male lion lay in the shadow of a thorn bush, surrounded by a large group of hyaenas. They approached, and retreated, again and again. In pairs they came, shoving against each other, unwilling to go it alone, but refusing to back down completely. At one point, they crept behind the thorn bush and tried to surprise him, but were quickly sent flying by a hefty paw and a terrifying growl. The frontrunners in the attack were formidable females, flanked at the back by smaller, more timid males, who kept trying to sneak away: they had clearly had more than enough of this encounter and wanted out.
The lion lay defiantly in his position, grooming himself nonchalantly as if entirely unphased by this rude attack. Occasionally he would answer the raspy whoops of his adversaries with a rumbling growl that would send them creeping back. Suddenly, the hyaenas seemed to decide simultaneously to move on. With several backward glances, the core females marched, their flankers scuttling behind them, relieved that this stalemate might be over. Once the air was rid of their howls, the lion stood up and stalked in the opposite direction, putting some solid distance between himself and his enemies. Satisfied by what we had seen, we waved goodbye to Callum and his guests and turned to head back to camp.
No sooner had we left the sighting, however, but we received another call from Callum, who had headed in the opposite direction. He had found another large group of hyaenas giving someone else a hard time. This sighting was far more distressing. As we approached, I saw several hyaenas scattered about the open plain, their crouched bodies mostly hidden in the grass. They were all facing a female giraffe who was bent over and nudging something lying close to her. My heart dropped. A tiny, mottled yellow and white body lay still, unresponsive to its mother’s plaintive licks – A still-born baby.
The hyaenas were keeping their distance, but gradually they crept closer. The mother looked distraught, unwilling to leave her baby but well aware of the inevitable outcome of this tragedy. She had most likely been there for quite a while, and had not eaten or quenched her thirst. As soon as she made a move away from the baby, however, the hyaenas seized the opportunity and came rushing in. The mother was visibly exhausted but each time the predators came, she chased them back, before returning to lick her dead infant and begin the vigil again. Eventually, the ever-bold hyaenas managed to drag the carcass to a bush, sneaking off with what pieces of meat they could, while the mother continued to enact her maternal prerogative. Scenes such as this are never easy to watch, the sadness of the mother giraffe reflected in the silent and wide-eyed faces of the spectating guests. A good day for one species is a bad day for another, and we can and must only observe, feel sad, feel privileged, feel amazed, and move on.
Caroline Culbert was at Mombo during this time and got some incredible images. To view her gallery, click here.