“The Linyanti Concession in the drier months produces game that can exceed any area of Botswana.” Or so I have been told. I was particularly looking forward to meeting old friends, making new friends and putting this assertion to the test.
Upon arrival at DumaTau Camp in the Linyanti we took an evening game drive where we came upon a lovely leopard followed by what was arguably the highlight – two large lions, known as the Channel Boys, in hot pursuit of a lioness and her adult daughter. Their intentions seemed flirty but the females were having none of it and bolted with the males in hot pursuit. It was an adrenaline rush to see such large animals at pace, so focused on the females’ scent that they would have run through a herd of buffalo without blinking!
I ended the day pleased with the good sightings we had enjoyed including elephant, waterbuck, hippo and other plains game such as impala and giraffe. This however was just the start… The following morning would surprise us with one of the most amazing sightings I have ever witnessed.
Like all good game drive stories, it started off as a quiet meander along the Savute Channel, stopping for the odd bird sighting, a wallowing hippo and some grazing red lechwe. BK, our impressive guide, then began explaining how lechwe have adapted to live in marshy areas, remarking on their build and legs and how they use their hind legs to power through channels. Suddenly the two male lechwe he had chosen as our anatomy specimens burst into action and pronked through the shallows in a noisy splash of water towards us before making a 180-degree turn. I was too slow to get any shots but was thinking how amazing BK was that he managed to get the lechwe to demonstrate the theory!
My bemusement was short-lived as we heard a loud snort from the lechwe and saw the heads of no less than 12 wild dogs as they bounded through the long grasses from the edge of the island towards the lechwe, passing where the antelope had just been grazing.
They must have smelt the wild dogs or heard an alarm call as they would not have been able to see them from their original positions. Our vehicle went from a quiet lesson on wetland mammals to everyone sitting upright watching the dogs approach the water. The dogs had no chance of getting to the lechwe; they were too deep, too far and the water too dangerous to risk. As BK radioed in the sighting and we all adjusted our binoculars and lenses to get some shots of the mini standoff, Kanan, sitting in front of me said, in one of the calmest voices, “Oh look, a lioness”. There in the treeline she had spotted a large female, likely the one we had seen the day before due to the location, slinking in and out of the dense cover! I commended Kanan on her calmness then excitedly told everyone to get ready as it was obvious the lioness had picked up the dogs. The dogs hadn’t picked up on the lioness, and the lechwe, well they were just spectators now. When wild dogs and lions collide there is always action.
As excited as I was that two predators were going to ‘interact’ I was a bit apprehensive of the outcome. The lioness had moved closer and was still in the thick cover, eyes locked on the now split pack of about seven dogs who were facing the lechwe with their backs to the lioness. Her flattened ears, fixed gaze and body low to the ground were a stark contrast to the dogs’ forward facing ears, unaware of the danger behind.
She snuck up, inching closer and closer until there was no more cover left and then made her big break in pursuit of the wild dogs. Alarm calls rang out from lechwe and wild dog alike. The lechwe bounded further into the channel whilst the dogs made a break for it. One dog tried to follow the others but soon realised that the lioness was cutting her off and with channel on one side and lioness on the other, decided to stop and turn in the other direction. Whilst a wild dog can outlast a lion in a sprint, due to the nature of surprise the lioness had floored her accelerator before the dog could! Added to which the dog had decided to stop and change directions, albeit in a split second, allowing the lioness to reach top speed and reel in the dog. It didn’t help that the wild dog was not a fully grown adult and was therefore not able to reach the same speeds as its older pack members. Cameras clicked over the gasps of shock in the car.
I respect, understand and believe in the whole ‘circle of life’ and ‘let nature take its course’ speech, but I was whispering under my voice, “Run dog, run!” Some might think it unfair, but, with pack numbers diminishing throughout Africa, seeing a super predator take out another super predator is hard to take. The dog seemed like it was putting distance between it and the lioness but it was a trick of angles. After a few seconds, the lioness launched out a right paw which sent the dog tumbling and she was on top of it in a flash, left paw holding the dog’s rump and right paw trying to hold the head. The dog was fighting back, but even though it was outweighed and outmuscled, it prevented a fatal bite by showing its teeth and snapping at her.
Just as the cat managed to get her head down to administer the killing bite, another dog came sprinting up, making as much noise as it could, right into to the lionesses’ face. This distracted her for a split second and she released her grip on the original dog to defend herself from a much smaller aggressor. The new dog then took off in one direction with her in slower pursuit – her energy spent on the original chase. The tackled dog needed no second invite and burst onto its feet and sprinted away in the opposite direction!
The pack, as if marshalled by Sun Tzu, mobilised and, as one, started bounding towards the lioness. Bodies and heads bobbing up on hind legs, making themselves look larger and more intimidating. The lioness retreated before gathering herself to mock-charge the dogs. The dogs scattered then united for a second attempt to drive off the lioness, forcing her to flee and then return the charge. This happened a few more times until both factions had put enough distance between them and the pack was happy that their injured member was able to get away. Both predators then headed in separate directions, resigned to inevitably meeting again at a later time.
We tried our best to count the dogs to see if one was perhaps missing or moving more slowly; it seemed the whole pack trotted off, and hopefully no significant damage was done. But such is the law of nature that even when hunting, the hunter can become the hunted!
And the two lechwe? They had bounded across the water to the other side of the channel and had returned to grazing. A sighting of a lifetime for us, an everyday occurrence for them!
By Graham Simmonds