Monday, April 4, 2011

Brothers in Arms

It was a cold, drizzly morning in the lowveld of Sabi Sands abutting Kruger National Park. Just the sort of morning when you can drive for hours and not see a single animal. In weather such as this they seek shelter in the midst of the thorny scrub. Then as the landrover breasted a low ridge and emerged into a clearing we were confronted by two dead bodies, their killers still standing over them. The corpses were buffaloes - a calf and its mother. Their slayers - two young male lions - brothers in arms, their tawny manes glittering with beads of rain, their rancid breath condensing into clouds in the cold air. We had only just missed the kill, the brothers had yet to start feeding. I could imagine the scene a few minutes earlier. The lions ambushing the  buffaloes, narrowly avoiding the mother's horn and taking down the calf first - a relatively easy kill.

The mother would have been much harder to bring down. She'd have refused to leave her calf even when it was dead and she'd have kept the lions at bay for a while. She would have tired though, and one of the lions would have jumped onto her back, risking a jaw shattering kick that would have condemned the big cat to a lingering death by starvation. Meanwhile, the other brother would have clamped his jaws around the Buffalo's windpipe. Perhaps the first lion would have severed the beast's spinal cord, causing her to collapse. Death would have followed swiftly then.

Now as we drew to a halt at the edge of the clearing the brothers snarled at us, taken by surprise at our sudden appearance, a shockingly loud guttural rasp in the drizzle dampened silence. They settled then, realising we weren't a threat, but unnerving us all by staring straight through us with their cold amber eyes. Eyes that oozed arrogance and confidence. Eyes that said "I can kill you anytime I like."  Then they started to feed, tearing a hole at the mother's rear end, ripping open her tough hide as though it were cotton. But all the time they watched us. Even while their muzzles were buried deep in the gore their eyes were fixed on ours, daring us to try to steal their meal. Now and again they raised their heads to show us their bloody faces - another threat?

Finally we left the brothers to eat their breakfast in peace and returned to the lodge for ours with mixed feeling about missing the kill. They are exciting events, but not for the faint hearted. The kills you see on nature programmes on television are usually very clinical affairs and often the editor will cut away once the pray animal has been caught. There's no squealing or screaming and very little blood to be seen. It must be remembered though that lions kill to survive and are not deliberately cruel - unlike humans. Indeed lions will kill as quickly as possible, usually by suffocating the animal with a bite to the windpipe. The last thing they want is a potential meal that kicks and waves sharp horns about, so they try to make it quick, less chance of being injured themselves that way. 

Hyenas and African wild dogs? Well that's another story.


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