As the sun rose casting rays from gold to purple across the cold winter sky we were headed out on another magical morning game drive. Perfect tracks of what appeared to be a large pride of lions dominated the access road. We followed them towards the airstrip realising and hoping that they would most likely be lying on the warm tarmac of the airstrip, and we were right! Twelve magnificent lions were watching the sun rise on the runway as if waiting for the next plane out.
Suddenly something caught the attention of some of the youngsters and they focused into the distance. One by one they strengthened their bonds by rubbing faces and instantaneously they were up and stealthfully walking in the direction of a distant reedbuck. With the sun on their backs they had the upper hand as they walked almost unseen through the long golden grass. One moment they may look like buffoons sleeping on the tarmac, and the next they are consummate killers as they stalk through the vegetation. It is always a joy watching young lions; they love playing mock-hunting games as growing up is not just about getting bigger and stronger. It is also about acquiring the essential knowledge and skills for survival as independent adults. Needless to say after a rather disappointing effort the youngsters missed their opportunity with the reedbuck. Having learned their lesson the adults continued the search for some prey. Walking with purpose they approached a clearing with adequate cover surrounding a resident bachelor herd of impalas.
The pride waited patiently in the brush and together they planned their attack. It began: one of the older lionesses silently crawled around to the opposite side of the clearings. The next one followed and eventually all 12 lions had positioned themselves in such a way that the entire clearing was surrounded, a perfectly planned and coordinated ambush. The suspense was high as we all watched the scene unfold in front of our eyes.
Suddenly a young male charged recklessly from in front of our vehicle, straight into the herd, sending the impala exploding in all directions. Their spectacular athletic leaps carrying them through the air, sailing across the bushveld. Had the over-zealous young male gone too soon? The response from the rest of the pride was immediate, zoning in on target animals from their respective positions. Then we heard it… snarling and fighting pierced the air as one of the older females had managed to grab hold of an impala ram. A frenzy ensued as the rest of the pride dived into the fray, all trying to get a piece of what was to be a rather meager meal. As you can imagine one impala is not going to fill 12 hungry lions. The sound was intense! Steam rose from the dismembered impala as it was devoured within minutes. It is not uncommon for lions to be seriously injured during violent squabbles for food such as this.
What a remarkable and memorable three hours as we witnessed an array of behavioral interactions between the pride members of the world’s only truly social cats. Seeing a hunt from start to finish is a privilege and is often not for the faint-hearted. Daytime hunting by lions is less common and often less successful than their preferred nocturnal exploits. With the cooler winter days one does get opportunities to witness these savage and spectacular displays outside of the impediment of darkness.