Story and photos by Graeme Mitchley
Early one June morning I headed slowly up to Mazithi Dam from Skukuza. There had been a mating pair of lions spotted in the previous few days so I thought I would go and have a look. When I arrived the mating lions were right next to the road. Not much was happening, it had obviously been a tiring night. While I was watching this pair something caught my eye about twenty meters in.
There were cubs playing in the bush. There were also two lionesses and another male. I moved forward and got to see two cubs suckling. They were rather big cubs and mom was getting irritated. Mom stood up and moved further into the bush, the cubs followed and they settled down. Both lionesses then got up and moved towards the dam. It was clear that they were on a hunting mission. What fascinated me was how the lionesses went from caring for the cubs to stalking mode in no time at all. The cubs had obviously got the message and they sat quietly in the undergrowth.
The grass on the edge of Mazithi Dam is quite high and the lionesses blended in beautifully. The only reason I was able to see them was due to their earlier movements. A lot of cars arrived and the occupants asked me what I was looking at. They thought I was making it up and drove off. I sat patiently, there was no movement for a long time. The sun was getting stronger and the glare off the water was almost unbearable. About twenty minutes passed and a herd of Wildebeest came sauntering down to the waterhole. They must have been twenty meters from the camouflaged lionesses. They even decided to have a dust bath. The lionesses saw the wildebeest arrive but were fully focused on a small herd of buffalo a bit further along the river bank. Dust clouds appeared on the horizon and a herd of zebra approached. The lionesses had a buffet to choose from today.
I was tense because I was sure today I was going to witness my first kill, but one of the lionesses broke cover way too soon and the game was up. The buffalo, zebra and wildebeest disappeared in a massive cloud of dust. She was too far to make a kill. The disappointed lioness then made her way back to the other lioness and the wait began again. I was in awe of the patience and guile these two showed, especially as they were sitting in the ever increasing heat. What happened next also amazed me. To the right a male lion came out of nowhere. He was the non mating male. He had heard the commotion and was coming to investigate. He had hoped the lionesses had made a kill. He sniffed the air but there was no kill. He then lay down in the grass, he had spotted a big herd of buffalo. The lionesses were also dead still. The buffalo were extremely thirsty. They went at least 15 meters into the water. Then, there was a stampede. The buffalo were running for their lives. The male lion had broken cover and was charging after the buffalo. It was clear to me that he had broken ranks too early. He didnít have a chance of catching the buffalo. What amazed me though was how long he chased them for, at least 400 meters. I thought he would have given up a lot sooner.
The lionesses didnít look too impressed with the male and they decided to laze on the cool river bank. One buffalo cow had been left stranded in the water. She was old and weak. It later occurred to me that this was the last sip of water she would ever take, the last time she would cool off in the dam. From 150m away it was clear the lionesses had picked up on her weakness and old age.
They got up and ran around the dam towards the buffalo. The speed at which the lionesses made up the ground was truly amazing. I just loved watching them loping towards the buffalo, their feet like paddles, their eyes totally focussed on their prize. They didnít even bother giving the vehicles a glance. The buffalo had made her way out of the water and had crossed the road. She was now taking refuge in amongst some trees. The one lioness headed straight for her while the other one went around the back.
The lionesses hesitated for a moment, got their bearings and then attacked! It happened so quickly, the strategy of the lionesses simple but effective. The one lioness was a distraction. The buffalo charged at her, the other attacked from behind and jumped on the buffaloís back. Due to her age and lack of strength she had no fight and the lionesses had her on her back in no time. One lioness dealt the death blow, blocking her wind pipe. She had only cried out for a very short time. Before she took her last breath, the other lioness had started feeding from the rump. From start to finish, the buffalo was dead in five minutes.
One of the things that had always troubled me about a buffalo kill was the crying and noise the buffalo made, I have heard stories where the buffalo fights for what seems like an eternity. I was grateful that this was over quickly. The precision of the lionesses was truly amazing.
The male lion soon appeared on the scene and took his rightful place at the kill. To my further amazement, the lionesses got up after only a few mouthfuls and headed up the embankment and across the road in the direction I had seen them earlier that morning. I had a hunch which proved correct. I told the people next to me that I was sure they were going to fetch the cubs. My instincts proved correct. A few minutes later, the two lionesses were heading back to the kill with six cubs. The affection shown by the cubs towards both lionesses was heart warming, a truly wonderful moment.
It was a day of amazing events. The selflessness of the lionesses towards their cubs was another one. They had only had a few mouthfuls before setting off to fetch their cubs. When they arrived at the kill, they found a grumpy male who didnít want the cubs to interfere with his feeding. But the cubs were tenacious and they were right near the huge canines of the male. He growled a bit but didnít make too much of them being so close. Anyhow, the cubs seemed more intent on playing on the carcass. This pride, the Mazithiís are very successful. They are led by four strong males. They seem to make a kill every two or three days. The dam provides the only water for miles around and there is a constant stream of animals coming to drink.
It had been a truly amazing morning. My patience had paid off. I had witnessed my first kill and had observed the beautiful interaction of a lion pride. The co-operation, the patience and the affection for one another was a lesson I would never forget.
"I am in education. I am Deputy Principal at Hurlyvale Primary School in Edenvale, JHB. I love the bush and the Kruger National Park is a passion of mine. I am an amateur wildlife photographer, it is a hobby I absolutely love." Graeme Mitchley
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