It is April 2012 and I am guiding a group of eight Italian tourists. On our first afternoon game drive our ranger, Clive and tracker, Freddy, are thinking to themselves “… we have to find the Big 5 for our guests …”. For the first two hours we see a lot of plains game, but the density of the African bush can make spotting animals very challenging. Unfortunately, some tourists also believe that a game reserve is a man-made fenced-in zoo. Finally, we spot some buffalo and the guests love it.
We decide to stop for a sundowner drink. By the time we get back into our vehicle it is already dark and Freddy, the tracker, switches on the spotlight. We see a couple of jackals and then a civet – unfortunately, all rather small animals that are not easily photographed – but we carry on relentlessly.
Our ranger and tracker stop and pick up a flap-necked chameleon from the dense vegetation. The guests now come to understand that rangers do their job well and care for it enormously.
Suddenly a frenzy of activity over the ranger’s radio … “Ingwe” – a leopard has been spotted on the eastern side of the reserve. However, it is too far away from where we are. My heart starts beating faster as another radio call-in announces an additional leopard sighting. “We’ll find one too – we just have to believe it …” I tell the guests.
We move towards an open part of the bush and our tracker Freddy shakes his spotlight frantically (this is the silent sign for “stop – there is something there”. Yes! It is far, but at least we have also found a member of the cat family! Clive pushes his Land Cruiser closer through the long grass. The guests are now frantic with anticipation and excitement, their cameras standing ready.
Then, in front of us, the most elusive of the cat family looks our way with those incredible eyes! One of those absolutely beautiful moments to savor. I have experienced many of these moments during sightings, but each time holds a magic of its own. His fur, his trademark spots, his way of crawling through the tall grass with his shoulder blades standing strong and his spine that seems to move in tandem to the rhythm of the undulating grass.
He ‘grants’ us about 2 minutes of photo opportunity as he moves leisurely up a termite mound. Activity onboard the Land Cruiser at that moment resembles a spectacular firework display with cameras flashing non-stop.
We are blessed by nature and this earth to have the opportunity of spotting ‘our’ leopard. During our search I am convinced that Clive and Freddy seemed to seamlessly synchronize in their efforts to track this amazingly beautiful and almost ‘ghostly’ feline. Little do we know that this is only the start of an unbelievable experience in nature.
The following afternoon, as the sun is starting to set behind the Drakensberg mountains, some other cats are wandering about. Our formidable rangers Clive and Freddy decide to remain in an area of the reserve that is well-known for its particularly large resident leopard.
Suddenly, a call over the radio from another ranger, Maggie – “Madoda Ngala – is anyone close by enough to come and assist with the tracking as it is already getting dark and the terrain is quite thick with bush?”
“We’re on …” says Clive back enthusiastically. We move ahead on the road and suddenly Freddy spots a male lion that is moving quite fast. He is not alone – his longstanding female partner is leading the way. Her ears are pinned back. Is this a sign for “dinner is almost ready”?
A further 20 minutes of driving alongside the lions and we arrive at a ‘clearing’ in the landscape. Ranger Maggie is some 200 metres to our right, behind the male lion. Suddenly the female lion stops in her tracks. On the far outskirts of our spotlight range we see a variety of buck – approximately 300m away. The buck are now on high alert.
Much closer in our range of vision are three rhino, which also turn around. Everything in this magical picture goes into a “freeze-mode”. We turn our spotlights off so as not to endanger any of the herbivores or expose the predators in this scene. We remain completely quiet in the vehicle.
The male lion is standing very still … the wind is blowing towards us, carrying the sweet scent of the bush through the air. A few seconds pass and with the help of the moonlight we see the lioness turn and move around our vehicle. They stealthily disappear into the darkness of the landscape. A hunt by lions is based entirely on teamwork and an intricate system of definite, silent signals amongst the hunting pride.
Aware that my guests are not completely au-fait with what is taking place, I tell them quickly “if there is a chase you will hear a sudden frantic stampede. If successful, this will be followed by a thudding sound or a growl”.
The lionesses positions herself and, with what I could only describe as short of telepathic messaging, she lets the male know that she is ready. Barely three minutes pass and we hear a swift noise – the male is in for the chase and ahead of him, the sound of hooves thudding the terrain. Impalas, waterbuck and zebra scatter for their lives, running straight into the ambush of the lioness, waiting, ready for her prey. The lions’ strategy has panned out, they have made their kill! Our spotlight is turned on and ranger Maggie also shines her light as both vehicles move closer to the “scene of the crime”.
The lioness has got a large male waterbuck by the throat. He is still standing, growling, but her canines are gripping his windpipe as she forcibly twists the waterbuck’s head towards its shoulder with one of her massive paws.
The big male approaches the waterbuck from behind and grabs onto its rump with a ferocious claw-grip, pulling the animal backwards so as it break its firm stand. The waterbuck is still growling, still standing, but eventually the pull of the two lions is too much and it falls to the ground. The lioness wastes no time in finishing off the task with her strong paw twisting the animal’s neck backwards over its shoulder. It is all over … dinner is now served.
The male is the first to start feeding, tucking into the rump of the fallen waterbuck, while the lioness waits her turn to feed.
This day’s event is the perfect example of congruent teamwork, right through from the tracking and sharing of ranger Maggie with our rangers Clive and Freddy, through to the hunting technique of the two lions.
I dedicate this article to all the staff at Kapama Private Game Reserve for their complete devotion to both their work and their guests. Thank you for the memorable moments you give our visitors who come to experience Africa.
For anybody who may have read some of Wilbur Smith’s novels: The Leopard Hunts in the Darkness, When the Lions Feeds or The Elephant Song. To experience Africa, you know where to come …
By: Claudio Alunni-Pasquali