Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lions and Kudu and Impala, Oh My

(Photo by

During my recent trip to southern Africa I was lucky to be able to see 39 different lions in five widely scattered groups largely in central and southern Kruger National Park.
Each of the 12 main rest camps in Kruger National Park maintains a wildlife sighting board near the reception area for the camp. The wildlife sightings are updated almost instantaneously when new observations of high-priority species are made

The wildlife sightings board at Lower Sabie Rest Camp on September 16 2011

Each of the Big 5 mammals is on each board along with other species such as Cheetah, Wild Dog, and Spotted Hyena. Their location is plotted on a road map of each region of the park making the logistics of finding a species you seek much easier. If you are looking for a particular species simply stop in at the reception area, check the sightings board and make plans accordingly.

When I checked it one morning, the sightings board at Satara Rest Camp in the center of Kruger showed that lions had been seen in two relatively close areas off a dirt road just south of the camp. My arrival at 8:00 a.m. told me that the sightings on the board were very new.

My first lion
I dashed down this road (as fast as you can dash down a washboard surfaced gravel road) and about 12 km from Satara found two lions (probably young males) snoozing in the shade of an acacia tree. As I watched them, a small group of greater kudu stood nearby grazing as if there was no danger.

A greater kudu male munching on savanna grasses less than 100 meters from a pair of sleeping ions

Something I had read somewhere said that prey species seem to "know" when a predator is hunting. Likewise they seem to "know" when they are not. This morning the greater kudu, blue wildebeast and impala actively foraging 100 meters from the sleeping lions must have known that they had nothing to fear - then.

I watched this first pair for maybe 10 minutes then tired of watching tired lions snooze and moved on. Another 10 km further east I encountered a T- intersection and as I studied a map trying to decide where to go next a Land Rover driven by a Belgian guy pulled up and the driver informed me that a pride of lions was sleeping by the side of the road just 3 km south.

Snoozing lions

And that is exactly what I found when I drove up to the spot. Nine lions of various shapes and ages lay in the shade of acacia trees sleeping off last night's feast of impala or whatever other snack the lioness was able to kill. I watched these lions for maybe 30 minutes and simply marveled at the massive neck and chest muscles of the female. Given the chance female lions will kill African buffalo, young elephants and giraffes on top of all the smaller creatures they consume. To pull down something as massive as an elephant they have to have some fantastic muscle development.

The best part of the 30 minutes spent with this group of lions was watching the lone cub sleeping maybe 30 feet from me. I hate sounding anthropomorphic but cute is the only word that describes the cub. I have since printed out an 8x10 of the sleeping lion and it now adorns my living room wall.

Lions were another example of the adage about when it rains it pours. For three days I saw none and half an hour I had seen eleven - with more to come.

Driving south from Satara about 30 km I encountered a pride of 18 lions sleeping by the side of the road. This group included a fully-maned male not unlike the male in the first picture of this post. Like the others this group just chilled out snoozing in the shade of acacia trees. Unfortunately they were too far away to get decent pictures with my meager lens. Next time.

Still further down the road I encountered another group of 9 lions. Each was slowly and methodically crossing the road in front of me.

Note how perfectly the color of the lion blends with the color of the savanna grasses behind it - the perfect killing combination.

Thirty-eight lions in a morning was one of the other highlights of the trip. The next day I saw one more lion (again snoozing) by the side of the road not long after my encounter with the leopards. In all I was lucky enough to see 39 lions in a 24 hour period. This was the third of the Big 5 I saw on the trip.

Granted my observations were very limited in duration and scope but there is one thing I learned about lions from watching them and reading about them. They sleep a lot. About the only time they are moving around is when they are hunting and then its the lioness who does the hunting. The males hang out and let her do all the work. However when they are not hunting or eating the spoils of their hunt, lions just lay around.

This is another animal I fantasized about shooting when I was a child and a young adult. It was those pictures in the Weatherby rifle catalog that got me pumped up to go to Africa to shoot one. While waiting for my luggage after my arrival in Johannesburg I talked with a man from Midland Texas who had come to South Africa to hunt lions on a private game reserve. He became quite animated telling me about how he wanted to stalk a "trophy" male and shoot it.

Ernest Hemingway was a big time lion hunter who once boasted that you aren't really a man unless you shoot a charging lion.

One guy wants to "stalk" lions and Hemingway saw them "charging"? WTF? What sport is there in stalking a sleeping lion? I guess you have to worry about not stepping on a twig or something? And as far as a "charging" lion is concerned I think the only way you could get one to charge you is to disrupt its sleep and piss it off. The last group of nine lions I saw crossing the road bolted for cover when I said, in a normal voice, "hello brother lion." They charged alright - charged off into the grassland at a high rate of speed to get the hell away from whatever had scared them.

Given my early history and my retired-from profession I'm certainly not anti-hunting. However hunting should involve a fair chase and it should pit the hunter against his quarry. At least when a lion bolts from cover and snatches up an impala the impala has a better than 50 percent chance of escaping with its hide. With a sleeping lion the odds are much more in favor of the hunter than the prey.

Populations of predators like the lion are self-regulating. When there are lots of prey animals there are lots of predators. When prey populations are low so are the numbers of predators. Its a nearly perfect system. Accordingly predators like the lion are never going to become overly abundant and their population in need of culling. They seem to be too busy sleeping to be worried about these things.

I think they should just be left alone.