Day Ten — The Lion Buffalo Standoff

August 26

It's another great day in Savute, with lots of action all over the savannah and marsh. Every vehicle went its own way this morning, with one heading out to try to find the elusive cheetah, me looking for more honey badgers (my count is up to 10 sightings now, which is 10 more than my last trip here), the others off doing their own things. From the radio chatter, that is including everything from the ubiquitous buffalo and antelope to some giraffe off in the tree line.

It's always the other vehicle that gets the shots, though. Good thing we have radios. 

I was caught between honey badger and some sleeping lions when I spotted a vehicle in the distance going at a speed it shouldn't be. That always arouses my interest. Then I saw another one. I decided that we were going to go see what that was all about. 

Turns out, one of those vehicles first to the scene was ours, and this is what they saw:

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What's going on here, you ask? 

The pride of lions had just taken down a calf from the huge herd of cape buffalo, and the buffalo are trying to figure out if they can get the calf back. To put things into perspective, one of those lions could have easily jumped the gap in the top picture in less than a second. Lions are the fastest accelerators from stopped to their full speed, which is one of the reasons why you sometimes see one crouching in tall grass with the rest of the pride trying to push a herd into the hidden lion's position. Very difficult to defend against something that big and close that moves that fast when you can't get up to full speed faster than it. Under normal circumstances you'd never see a buffalo approach lions like that. While the cape are a strong fighter, isolated like that they're no match for four full-grown male lions.

The more interesting thing is something I don't really have a shot of (would you believe coming upon this was the moment when my cards filled in my main camera?). When buffalo are attacked by a big pride of lions like this, they have a reaction: they group together in a very tight circular herd with the calves and moms in the middle and with the males around the edge of the circle all facing outward. When I say tight, I mean tight. There must have been over 300 hundred buffalo crowded into the space of something no bigger than a basketball court when we got there, all in defensive position. It literally was buffalo packed tighter than a popular nightclub's dance floor. Cheek to jowl to jowl to cheek to...

As time wore on, the number of buffalo trying to get the lions attention away from the kill dwindled, and the herd started moving, still fairly tightly packed, down the savannah and away from the dangerous lions. Within 45 minutes, I couldn't make out individual animals any more, just a small black blob raising dust on the horizon.

Meanwhile, the pride was getting its fill:

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Four males, two lionesses, and at I think four cubs, in total. It was also surprising how cooperative they all were at the kill. Typically the females get chased off quickly by the males, and that many males together tend to play dominance games with the kill itself. But we even saw some of the cubs get into the tussle with the king of the jungle over the meat, with nothing more than a casual batting from one of the dominant males the only real action we saw. These lions looked well fed, so I suspect that this kill came before they had gotten to the "must hunt" stage. Either that or they're the most polite meat-eaters I've ever seen.

I would have loved to arrived at the scene 20 minutes earlier, as it's likely we would have seen at least the end of the fight for the kill itself, but that's the luck of the draw in Africa. It's a big place, and the odds that you'd be in sight of the actual takedown are fairly low. I've seen it twice in 20 years of going to Africa, though I've almost been quickly on the scene many other times, enough to hear the final bleating of an animal and shoot pictures that I can never sell. 

Still, this was a big highlight for everyone, and three of our four vehicles made it over to see. 

Wait. What was the fourth one doing? 

They were way over on the other side of the marsh and doing some hunting of their own:

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As it turned out, they were the one vehicle (all trip) that got to see a cheetah. Running, even. It's somewhat rare to see the cheetah in Botswana, but Savute is one of the most likely places you'll find them. Hmm, whose vehicle was that? Again, Stanley was the driver/guide. He seems to have a knack for finding those elusive animals. Maybe I should spend tomorrow in his vehicle ;~). 

I'm going to leave things there for today. We had our usual rest-of-the-species kind of day, but it's hard to top the buffalo/lion standoff. 

Well, okay, one more shot from today, which will segue us nicely into tomorrow's topic:

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