Written by: Christof Schoeman
One rainy morning I was out on my very first game drive as a guide for Tintswalo Safari Lodge. The nerves were tickling in my stomach when my fellow field guide, Andrew, called in a sighting less then five minutes away from the lodge. A small pride of lions had killed a young buffalo close to a man-made waterhole and 12 hyenas kept a watchful distance, waiting for an opportunity to feast on the carcass.
I wanted to jump up and down like a Maasai warrior and sing my favourite Johnny Clegg song! A soft drizzle was falling from the heavens as we made our way to the sighting, and everyone had their rain jackets on. The lions had full bellies but remained close to the carcass due to the scavenging hyenas that were trying to draw ever closer.
Every now and then one of the hyenas would push their luck by coming closer, but they were driven off by threats from either the adult lionesses or the young gutsy male. These lions are vulnerable without the protection of adult males, which limits their intimidation factor when they come into conflict with other species such as hyena. Interspecific competition is when different species of animals compete for the same resources, such as food or territory, in an ecosystem.
The lion dynamics in the 24,000 hectare Manyeleti Private Game Reserve is very complex with a lot of prides, breakaway prides and nomads moving through this pristine part of the Greater Kruger National Park. This makes the lion sightings in this region exceptional. However, the downside to this complexity is that territorial boundaries are crossed on a regular basis, with the predators coming into conflict with each other daily.
This particular fragmented pride of five individuals, named the ‘Red Road Pride’, consists of two adult lionesses, two sub-adult females and one sub-adult male of about 14 months old. Breakaway prides become quite secretive and do not vocalise loudly for the simple aim of remaining undetected from coalitions of bigger males. Young females will normally end up staying with their mothers as they get older, but young males normally get driven out of the pride by bigger males when they become sexually mature. In the case of this lonely young male without brothers, a challenging nomadic future lies ahead when bigger males will force his mother and siblings into submission. Nature is full of surprises though, and maybe he will be lucky and meet up with another nomadic male that is in the same boat.
After chasing the hyenas a few times, the lions decided to rest. In a carefree manner, the young male snoozed with his head comfortably on his cement pillow, arrogantly keeping a lazy eye on the hungry hyenas.
Then all of a sudden, with a jolly trot, a herd of zebras made their way obliviously towards the scene. They then headed quickly back to safety in a less jollier fashion when they set eyes upon the apex enemy guarding the water! This was when the young male rose, mischievously looking at the yelping zebras. He walked to where his mother was laying, nuzzling her as if to say: ‘Check out this move!’
Nuzzling is when a lion will rub his cheek against another to reinforce the social bond between them by engaging their cheek glands; it is the same way in which a domestic cat will nuzzle humans.
Energised by the approval of his mother, his attention returned to the zebras and hyenas. Fully aware of his surroundings, he launched an attack that looked quite formidable for a lion of his age. The moment was so unique that I almost stood up and started to urge him on! His sights were set on the yelping zebras.
Zebras effectively use their stripes as camouflage, and their strength in numbers is a passive defence to confuse predators and cause them to hesitate. The herd collectively ran off for a short distance and turned back when they realised that the young lion had prematurely stopped his hunt. His futile attempt did not go unnoticed, as he succeeded in making the hyenas laugh for a bit! Feeling brave, the hyenas then made their way onto the scene, giving us an opportunity to make the shutters of our cameras work overtime!