Saturday, June 16, 2007

A view of a kill

If you watch National Geographic Channel or Animal Planet, or any documentary on African wildlife you'd be forgiven for thinking that any time you drive out into the bush you're going to see some animal tearing the bum out of another.
Scenes of lions sprinting across the savanna and tackling zebras, or leopards pouncing on unsuspecting Thompson's Gazelles are the staple fare of these shows, though the reality of game viewing is very different.

To give you an idea of the likelihood of actually seeing a 'kill' (as it's bluntly known) on a game drive, consider this...

Mrs Blog and I have visited Africa every year now for the past 12 - sometimes twice a year. The length of our trips has varied from 10 days to six months, but overall I'd estimate we've spent a total of about three-and-a-half-years all up on the continent. Taking out time spent in cities, on beaches and staying with friends, we've maybe spent three years actually in the bush, looking for and at animals.

Now, during that combined total of three years we have seen precisely three kills take place. For the journalists among us, that's ONE kill per YEAR of continuous creature spotting.

I've left out views of animals feeding. You wouldn't say this is an everyday experience, but perhaps once a week you might come across a pride of lions feeding on a carcass or a leopard up a tree with a dead impala (though this is quite rare, too). It's seeing the actual act - the kill taking place - that's the hardest, despite what the TV documentaries would have you believe.

The first kill we saw take place happened in the middle of the day, just before lunch time, in fact. Mrs B and I were actually in our accommodation, a national parks two-bedroom self-contained lodge at Nantwich Camp in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. As usual, we were the only people in the camp - probably in the park - at the time (Zimbabwe's tourism has collapsed as a result of the Government's economic and political genius). It was a few years ago and I was actually writing one of my books at the time - probably Far Horizon.

Mrs B was in the kitchen, advising me to stop work because lunch was ready (and people have the hide to ask what she does when I'm writing!).

I love the lodges at Nantwich. There are three of them, set on a ridge overlooking a waterhole. There are no fences and you get the distinct impression that you are in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wildlife - because that's exactly the case.

When I'm writing I look out over the waterhole and as I shut down the computer I saw an old male buffalo wander out (not run) into the middle of the vlei towards the waterhole. That morning we'd awoken early to the sight of 300 + buffalo out on the plain, and a group of seven lion lazing nearby. This is not unheard of, as lions often follow buffalo herds (at a discreet distance, lest they get a hooked horn up the clacker) waiting for stragglers. Anyway, the herd and the pride had cleared off by about 9am.

So, this buffalo straggles out at midday - he was probably on his last legs through old age, or maybe even sporting an old knee injury - and, as calmly as you please, the seven lions walk (not run) out after him.

This kill would not have made good TV. As the old dagga boy (muddy boy - a term for male buffalos) paced slowly along the lions took turns jumping up on his back and trying to bring him down. It was, in fact, a rather amateurish and clumsy effort on the part of the lions. A couple would have a go, while the others stood back. One brave feline leapt up on the buff's head, between his horns and hung on like a rodeo cowboy for a while until the big black beast tossed him off.

Eventually, though, the lions wore him down. Mrs P and I watched and listened to the slow, sobering sight of this magnificent old animal taking more than an hour to die. He was still groaning as they started to feed on him.

The actual snuffing out, I've noticed, seems to be shown for only a second or two on TV - the denouement to the heroic chase across the Serengeti (most of those documentaries you see are filmed in Tanzania's Serengeti or Kenya's Masaai Mara where, shamefully, the national parks authorities allow tour buses and film crews to drive off road, trashing the environment. In southern Africa you have to stick to the roads in the national parks which makes kills even harder to spot, but protects the bush). In real life, the killing part of the kill is often slow and bloody

Kill two was almost comical (in a black sort of way). Mrs B and I were having a cup of coffee early one morning near Olifants Camp in Kruger, watching a pride of lions - mostly lionesses with some very cute little cubs.

Impala are usually very wary animals with fine instincts of survival honed by the fact that they are the bottom of the mammalian food chain in Africa, and food for all the predators. The herd we saw this morning were, well, just plain stupid.

Like the lions, this was mostly a group of a females, also with cute little babies. Perhaps it was because it was drizzling rain that their collective senses of smell and hearing let them down, because they wandered over a little rise and straight into the middle of the lions.

For a moment every animal seemed to do a "what the...", then a double take as the impala suddenly realised their monumental blunder and the lionesses thought, "hellloooo bwekfast!"

The four lionesses erupted as one, though each shot off in a different direction. With coffee splashing and spluttering all over us, Mrs B and I scrambled for cameras as this HUGE lioness came charging straight towards Tonka in pursuit of a baby impala.

The little antelope looked up and saw a Land Rover (Tonka) blocking its way and executed a sharp left turn. If it hadn't, both it and the lioness would collided with us. Unfortunately for the impala, I think it was the turn that was its undoing. The lion veered at an angle and intercepted it, scooping it up on the run and catching it in its mouth. It slunk away from its sisters a little way down the road and greedily devoured the baby in a few minutes.


Kill three went on and on and on and on. It was actually a replay of a scene I'd seen on one of the TV documentaries. Again in Kruger, we came across a mother cheetah with two fairly large cubs. The mum had caught a baby impala (see, those little antelopes really do it tough) but had kept it alive, in order to provide a practical lesson in hunting for its youngsters.

The cubs 'played' with the impala for about half an hour, catching and releasing it over and over. At one point the cats became a little bored with the game and the impala sprinted over to our vehicle and lay down beside it. Mrs B, in tears by now, wanted for a moment to open the door and rescue it, but we decided this would be a bad idea (I could you tell that was because we hadn't taken enough pictures, but that would contrast me as very insensitive and not a nice person all... so I can assure that was not the (only) reason why we thought nature should be allowed to take its course). In the end, the mother cheetah skulked over and retrieved the baby which, in time, was put out of its misery and killed.

Tsk, tsk, sniff, sniff, you may blubber. True, it's not a nice thing to watch (quite exciting, though), but look at it this way. There are 1.5 million impala in Kruger - the most numerous of any animal - as opposed to 70 highly-endangered cheetah. A cat's gotta eat, right?

As gory and sad as it sometimes is, the 'kill' remains the holy grail of wildlife viewing - and no doubt TV has fuelled this expectation. It's all part of the African experience - more aptly known as the African addiction.

You shouldn't WANT to see one animal taking the life of another but, secretly, you do. You shouldn't really spend every cent you make in Australia financing five-month trips to Africa, but Mrs B and I do. It doesn't really make sense to spend up to six hours a day in a Land Rover (noisy, hot, uncomfortable) criss-crossing thousands of square kilometres of African bush in the hope that you MIGHT see something unbelievably exciting which will stay imprinted in your memory until you die.... but, we do.

A picture or, given the context, a video is worth more than the excessive words in this post. If you've read this far, then you deserve to see this little video, on YouTube, which was sent to me by two African afficiandos within the space of a few minutes.

It's long (about eight minutes), but quite spectacular. It's called Battle in Kruger (click on those words) and it will give you an idea of the sort of adrenaline-fuelled experience which keeps our addiction fuelled. (note, it gets a bit gory, but you really, really, really must watch it to the end).


Hann said...

Truly amazing how brave the buffaloes can be for their little one's sake. We heard about it last week through a SA friend and haven't got around to see it yet, so thanks for sharing. Nice to "listen in" on the Afrikaans comments too.

For me even living in Africa for 28 years haven't witnessed a kill either, my girl friend grew up in Wit rivier and said she have seen only 1 in her life there. They did what we did while growing up and Sunday afernoons went for game rides through the park. The parks near where I grew up didn't had lions in, it was called Kai Apple near the Sishen/Kathu mine, nothern cape.

Got to see Blood Diamond finally on DVD with SA friends here, we decided that a lot of stuff in the movie was a bit over done, eg. we think there would have been no way a white woman or the men would have been that safe in SL or walked around that freely. A bit "put on" for the movie's sake. I personally thought the SA-can's accent and slang was a bit over done and it irritated me after a while, but that's just me.

Gargoyle said...

Don't you just always find yourself backing the "underdog"? I do. Almost always backing the predator, unless they look overly well-fed! I guess that I think of all herbivores as walking steaks...Hmmm, how's the BBQ going?

tonypark said...

Hi Hann, yes it's an amazing video. We also saw buffalo chasing away lions once, in Zimbabwe, but it was nothing like the video.

Mrs B and I have met the guy who's talking in the background. He's a safari vehicle driver (former Parks guy) called Frank. Very experioenced bushman. We both remembered him telling us, when we wer ein Kruger, about an amazing scene he'd seen at Transport Dam involving lions, buffs and crocs, but thought nothing more of it. It must have been the same stuff as in the video.

tonypark said...

Right on, Gargoyle. That's the spirit.

Have you ever tried Kudu steaks? They're delicious.


ali g said...

Brilliant video that. Bit like here when the Japanese koi and the geese fight over lumps of bread down in the water lily dam. It's a jungle out there that's or sure!