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Tales from Kenya II : The Hunt

I was anxious. Restless.

We had reached the Masai Mara the previous day after lunchtime. A quick lunch and we drove to the checkpost and into the Mara for a short game drive. We had 2-3 hours left.

It was a disappointing afternoon. We saw pretty much nothing. There was a leopard on a tree. Far away. We could see only its tail hanging. After waiting there for a long time we decided to try our luck elsewhere. Didn’t work. We drove around for the rest of the evening till it was time to return.

This wasn’t how I had visualized the Mara to be. Sightings were supposed to be common. It was the open grasslands, not the thick Indian forests where one was used to spending days without any luck. This was the famed Masai Mara !!

Our guide explained that the hugely delayed migration had left bulk of the grass unfettered and uninhibited in its growth. All around us we could see waist high grass. Ample scope for any animal to be inside and be completely invisible. Even if they are just a few feet away from us.

Made sense but didn’t help my mood.

We had a brief discussion about the plan for the day before dinner. I was keen to drive to the river in the hope to see a river crossing. Our guide felt that the migration had possibly just begun so it might be more fruitful to spend time in a game drive and go to the river the following day.

When on a safari, listen to your guide.

But.

I wonder… how will the day pan out ?

*****

We drove over a hump and we could see, a little distance away, a few vehicles gathered around a thicket.

Now, while on a game drive regardless of what type of forest, you always keep an eye on where the other vehicles are. If you see one zooming, a bit faster than is normal, you sit up to see where they are headed, try to see what has caught their interest. If you see more than one vehicle parked in the middle of nowhere you are definitely alert ! They simply have to be gathered close to something interesting.

We drive at breakneck speed with hardly a care for all the bumps on the road, hanging on for dear life and when we reached the place, our guide eased up our LandCruiser next to another parked vehicle.

The ground ahead sloped rather steeply to meet a small stream, which we couldn’t see and opposite us, it sloped up to a wide and thick growth of shrubs.

All of us get up eyes scanning the thicket when a movement to the right, smack in front of one of the parked vehicles, caught our eye. A lioness was standing right there, less than ten feet away, on our side, looking down at the stream. So close that my 200-500 lens was grossly inadequate to get a good composition.

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It does appear as if she had stopped to smell the roses, so to speak !


A few seconds later, it went down to the stream, crossed it and vanished into the stream.

A sighting !! Far far from being a memorable one but….a sighting !

*****

If it’s a lioness, there must be a pride nearby.

If its early morning, they will hunt.

Mornings are cooler and the time that the lions stir themselves to hunt. If it had been mid-day, you can bet your last dollar that they will plonk themselves in the shade and go to sleep.

We circle back, cross the stream to the other side of the thicket. Sure enough, we could see the unmistakable outline of a lioness through the tall grass, walking out of the thicket. Not one, not two…but at least three of them ! Wow !

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You can see the outline of another lioness in the left upper corner


Soon we could see more shadowy figures emerging out of the thicket … boy, this appeared to be a very large pride.

Everyone was trying to figure out exactly how many lions were there and while trying to focus on the moving figures, through my camera I suddenly noticed the presence of another animal to the far right– a buffalo was grazing just outside the thicket and was now warily studying the lions.

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The moment when I realise that a buffalo is in the frame !


Before we could even realize it, one of the lioness had leapt at the buffalo.

The buffalo spun around neatly avoiding it and was now standing with its back to the thicket facing the two or three lionesses opposite him.

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Inside the vehicle, all of us tensed up. Are we going to witness a kill ? The thicket and the short trees around didn’t allow too much of light and along with the tall grass it was rather difficult to see clearly what was happening. Everyone was quiet and watching the scene intently.

Our guide remarked,” This is not going to be easy. A fight between two of the Big 5 !”

The lioness made another leap ! Another swerve by the buffalo.

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The lionesses kept circling the buffalo in a tight semi circle. A few mock charges. The buffalo easily kept turning around slightly. The fact that the buffalo had the thick shrubs behind it, appeared to give the buffalo that additional safety cushion, it didn’t have to worry about an attack from behind and could keep its eyes on the ones ahead.

However, what struck me was with at least three fully grown lionesses just a few feet away and clearly in the mood to attack, the buffalo kept breaking off its wary look to graze away.

Eating while its life is in danger !! Amazing.

Or maybe the buffalo knew the odds better than the lions. A few minutes of circling and the lionesses gave up and started walking away from their target and towards us.

First, a single lioness came up and scanned the horizon intently. Body tensed up. Very alert. Soon another lioness joined up and together they scrutinized the surroundings.

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We came to know the reason for all this care. Soon a few cubs came gamboling out of the tall grass. All of them sauntered past the line of vehicles that were standing and into the open grasslands on the other side.

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Apparently, the chances of taking a fully grown buffalo are much higher if a male lion was there. Right now, the pride had only lionesses other than the cubs. But it was a large pride – there were fourteen in this pride and that is a lot of mouths to feed. A buffalo would have been ideal. There were at least 3-4 lionesses. Not enough ? Still risky ? Possibly.

Walking past us, these magnificent animals gave some truly lovely opportunities to take pictures. The warm morning sun was now out and we were in what is known as the Golden Hour.

The sunlight gave their shiny coats a wonderful golden sheen and they looked simply stunning amidst a sea of tall, yellowish brown grass swaying in the light breeze.

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We could hear the furious clicking of the shutters all around us as fourteen lions, adults, sub adults and cubs lazily walked around just a few feet away. The raw power, the strength that these lovely creatures exuded !! Even while on a lazy stroll, one could clearly see the powerful muscles under their tawny coats, the strength they possessed and the raw magnetism that they had.

*****

There seemed to be a change in the air. A couple of lionesses seemed alert. Very focused.

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Hark ! There goes someone !


The pride started spreading out. Two of the lionesses kept walking straight while two others stayed behind with the rest of the pride. It didn’t seem like a lazy morning stroll, there was a sense of purpose behind it.

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The two lead lionesses go straight towards the warthog family


Our guide whispered,” Look ahead. They are going to hunt”.

And sure enough, we could see a warthog family rather far away, at the edge of the grassland on clear ground.

Now, there are a few interesting points to know about how lions hunt.

They have relatively small hearts and lungs and can run at a top speed of 50- 60kmph for only about 100-200 mts. That’s all.  Wildebeests for example can go upto 80 kmph and for significantly longer distances. Other animals would be slower but can run at their peak speed for much longer distances.

It is said that if a lion is visible to its prey, the prey normally relax since they are confident that they can outrun a lion. As a result, the lions rely entirely on stealth. They stalk a prey and charge only when the distance is much lesser, say around 30 mts or so. A cheetah, on the other hand, relies on its speed.

They hunt singly and in packs though the success rate of hunting in packs is much higher.

The manner in which they hunt in packs is quite interesting. They fan out. Some of them head straight to the prey while the others go wide. The ones heading straight to the prey would drive the prey straight into the lions that had gone wide. Theoretically.

That was what was unfolding before us.

We could see two lionesses slowly, painstakingly, walk through the tall grass towards the warthog family, far away to our right.

Another one was taking a rather wide curve further away from us.

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The third one takes a wide circular route to lie in ambush


“Watch out for that one, the one far away to the left,” was the counsel Gabriel, our guide provided.

The other interesting thing was, it was a pride of 14 lions, and only about four were involved in the attack. The rest stayed back and watched. Must have been cos of the cubs. But it did look like a family sitting down post dinner to watch their favourite TV show.

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The rest of the clan watch in keen anticipation


Apparently, one thing that lions have in abundance is patience. And that was in display as the two lionesses went ever so slowly towards the prey. The warthogs were really far away and the dominant thought in my head was the dismayed one that I won’t be able to take any great pictures at this distance !

Suddenly, the action began. The two lionesses heading straight at the warthogs charged.

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Charge ! One of the two lionesses, charges !


Or they were discovered. Whatever the cause, the entire warthog family scattered and ran for their lives, tails standing erect.

As per plan, one of the warthogs went broadly in the direction of the lioness lying in ambush but from a distance it appeared as if it was not headed straight at the hidden predator. The lioness burst out of its hiding and charged after the warthog.

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At least one warthog runs off in the direction of the lioness lying in ambush. But the lioness needs to chase


No luck.

In a matter of seconds, the warthog had scampered off to safety. While hunting in packs, lions have a success rate of 30%. They also don’t take into account the direction in which the wind is blowing. So either the warthogs smelt them out, or they got discovered, or everything worked perfectly but the scurrying warthog didn’t take the precise angle which would have led it to the lioness hiding in ambush.

The lionesses stared expressionless at the prey that got away.

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There was a collective exhale of breath inside our vehicle. This was a lot of action. From spotting a single lioness to watching the dynamics in an extremely large pride of 14 to watching two attempts at a kill. One far more planned and elaborate. Phew !

The sun was coming up and the lions melted away into the tall grass and we knew that till evening they will be quiet and sleep. All the vehicles standing in one long line started dissipating, going off in different directions, in search of the next big excitement.

And as for us… we  heaved a huge sigh of contentment and looked around for a place safe enough to sit and have our breakfast.

Out there in the open, under the shade of a tree. Bliss.

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