June 14 – Savute (Part 1)

Today… oh, today… my eyes are full of lions. I can still hardly believe it.

We were up early again this morning, before dawn, and Grant set us off on the task of finding the lions. He knew we really wanted to see some big cats, and I think he was starting to feel a little frustrated, since we have seen so many tracks, and no cats. Today he put Likan behind the wheel and he acted as spotter. Fred did spot a black-backed jackal and a hyena very early on, so we started joking that this was going to be a dog day and not a cat day.

jackal

black-backed jackal

hyena

spotted hyena

lion tracks

lion tracks


And again, as before, tracks, tracks and more tracks. Even fresh tracks of a lioness with cubs. But no cats at all. We must have driven around for hours — from daybreak to pretty close to mid-day — going up one road and down another, criss-crossing the Savute marsh (dry as dust at this time of year), following one set of tracks or another… but finding no lions.

Finally, another truck came by, both stopped and Likan spoke with the field guide in Setswana. Then he told us that, 30-45 minutes earlier, that field guide had seen a pair of lions at a waterhole not far away. We drove over, our hopes high, and sure enough, there was another truck sitting there with everyone staring across the water. And there they were… a big male with one lioness under one bush and another lioness under another bush. We grabbed some quick photos and then just stood there watching. After a few minutes, the other truck drove off and we were all alone with the lions.

Lion and lioness

Lion and lioness

The male had obviously been in some kind of fight very recently. Grant told us that as recently as last year there had been one big pride at Savute but that the males had had a falling out and now there were several much smaller prides with a lot of contesting among the males for control of those prides. Looked to us as though this guy had won his battle, but had certainly paid the price.

slender mongoose

slender mongoose

Now we weren’t that close — the waterhole between us and them was pretty big. But we did get a good look at them as they did interesting things like, occasionally, raise their heads and flop back down as if the effort was too much. (We heard later that the male and one lioness had been mating earlier, so maybe they were just worn out!) Fred spotted a mongoose at the side of the waterhole and we focused on that for a while.

Lioness charges into bush

Lioness charges into bush

Then, all of a sudden, all three lions alerted. The single lioness shot off into the bush; the male and other lioness followed more slowly. Grant turned around with a grin: “Let’s see if we can follow ‘em!” And off we went. After bumping around in the bush for just a minute or so, we broke into a clearing and there they were… the pride had just taken down a zebra.

One lioness had her jaws closed tightly on the zebra’s snout, to suffocate the zebra. The other, apparently the one that had made the initial pounce, was on the side away from us, crouched by the zebra’s belly.

lions

lions with zebra

suffocating zebra

suffocating zebra

The third lioness started to walk past the zebra’s hindquarters and was startled (as we were!) when the zebra kicked out at her. We couldn’t believe it… the zebra was still alive! The third lioness and the male lay down in the shade on the side by the zebra’s head, and the other two stayed crouched in position for a long long time. (It wasn’t clear to me whether the lioness by the zebra’s belly was actually eating, or just holding the zebra in place. I never was sure when she ate, but the blood around her jaws later showed that she did.) In some of the photos, you can actually see the lioness’s spittle running down the zebra’s face as she holds it in her jaws.

lioness drags zebra

lioness drags zebra

Finally, when the lioness at the zebra’s head was satisfied it was dead, she grabbed it by the neck and dragged it into the shade, with the lioness at the rear crawling along. Grant said this is to get it out of sight of vultures, who circle overhead and alert other predators who can come and try to contest the kill.

lion approaches kill

lion approaches kill

The lioness at the head then flopped down into the grass for a while and, after several minutes, the male went to the zebra and began to eat. Only the lioness by the hindquarters seemed to also be eating; the other two stayed in the shade.

After several more minutes, the lioness who had suffocated the zebra walked off slowly down the road into the bush. Grant turned and grinned again: “What do you want to bet she comes back with her cubs?”So we waited and waited and, sure enough, after a while (as the big male and the lioness at the hindquarters kept eating), the lioness came back down the road and flopped down in the shade of a bush at a distance from the kill. And she was followed by a cub! A lion cub! And then two more cubs! Three lion cubs! And then a fourth cub! Four lion cubs! Grant said they were not more than six months old, old enough to eat meat but probably not given a lot of meat given the size of the pride.

cubs

four cubs

cubs

cubs waiting

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