It was something of a voyeuristic experience. You don’t think you should necessarily watch but you’re strangely drawn to it and even willing it to happen. Some find it a horrific episode of extreme violence, while others are entranced by the power of nature but, one thing is for sure, it’s a daily occurrence that has been played out for centuries.
In the long, dry grass of the Serengeti plains, as the morning sun turns everything a wonderful golden colour and starts to send the mercury skyward, four lionesses crouch out of sight close to 1000 zebras desperate for a drink. Less than 30m in front of the hunting pack is a watering hole, obviously known to all parties, which has been the source of encounters on an all-too-frequent basis for the black-and-white striped creatures which nervously approach the pond.
Most zebras are too scared to approach and wait in safety quite some distance from their intended target. A handful in front, desperate to quench their thirst, take a few tentative steps before hurriedly retreating after being spooked by something as subtle as a bird taking flight or a puff of wind. They then retrace their steps only for something else to divert their attention and heighten the tension in the air.
The zebras have every reason to be nervous. All the while, the lionesses creep closer to the watering hole, two on each side of the slowly moving stream, as they patiently take up their positions.
Eventually the bravest, and perhaps thirstiest, zebras reach the watering hole, oblivious to the presence of the lions, and greedily begin to gulp. With ears pricked skyward and nostrils flaring, they race towards the comfort and safety of the herd at the slightest movement before cautiously returning to drink.
Zebras need to drink every day, and lions know that. Despite the dangers it’s a numbers game and, with sometimes more than 1000 in a herd, the odds for a zebra are relatively good. But sitting out in broad daylight, for every man and his wildebeest to see, are countless skeletons of animals that have fallen prey. Not even the smallest scraps have been left by hungry predators, leaving bare bones arching above the grass and an eerie atmosphere.
Lions invariably hunt in packs, usually in the cool of night when they can handle quick bursts of speed, and need to feed at least every seven days. They’re the ultimate predators and fear nothing, although they do show respect to elephants, and will hunt anything (wildebeest, zebra and buffalo are the main dishes on the menu).
Lions, though, are not the only predators on the plains of the Serengeti and their hunting practices are very different to leopards, which are solitary animals and ambush their prey from a tree rather than run it down. While it’s relatively easy to spot a lion, usually confidently resting under a bush in the heat of the day, leopards are shy creatures meaning sightings are more rare. More visible are the signs of their kills, the carcasses of which are usually dragged to the safety of an overhanging branch out of the reach of hungry scavengers.
While predators can go through lean spells and can put themselves in dangerous situations as they become more desperate to find food, there is one event that means there is a constant supply of readymade meals. The annual migration of more than 1.5 million wildebeest, 750,000 zebras and 18,000 eland from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara and back is an awe-inspiring sight. It’s a phenomenon that first occurred in 1969 when a terrible drought forced millions of animals from the Serengeti in search of greener pastures. They found them over the Mara river and now, every June and July, they make the journey north towards the Masai Mara where they stay until the southern rains draw them back in October.
It’s an intoxicating sight as animals wander in their hundreds of thousands across the plains. Of course, such an ample supply of fresh meat draws the inevitable unwanted attention. Considering 8000 wildebeest calves are born a day during the February breeding season when most of the migration herds return to the Serengeti, it’s little wonder 40% perish before they’re four months old. It’s like feeding time at the zoo for lions and other predators, but the odds are not always stacked in their favour.
Back at the watering hole, overzealous tour guides making life difficult for the four lionesses means the bravest zebras get away safely having quenched their thirst. The lions look on in almost disgust at their unwanted guests.
It takes patience to secure a kill and the lions know their moment will come sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, it takes the same patience to stick around and watch one. A kill will be made today,” our guide Louis says earnestly before starting up the jeep and finally chugging away from the watering hole to continue our game drive. A kill will be made, but when and where is up to the laws of nature and not the timetable of an impatient tour group.”