14Apr2014

Africa's Giant Killers - A Cameraman's Perspective

Savute – which translates as “unpredictable” - is at the heart of this dramatic behaviour. Feeding the marsh is an ephemeral river that in 2009 returned after a nearly 30-year absence, transforming Savute back into what many consider the most dynamic and exiting wildlife habitat in Botswana.

Only a few lions stoically endured the 30 years of dryness and desolation. They were isolated to the immediate surrounds of the man-made water holes and survived by preying on the occasional passing herbivores. With the new water and influx of prey species came new coalitions and new prides of lions. By late 2012, there were almost 40.

Between 2009 and 2011, Savute was a green dazzling dream of wildlife. The abundance of elephants on the marsh signified the extent to which the interior had been sucked dry of water but, for a while, there was enough for all. Then, as the dry set in during August 2012 a subtle change became apparent. The high density of elephants had taken its toll and the vegetation surrounding the marsh was almost entirely depleted.

By the beginning of October there was a distinct change in the elephants. Their journeys to the interior to access food and return to the marsh to access water were longer, the heat was hotter, their exhaustion was palpable, their movements slower.

The lions, alert to any opportunity, noticed this change. The slow demeanor of the tired herds moving in waves through their territory was now conspicuous, and they sensed the opportunity. The lions saw the elephants now through predatory eyes.

The abandoned and orphaned elephant calves presented the first opportunity. Elephant calves are weak and vulnerable and we watched time and time again as the exhausted mothers urged their babies onwards with feet, trunks and vocalisations. Frequently, the babies collapsed and there was little the mothers could do but stand for a while, seemingly saying a quite, heartbreaking goodbye, before continuing to the water alone.

In once startling instance, I observed seven feeding on a young elephant they had killed a few hours before. They got up, bloody-faced and full-bellied, and walked with purpose, passing within a mere 60 metres of another young elephant that had collapsed but was still alive. Ignoring this elephant, they approached a herd that was moving wearily across the marsh and singled out an apparently healthy individual.

The chase began, all seven lions trailing behind the target, each taking stabbing attacks. The terrified adults hurried off and left the young elephant isolated. The technique they had honed was effective - jumping onto their victim, digging their claws into its back and biting into the spine.

As the weakened animal stumbled, using the inertia of the jump, they would use their back legs and push in behind the elephant’s knees, collapsing it. Once it was on the ground, with the weight of seven lions on it, few, if any, had the strength to rise again. In an exhibition of sheer greed the pride that day had two elephant kills - two fresh carcasses a few hundred metres apart, and a dying elephant in between, which they continued to ignore.

Lions hunting elephants is not new or unknown, just unusual. It occurs when a number of variables converge.

This time, it was not the effect of mega-prides with no alternative food source as it had been in the past. It was simply bad rains one year with late rains the next year, decades of growing elephant populations in this area thrust into a time of intense struggle, and the sons and daughters of the mega-prides whose genetic heritage somehow retained a memory of the times their ancestors killed these giants.

And primarily it was because of the erratic flow of a capricious river that even the vast and ancient knowledge of generations of elephants cannot comprehend nor predict.

Brad Bestelink is a freelance wildlife cameraman and director

 

 

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