Once the dust has settled, the shape of a defeated lioness begins to take form standing alone amidst hundreds of panting, highly alert antelope; but the hunt isn’t over
Above: The lionesses left in the dust by the hornless oryx
Though the rainy season this year has been generous to Etosha’s flora and fauna, the ground has all but greedily lapped up whatever moisture was delivered by the rains. Wind and dust move in unison through a yet again barren landscape, but life prevails and an astonishing concentration of wildlife can be found near water sources. These are oases in an otherwise arid environment and an excellent place for an action-packed sighting.
Hadley and I were looking for just that when we set off from Okaukuejo Camp. It was our last full day in the park and we headed north-west, towards a waterhole called Okandeka, well known for its lion pride. We got lucky with a couple of hyenas shortly after sunrise, trudging across the open plains back towards their dens. Okandeka, however, was quiet and the lions eluded us.
The morning came and went in a lion-less blur and after breakfast we decided that, rather than giving up, we would try one more waterhole towards the western part of the park where we have had great sightings in the past. As we got to Charl Marais Dam we were surprised to find it completely dried out already. That certainly wouldn’t help us
The Ozonjuitji m’Bari waterhole (easy to remember, right?) is an artificial one and in a completely exposed area of sand and dust. As we pulled up to it, Hadley and I instinctively found something was strange. There were masses and masses of animals around the water yet none were drinking. That could only mean one thing.
Above: The pile up of animals waiting to drink.
Above: Everyone on high alert as tension builds while waiting for the lions to move away from the only water source for kilometers
Lion. Seven of them. Lying on their backs with their legs splayed wide towards the sky, the lions made it clear that they had no intentions of leaving any time soon. Because waterholes are so few and far between in Etosha, instinct compels the general game to stay at the water source until the lions have moved off and it is safe to drink. This meant we were looking at a pile up of hundreds of desperate plains animals (zebra, wildebeest, springbok, oryx, ostrich, and giraffe) and seven strong, healthy lions. As we got closer, we could make out five young males and two young females all fast asleep without a care in the world. Or so it seemed.
Above: Three of the five males in the pride. You can see from their small manes that they are not fully mature yet.
Some quick things to know: Lions are opportunistic hunters meaning that even if they have recently fed, if the opportunity for a kill presents itself, they are likely to hunt. Different species of animals have different attitudes towards lions. Some, like the zebra, wildebeest and giraffe, are exceptionally wary and, with any hint of threat, decide the risk is not worth it and move away. One gets the feeling that others, such as springbok, probably know that they are not only significantly faster than their hunter but also not really worth the effort due to their smaller size. But oryx are different. Extremely powerfully built and armed with two massive horns, an oryx is a formidable challenge for even the top predator. In desert areas, oryx can go weeks and sometimes months without drinking so when the opportunity presents itself it can hardly be turned down. So, although the heard of about 30 oryx were very aware of the lion pride at the water hole, they still chose to slowly amble towards the water.
While the male lions in the pride didn’t seem to bat an eyelid, it was clear from the increased twitching of their tales that the females had different opinions about the encroaching oryx. When three oryx had the audacity to try and drink on the side of the waterhole where the lions were sleeping, one lioness had had enough.
Above: One of the male lions showing his disinterest in hunting the oryx
Above: One female begins her first chase, while a male snoozes away, uninterested.
Honing in on a one-horned oryx whose horn likely broke while fighting, the lioness got up and, with a remarkable burst of speed, ran straight at him. Every animal in the surrounding area, bar the other lions, scattered. In a matter of seconds, the entire plain was covered in thick white dust and we were left silently staring and waiting for the dust to settle to see if the hunt had been successful. When the air finally began to clear, we could see the panting lioness standing by herself some 50 paces from the pride. The one-horned oryx had gotten away. The next hour was something out of a Tom and Jerry cartoon with the oryx quickly regaining their confidence and the lionesses hunting them when they came too close. Even the one-horned one returned to the waterhole to try and drink only to be subsequently hunted—this time by both lionesses, yet again. The two lionesses went on to repeatedly try to hunt a hornless oryx as well. It became clear to us quite quickly, however, that the lionesses were inexperienced hunters, not getting close enough to their prey, missing suitable opportunities and mistiming their efforts again and again.
Above: A one-horned oryx gets a closer look at the pile of lions
Above: One lioness peers intently at the bold oryx. Her tails begins to twitch, a clear sign of focused attention.
Above: A hornless oryx approaches the lions. It's lack of horns made it an obvious target for the lionesses.
When it seemed that both lionesses were completely exhausted and would not carry on their efforts, I began wondering whether it was time for us to move on too. It was well past midday now and the heat would surely prevent the otherwise nocturnal predators from hunting anymore. Just as we were about to leave, a chunky male warthog came charging to the waterhole, looking neither left nor right nor taking a moment to wonder, what the reason for the massive pile-up of animals was and why none of them were drinking. It literally ran to the water without noticing the pride of lions not even thirty paces away. That’s warthogs for you. The lions closest to it were the males and it seemed they were just as unaware as the warthog was, heads down and fast asleep. The female that had been initiating most of the hunts was about 100m away and, upon seeing the warthog, started to stalk her prey, moving exceptionally quickly to close the distance to within striking range. Fifty meters. The warthog was facing away from the lioness, taking deep gulps of water. Forty meters. The lioness moved silently and effortlessly, keeping her body just off the ground as she inched smoothly forward watching carefully for any sign that the warthog was aware of her presence. Thirty meters. The warthog looked up from drinking, probably catching its breath for the first time, and the lioness instantly dropped to the ground. Twenty meters. At this point my heart was beating so fast that my hands were shaking. There was no way the warthog was getting away. I felt like the final burst of speed was imminent and then one of the male lions decided to lift his head and look around. The warthog, blissfully unaware up to this point, saw this movement and took off at top speed with his tale straight in the air and a lioness on his heels. Although they are seemingly ungainly creatures, warthogs can accelerate to very fast speeds in virtually the blink of an eye. After two quick steps, the lioness, likely exhausted from her previous four hunts, realized there was no chance she was catching up to the warthog and quickly slowed to a walk. Interestingly, she walked directly to the male who had sat up and ruined her hunt and brushed cheeks and whiskers as if to say ‘I know it was you but I forgive you.’
We sat there a little less forgiving than the lioness, but still incredulous at everything we had seen. Lionesses hunting five times at midday, five male lions in excellent condition doing positively nothing but sleeping, a hornless oryx with the heart of a lion, and a warthog with a seeming death wish. What a day.
For the video footage of all the hunts, head to our Instagram page here! http://bit.ly/2wpuLTz
Above: The hornless oryx that got away. The rivalry lives on.